How can you become a better mentor?
Advice abounds, but it's often murky: There's no one-size-fits-all template for any relationship, let alone something as malleable as what goes on between mentors and mentees. If becoming a better mentor matters to you, then almost any insider's glimpse into a fruitful relationship of this kind is worth your time.
Which means, you're in luck: Prizewinning author and former MacArthur "genius grant" fellow George Saunders recently penned a detailed timeline of his relationship with two key mentors. The mentors, authors Tobias Wolff and Doug Unger, both taught at the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program, where Saunders enrolled in 1986, when he was 27. Here are some seven lessons from the timeline, which appeared earlier this week in The New Yorker:
1. Offer patience, from day one. In February, 1986, Wolff called Saunders' parents' house and left a message saying Saunders had been accepted to the program. Saunders called him back, clutching his copy of Wolff's 1985 short story collection, Back in the World. "For what seems, in chagrined memory, like 18 hours, I tell him all of my ideas about Art and list all the things that have been holding me back artistic-development-wise," Saunders writes.
All these years later, he remains grateful for how Wolff handled his exuberance. "He's kind and patient and doesn't make me feel like an idiot," notes Saunders. "I do that myself, once I hang up."
2. Offer respect, from day one. Like Wolff, Unger inaugurated his relationship with Saunders with respect for his youthful enthusiasm, even though it bordered on idolatry. Saunders recalls standing outside Unger's office, "ogling his nameplate, thinking: 'Man, he sometimes sits in there, the guy who wrote Leaving the Land.'"
So he was blown away when Unger invited him inside for a chat--and treated him like a human being. "We chat awhile, as if we are peers, as if I am a real writer too. I suddenly feel like a real writer. I'm talking to a guy who's been in People magazine. And he's asking me about my process."
3. Bonding, early on, goes a long way. In August, 1986, shortly after Saunders' arrival at Syracuse, the entire writing program went dancing one night after an orientation meeting. Afterward, Wolff and Saunders agree they are both too drunk to drive.
"We walk home, singing, probably, Helplessly Hoping," writes Saunders. "In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else. I leave, happy to have made a new best friend."
4. Don't be afraid to show humility. During Saunders' first semester, Unger received a negative review about one of his books and told his students about it. Unger explained where the reviewer went wrong--but also what the reviewer got right.
"He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway," Saunders says. "We have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path."
5. Role-model outside the workplace. Saunders fondly recalls a night when Wolff invited students over to watch A Night at the Opera. What he gleaned from this night was a sense of what Wolff was like as a family member. "He clearly adores [his family], takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved." But in one night, Wolff countered all of Saunders' assumptions.
6. Take time for your mentees, even years later. In 1990, two years after his graduation, Saunders drafted a story he was excited about. He sent the manuscript to Wolff, hoping for a confirmation of his instinct. He was worried Wolff would have no time to read it, with his three kids, his full course load, and his own writing to work on. But within one week, Wolff sent Saunders a generous letter, confirming he was on the right track.
7. View mentorship as an ongoing relationship. In 1996, Saunders' first book came out. In 1997, he himself got a job teaching writing at Syracuse. While screening applicants to the program, Saunders notices that Wolff "never fails to find a nice moment, even when it occurs on the last page of the last story of a doomed application." The lesson, for Saunders, is this: "Good teaching is grounded in generosity of spirit."