A mentor refers to a reliable teacher or an influential sponsor, who provides wise guidance to a less experienced person. But where have all the mentors gone? This is the classic question of our modern era, as their absence is felt in just about every sector of society. Given the shake-up in the publishing industry, it’s fast becoming the aspiring author’s lament, too. In this competitive market even agented authors can’t take their next book deal as a given; bowing to the bottom-line demand of publishers, agents can no longer afford to nurture their clients. Publishers themselves are reeling from the fall of the print-book and the rise of new e-book business models made possible by electronic devices such as the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. The situation has caused independent book stores—the few that are left—to wage war against Amazon, the first role-player to embrace (or exploit) the transformation. The media and bloggers (like Kim Wiley) are abuzz with the latest developments regarding the unraveling of the industry, and more changes are mostly likely on the way.
I’m one of those aspiring writers who have missed out on the boom. Naturally, I’m distressed, since I’ve spent the last five years playing the game and paying my dues while writing my first book: a memoir that sketches the continuum of events in which a newly-wed couple’s expatriation led to financial and emotional disaster in tandem with the global economic meltdown—the ultimate triple whammy, if ever there was one. During the creation phase of my book, I attended conferences and private writing classes, sequestered myself at writers retreats, ran my own critiquing groups, read at open mic events, and suffered constant anxiety thanks to the snarky blogs of agents and editors who loved making a big thing of the growing slush pile. I’ve had odds and ends published in journals that have bloomed and withered. I finally started querying agents and received good and bad rejections, as well as calls for partial and full submission. Still, I got no offers of representation. I took the rejections as a cue for improving my skills, and I was luckily accepted into an MFA creative writing program in fiction. With faculty permission, I swapped my third semester for nonfiction to revise the memoir; the overall review was complimentary. I began querying agents again, got optimistic at signs of interest, and despaired when it foundered. Next, I exchanged critiquing favors with a professional editor to buff my writing in yet one more revision of a fairly polished manuscript. In the third round of queries, rejections came at me like bullets from a machine gun. Surely, my talent could not have degenerated—I’d clearly missed the prosperity curve.
At first I got fed up like every other artist trying to break into a system that seems to be guarded like an illustrious hideout for lucky people. Now I see the slump in the industry as a welcome rite of passage, and I’m rejoicing in all the changes. Finally, I can take charge of my career. I have a strategy for getting my book in the hands of readers—where it belongs—the various steps delineated by cut-off dates: there is the option of small presses as well as South African publishers (since my story spans both continents); and if those efforts fail, I will make the choice to self-publish. How liberating is that? To be holding the oar instead of being hit over the head with it. Of course, there are still published authors, agents, and editors who doggedly sneer at the stigma attached to this new trend as if it is on par with Catholic priests molesting little boys. But if the public and media can continue to revere celebrities after death by drug-overdose, then surely self-made authors can be forgiven for wanting a fair chance to recuperate their expenses, let alone hoping to get some credit for being the key creators of the very costly art the public is nowadays expecting to download for free.
Writing can be an arduous and demoralizing road. Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege of many recuperative stopovers in the company of magnificent mentors. For all my ambition, I might not have pursued this project if it wasn’t for Nancy Peacock (housecleaner, teacher, and author of Life Without Water, Home Across the Road, and A Broom of One’s Own). I landed in her studio for a writing class in particularly low spirit after trying a number of writing groups that delivered several malicious critiques: one from a sci-fi writer read, “Get real!” Another writer, a CPA by trade, defaced my manuscript with a pink highlighter so he could total up all the passages he disliked; his appraisal came to “65% = crap.” Then there was the Presbyterian minister’s enlightened opinion that “expatriates should go home if they don’t like it in the States,” and the ex-journalist who reckoned I “had to get my facts about my [own] country’s history straight.” Nancy listened to my woes with a soft smile, before shoving her finger in my face, saying, “Don’t you dare not write this book.” Thank you, Nancy.
After a year of Nancy’s tuition, I met Carrie Knowles: artist, poet, author of fiction and nonfiction books, teacher, and director of an international music festival. For all my determination, I might not have finished this book if it wasn’t for her firm yet caring guidance. For the next three years, two other writers and I would work together on our projects from start to finish. While guiding my pen and making sure to have lots of laughs along the way, Carrie became one of my dearest friends. Whereas Nancy instilled me with confidence, Carrie helped me to refine my art. Next came Suzannah Lessard, author of The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family, former editor and journalist, my MFA mentor who infused my learning experience with the type of wisdom that only a true mensch can.
Another classic question is whether the MFA is worth the money and effort. Well, it sure is no longer the fast-track to publishing. The degree does qualify graduates to teach English Composition on college level and…hmm…should you get published in the genre of specialization via the traditional route, it would be considered the first milestone in qualifying for a tenure-track position in creative writing. There is no doubt that the program has improved my craft and confidence. Still, I’ve seen the process crush the dignity of budding writers, peers who have admitted to shelving their work-in-progress manuscripts owing to the unforgiving critiquing process. Right now, I have no appetite for my own w.i.p. novel, though I don’t expect my malaise to last forever—like most of my fellow graduates, I just need time to assimilate my experiences and contemplate the next steps of my career. And while we’re doing that, a reciprocal mentorship has emerged amongst a number of us, something that fills me with pride, because I value that as one of the most worthy aspect of this vocation, even though it seems to have disappeared from the industry. Then again, I am one of those romantics who believe world peace is possible—if only the true mentors would step forward to guide the way.