My college creative writing mentor was amazing: funny, good-natured, and inspiring. I took every course she offered, both literature and creative writing. I even took what that college called a “January Project”: a short intensive course between first and second semesters. In hers, we studied a novel and some short stories through the lens of psychologist Karen Horney’s work on cultural conflicts. It was unforgettable, and gave me a whole new way to read and enjoy fiction.
My mentor offered me the chance to do unofficial teacher training with her because I wanted to become a teacher as well as an author. So I got to sit in on one of her classes in my last semester; afterwards we’d discuss what was going on “backstage.” We didn’t just talk about how she had put her syllabus together and picked the books, but analyzed how she orchestrated a class moment by moment. She was especially good at working with what might look like chaos to outsiders—those moments when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.
While I’ve been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I’ve now been an adjunct at Michigan State University for six years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. Perhaps because I’ve published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, writing students have asked to work independently with me.
No matter what the genre they’ve chosen or how often we’ve met, everyone has grown as a writer. That’s been my goal, because my question before working together has been: Can I help this student do what they already do better?
Assisting students as they progress through various drafts and deepen their stories, I can pass on what I’ve learned from all the accomplished newspaper, magazine, anthology, book and magazine editors I’ve had over the years. Best of all, I feel myself connected to my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I’ve heard my students ask questions that I asked when I was their age and discovering myself as a writer, learning my craft, finding my voice.
And now that I’m teaching online, the experience of mentoring has blossomed in new ways. My workshops are limited to only ten participants, and I truly feel I can give them the in-depth feedback they need. But as before, if I’m momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor seems to pipe up with the right thing to say. All these years later, she’s still guiding me.
Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon, and his work has been translated into fifteen languages. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his next month-long workshop begins November 1.