Friday, November 16, 2007

Mrs. Beebee

When I was ready to start seventh grade, I saw that a Journalism class was offered. It was limited to eighth and ninth graders, unless you had approval from the Mrs. Beebee, the Journalism teacher. Before the first day of class, I arranged to meet with her. I brought a handful of my writing and both my parents. I got in.

Sometime during the next three years, Mrs. Beebee gave me a book, The Student Journalist and Free-Lance Writing by Emalene Sherman, copyright 1967. I still have that book. I have mixed feelings about it; what would have happened had Mrs. Beebee not given me that book? Would I have been able to escape the gravity-like pull of the writer’s life? Nah, probably not. But it’s easier to blame Mrs. Beebee for my fate behind the keyboard.

Last week at my writing group we briefly touched on the topic of writing mentors. I didn’t think about Mrs. Beebee right away because I was so busy pondering the fact that I don’t have anyone I would consider a writing mentor right now. I have plenty of writing friends, and I know a host of inspirational writers, but no one who fits the label of “mentor.” I never much cared for the idea of mentorship, actually. It always felt somehow condescending or subordinate to me, being the individualistic person that I am. But in Bruce Holland Rodgers’ book, Word Work, he points out that we should broaden our definition of mentor. He counts Raymond Chandler as a mentor, and not because he ever met the famous author. “He has advised me by example – good and bad – ever since I read Frank MacShane’s The Life of Raymond Chandler,” writes Rogers. “Biographies and biographical movies about writers and other artists can teach us a lot about this path we’re trying to walk, its hazards and its rewards.”

One vital thing a mentor does is help us recognize ourselves as writers. Acceptance by someone you respect is the first step in self-validation, and without that we doubt ourselves. Self-doubt sinks a writer. It makes her question her message, her voice, and her delivery. It’s why a little bit of an ego is a good thing in a writer – in any artist, for that matter. A mentor can help solidify that internal core of your writer’s identity.

Mrs. Beebee is long gone, but her book and her legacy remain. All these years later, when I’m asked what I do, I get to say, “I’m a writer.” I think she’d be proud.


Ritergal said...

Ah, mentors. My first writing mentor was the professor who taught the first course I ever took in grad school in an off-campus extension program. I was scared silly, because I'd done nothing more intellectual than read the funny papers and dosages on baby aspirin for ten years since undergrad days. But dear Larry let me know that my research paper was the best he'd seen.

For the next three years I spent a lot of time in his office whenever I traveled the hundred miles to campus. He freely dispensed pep talks mingled with sarcasm, and nearly always pointed out that I should forget the rat race — "Just stay home and write. That's what you do best!"

Though his words resonated, there were no support groups, writing groups, or anything helpful in my community, and I did slip into the rat race. I never forgot the dreams he inspired and gradually did phase into writing. Thirteen years later I dedicated my first book to him.

I've never had another mentor like him. He was the best, and I still think of him when in moments of doubt

TH Meeks said...

A good mentor stays with us in spirit, if not in person, I think.