Why I Mentor Writers

My college mentor was amazing: funny, good-natured, and inspiring. I took every course she offered, both literature and creative writing. I even took what that college called a "January Project": a short intensive course between first and second semesters. In hers, we studied a novel and some short stories through the lens of psychologist Karen Horney's work on morbid dependency and other neurotic behavior. It was unforgettable, and gave me a whole new way to read and enjoy fiction.

My mentor offered me the chance to do unofficial teacher training with her because I wanted to become a teacher as well as an author. So I got to sit in on one of her classes in my last semester; afterwards we'd discuss what was going on "backstage." We didn't just talk about how she had put her syllabus together and picked the books, but analyzed how she orchestrated a class moment by moment. She was especially good at working with what might look like chaos to outsiders--those moments when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.

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While I've been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I've now been an adjunct for five years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. I only teach one course a semester because teaching is so demanding and I want time to be able to write (and live). Perhaps because I've published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, writing students ask to work independently with me.

I take on just two per semester so that I can give them the time they deserve, and I've been lucky so far in my choices. No matter what the genre they've chosen or how often we've met, everyone has grown as a writer. That's been my goal, because my question before working together has been: Can I help this student do what they already do better?

Assisting students as they progress through various drafts and deepen their stories, I can pass on what I've learned from all the accomplished newspaper, magazine, anthology, book and magazine editors I've had over the years. Best of all, I feel myself connected to my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I often hear my students ask questions that I asked when I was their age and discovering myself as a writer, learning my craft, finding my voice.

If I'm momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor always seems to pipe up with the right thing to say. All these years later, she's still guiding me.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer's Block is Bunk, a guide to the writing life, and 24 other books in many genres.