Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Importance of Having More Than One Mentor or Role Model

As a writer, it’s extremely helpful for you to have a mentor, someone who provides you with guidance, encouragement, inspiration, and networking connections. The support of a mentor often makes the difference between a talented individual who merely dabbles in writing at a certain point, and someone who sustains a literary career over a lifetime.

Similarly, it’s important for you as a writer to have role models, authors whose work serves as a goal to aim for. The poet Charles Baudelaire called this kind of artistic role model “a beacon shining from a thousand citadels” in his poem “The Beacons.” 

Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)

It’s good to have a hero or heroine who shows you at the start of your journey that the literary project and life you desire is possible, within reach.

Mentors and role models are often people with powerful personalities who seem almost larger than life. They can be charismatic, bold, risk-taking. That’s what makes them appealing as mentors and role models. That’s exactly why we want to emulate them.

But a mentor or role model who looms too large in your consciousness can also be a detriment. It’s tempting to want to imitate that role model, to want be that person. And often mentors of that type need to fuel their egos with disciples who follow their every precept. Behind a mentor’s big ego is often a fragile self, requiring adulation.

The danger of your having just one role model or mentor is that you can become only an imitator. Often mentors make exciting innovations, so it seems that by following that person, you can also be an innovator. But shadows of new styles are not new.

The poet John Ashbery accomplished an extraordinary sweep of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976 for his book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Ashbery’s collection sounded extremely daring at the time. He used a radical collage technique that pieced together reflection, wit, observation, pop culture, and traditional art. Given the enormous success at the time of Ashbery’s poetic style, an entire crop of Ashbery disciples began to publish work that utilized his techniques. Those imitators enjoyed a brief celebrity in the reflected light of Ashbery’s reputation, but their names are mostly forgotten today. 

Rather than become a devoted follower of a particular author, you have to discover your own literary project. Apprenticing yourself to a mentor can be a highly important step in that process because it provides the validation of that admired author’s support, and often entrée into a literary community. But the more influences you’re open to, the more you can pick and choose which of those influences are helpful in finding a literary project that is yours alone, and that only you can accomplish. That takes time, and it also takes courage to step out from behind a mentor and make your own mark.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry