I am learning to be a mentee. As a teacher, I’m used to mentoring others. But this time I'm the one who has to sit down, shut up, listen and learn.
I find the sitting down bit the easiest.
Q. Why a mentee?
A. Earlier this year, I joined a programme run by Writing West Midlands called Room 204. It develops ‘emerging’ writers, offering a year’s training, opportunities and mentoring.
Q. Why is it called Room 204? Is it like Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984 with rats and everything?
A. Writing West Midlands is run from Room 204 in its office block. There are no rats, although there is a mouse on each office desk.
Q. Who is mentoring you?
The Room 204 programme offers three meetings with the programme’s director: a writer himself, but also a strong advocate for new writers.
Q. Have you had your first meeting?
Yes. Meeting 1 took place in a coffee shop, one of those with Pretensions. The milk came in minuscule bottles and the leaf tea was served in a teapot masquerading as a piece of puzzling technology. I finished up with the leaves in my cup. I was already embarrassed and the mentoring hadn’t even begun.
|How do I drive this thing again?|
Another thing: traditional English breakfasts were served only at the weekends, and this was a Tuesday. Much of the weekday menu featured items drizzled in maple syrup and faux sophistication. My mentor had Something with Egg on Top which looked like a surrealist painting.
The other customers were either young, trendy professionals who could operate fashionable teapots, or babies in state-of-the-art buggies, accompanied by their early twenties mothers in gym wear who’d lost their baby weight before they left the delivery room.
Despite all these potential physical and psychological barriers, I found Meeting 1 a turning point.
Q. Why was it a turning point?
A. I’d never talked for an hour about my writing life with someone who knew nothing about me as a person. He began by saying, ‘Tell me about your writing and what kind of writer you think you are.’ As I rambled, he listened, made a few notes, said ‘hmm’, and asked occasional probing questions.
Q. What happened next?
A. I had an epiphany, which tasted a lot better than his Something with Egg probably did.
Q. How come an epiphany?
A. I realised why I’d always had trouble describing what I did as a writer. This is because, after my long ramble, he picked gentle holes in what I’d said, how I’d defined myself, and how I was ‘marketing’ my work. He challenged the writer identity I’d created. What do you mean, you’re a comedy writer? I thought you said your serious writing often got the most positive feedback? Why do you say you want to write a comic novel? Why not just write a novel and let people decide whether it’s funny? Don’t over-define yourself like that. Why a comic poet? Didn’t you say you won that prize for a serious poem? Why are you trying to pigeonhole yourself as a certain kind of writer, especially when you write in different genres and styles? No, that doesn’t make you a less effective writer. That makes you more effective. You don’t have to have a label.
It was like therapy. I realised that having someone from outside my usual circles invite me to talk about myself as a writer – someone who really listened and didn’t yawn or look over my shoulder – was freeing.
So, I’d recommend it, especially if you’re struggling with your writing identity or the way forward. Find another writer who doesn’t know you from Adam or Eve personally. Talk about yourself, then ask them what they heard.
One tip: prepare to be challenged.
Another tip: go to a café with proper teapots.
Fran is a writer and English teacher from Warwickshire. You can find out more about her writing, and decide for yourself what kind of writer she is, by checking out her website here