I have made fire! The role of readers vs. the role of mentors

March 7, 2016 § 6 Comments

raftBy Sarah Wells

I’ve been striking out into the land-of-new-subjects after completing an MFA thesis of linked essays, or memoir-in-essays, or essays-I-am-pretending-work-as-chapters-in-a-memoir.

It’s scary territory. I’ve written with little direction, about whatever tickles my fancy, reaching here and branching there and juxtaposing this against that, just saying whatever it is I want to say and then slapping “essay” on top of it.

And then it just sits there in my folder of creative nonfiction. No one says I need to send them 10-15 double-spaced pages in the next week. No one digs in with track changes and comments enabled to tell me what’s working or “you might consider…” or “more here!” or “cut the first 80 pages.” (Steven Harvey said that to me. It was okay. I survived.)

No one is asking to read my new stuff. I’ve crash landed on the deserted post-MFA island, and my writing is piling up on the shore in soggy FedEx envelopes. I’m not paying anyone to critique my new stuff. I’m standing in the sand having just drafted the most amazing thing anyone will ever read shouting to no one, I HAVE MADE FIRE!!!!

And when I strike out from the island on my raft with my Dell laptop and Wilson, my pet volleyball, waiting for a big ship to come in, there is no ship. I no longer have a paid mentor to hold my hand through every page of the writing process, no mentor to say, YES! FIRE! or No… set this on fire.

Sarah M. Wells (feeling unhinged having lost her MFA mentors)

Sarah M. Wells (feeling unhinged having lost her MFA mentors)

It’s taking some getting used to, being out here all alone in the mentor-less world of solitary writing.

My mentors in the MFA program equipped me with a toolkit. They taught me how to identify lost causes and murder darlings. By this point, they would have told me to put down the Cast Away references and back away slowly from that extended metaphor but they aren’t here to save me from myself. Pout.

On this side of the MFA, my mentors’ job as mentor is over. When I want feedback, I can’t keep sending to them (though they, being sensitive and selfless souls, would probably put up with me for a time before blocking my email address and Facebook messages).

Instead there are these other people on their own rafts, with their own essays they hold between their trembling fingers. They look a lot like me, dehydrated and sunburnt and filled with hope. These people are my peers, my readers, my writer friends. Their job—our job—as readers, is to read. What are we looking for from these non-mentor readers? All I really want is someone to say, Yes. Keep going. This is worth telling.

The grace of this exchange, however, is the reality of the reader relationship. I am not paying my friend to read every word I have ever written, every time I revise a sentence. She is not paying me to respond within two weeks with detailed in-text citations. As close as I grew to my mentors in the MFA program, calling many my friends, our writing relationship was more transaction than writer friendship.

Reader status is not transactional; it is reciprocal. I read your stuff, you read mine. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but back and forth throughout the months of solitary composition, an email here, a Facebook message there, How’s the writing coming?

Frankly, I am not the most reliable reader. I confess this here with shame. I hate my delay to friends who have sent their hearts attached to email messages. Emails stay starred in my inbox past an acceptable time period. By the time I get to some essays, my friends have already submitted them or, elation, have already had the thing accepted somewhere, and I have failed, failed, failed at being their reader.

I always mean to read right away. Knowing this about myself is a reminder when I have sent similar emails off to friends asking for their advice. I HAVE MADE FIRE!!! What do you think? I ask. Would you read this? Sometimes the response is “I’m sorry, I don’t have time.” Sometimes the response is “Yes! I’ll get to it this weekend” or next week or within the next month. And sometimes the response is silence. I need to be okay with all of these responses and respect my readers’ regular lives, daily struggles, and general life existence outside of reading my stuff.

My writer friends are making room in their lives for me. No obligation. Only love. And when we fail each other, forgiveness.

This is the way all relationships ought to work, right? There’s a give and take, the need for respect and the need for compassion. We have to make room for each other, and we have to recognize when we’re abusing that sacred space.

When you find those few readers who understand what it is you are about, lasso your life rafts together and sail on, waving with thanks to the mentors on the shore. Encourage each other onward in your craft and in your storytelling, pushing your oars toward that bobbing horizon.


Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and a linked-essay-memoir-in-progress, American Honey. Her essays have been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She serves as Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, Associate Editor of River Teeth, and Co-Editor of the Beautiful Things column. She blogs at offthepage.com and her own website, sarahmariewells.com. Follow her on Twitter: @sarah_wells.

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§ 6 Responses to I have made fire! The role of readers vs. the role of mentors

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Somehow, though people warned us against such fantasy, did we not believe that completing the MFA would answer something? It would provide the permanent writing contacts or publishing assistance or magic inner voice to answer our questions? When Sandra Alcosser warned of the terrifying percentage of MFA-graduates who stop writing (50%? 80%?), do we not each say aloud, “Not I!” and fear deep in our hearts, “Oh dear”? We thought the MFA was some sort of destination and here were are on that writer’s island, still, struggling to regain civilization.

  • tinademarco says:

    I’m slowly getting off the Island of One and back into the Dark Pond. Learning that others stopped writing after the MFA was a godsend to me. I was not the failure I thought or crazy to have spent money on something that I somehow fell out of. Now it’s easier to get back to writing.

    Thx Sarah for this posting. It’s wonderful!

  • You’ve written fire here, Swells, and it burns true: “My writer friends are making room in their lives for me. No obligation. Only love. And when we fail each other, forgiveness.” Blessed to be your writer friend. xo, M

  • Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Great post on readers vs. mentors. Enjoy.

  • I am currently doing my Masters (it’s not an MFA here in Oz) and working with a supervisor (mentors are different) and have wondered what I’ll do and how I’ll feel next year when I too am cut adrift to fend for myself. It’s always good to know that you’re not the only one with such fears. Hopefully I’ll get the book I’m writing published and then get on and write another.
    All the best to you Sarah!

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    If you read this re-blog up to this statement, “When you find those few readers who understand what it is you are about, lasso your life rafts together and sail on…”, you’ll have learned a boatload of writerly principles………

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