When I began writing my debut, The Sister, I was lucky enough to secure a place on the fabulous WoMentoring scheme which pairs fledgling female writers with experienced mentors. My experience working through my first few chapters with the super kind, and endlessly patient Louise Walters was hugely beneficial and I blogged about that here and here. Now, with four novels under my belt I’m paying it forward by mentoring through the scheme. Although I’ve been drawing on my own experience as a mentee I wanted to make sure I was offering my mentees the right help and support, and so I signed up for a ‘Learn to Mentor’ course with Cathy Grindrod via the amazing Writing East Midlands. I got a huge amount out of the course, both personally and professionally, and am delighted Cathy is joining me today for a chat about mentoring.
Cathy, when I first applied for a mentor via The WoMentoring Project, I wasn’t really sure what one was or what to expect. How would you explain it?
A Mentor is someone who is skilled in and has good experience of whatever area the mentee needs help with. There are a few definitions, but in essence, it’s guiding someone to achieve their own goals and to overcome whatever obstacles they feel are in their way.
And everyone must have different obstacles?
Exactly. It’s a different process for each mentee, because each person has unique needs and ways of working. Mentoring usually has a specific focus – in my case, writer progress, but progress in the context of the writer’s wider life balance, rather than centred just on the work on the page.
My initial hope was that Louise Walters would help me write my book! That said she was very hands on with editing. I learned a lot from her feedback. Do you feel editing is part of mentoring?
To my mind, editing suggests that the relationship is about the mentor helping the writer to restructure a piece of work and focuses on the words on the page. Mentoring can include an element of helping a writer to shape work and discussing their concerns. It can also include feedback on specific pieces of work if required, but is only a part of the process, if involved at all. If a writer wants my opinion on a piece of work, we discuss more about what is actually needed from me and my goal is to move the writer towards having confidence in their OWN editing process, so that they can become a better writer and editor of their own work.
And that makes a better writer?
Exactly. A mentee learns far more about writing in this way, than someone imposing a structure on their work without looking at what the writer is really seeking from the process.
Do people also get confused between mentoring and manuscript assessments?
They can but at the start of their sessions we set up a joint contract so we’re both clear about what they expect from the process. This can include looking at work if the writer wants it, but this will become a much wider discussion than a simple assessment (as I would give in a writer surgery, for example) and will be short pieces of work I read in between sessions, rather than, for example, a whole manuscript assessment, which for me, is a different process from mentoring.
My heart sunk during the course when you said those dreaded two words – ‘role play’ but being the mentee and talking through my frustrations with writing led me to completely overhaul the way I work. I’m more focused and productive and am much better at time management than I was. Before this, I’d have thought mentoring was better suited to new writers but this isn’t the case, is it?
No. It’s common to be approached by people who have been writing for some time, often attending writing groups and workshops/courses, before they seek mentoring. This means they know the territory, something of how the writing world works, and are at a point where they want to progress further but don’t know how or don’t feel they are able to without help. This isn’t always the case, though.
Do you think mentoring works better when the mentee has some experience?
I think it works best when a writer has a good grasp of the basics of writing technique and understands that writing is a continuing apprenticeship and has a realistic view of where they might pitch themselves and what success constitutes for them (success as a writer is a different concept for every writer, and does not always involve wanting publication. However, I have recently mentored people who are much more at the beginning of their journey, in one case simply wanting to find a way to edit work better and to enjoy editing rather than always dreading it. I have also mentored people who are writing in isolation, where signposting and supporting as they join others to write and gain feedback becomes a large part of the mentoring process. Often mentoring works best when people reach a point of change or ‘stuckness’ and want to move forward but need guidance to do so. I think rather than being at a ‘stage of your writing life’ when you can most benefit from mentoring you need to be at a ‘stage in your thinking’ where you have formed a good idea of what you want to achieve as a writer and what your goals might be before you start the mentoring relationship.
That’s great. So if someone has decided to look for a monitor, what questions should they ask?
Beyond the obvious – charges, length of sessions, process etc – you will need to know something about the mentor in terms of their writing, their experience and their approach. You should check that their idea of ‘mentoring’ is the kind of mentoring you want – particularly that it is goal oriented and not completely focused on your work on the page. Finding the right mentor is crucial to your development – do meet first. Often mentors are able to offer a ‘getting to know you’ free initial meeting. Your instincts often tell you what is right for you. I would always be happy to be asked by a potential mentee ‘tell me about what you do and about your writing’.
Once you’ve found the right mentor, how is it structured?
I can’t speak for everyone but mentoring normally takes place over a period of months, typically a six session package over 6-12 months with a free initial chat about what is required, to gain background and an idea of how you might work together. I largely prefer to offer one to one sessions in person of up to 2 ½ hours each time, but other mentors also work by skype and telephone.
I mentor because I’ve been a mentee and it changed my life, giving me the tools and confidence to write a publishable book . Why do you mentor and have you ever been a mentee?
I was offered a series of sessions with a mentor as part of my early career as a Literature Development Officer. I was also a writer. It was about life balance and achieving my own goals as well as helping others and how to approach this. It was the single most useful intervention I have ever received – specific to me, delivered by a person who knew the territory well, and made me focus on myself and my own needs, sometimes challenging me to look further, and causing me to change the way I thought about myself and my writing. When Mentor Training was offered by National Association of Writers in Education, I jumped at the chance to learn more about mentoring others, as I believed in it so totally as a process.
I can tell by the way you taught our course so passionately, how much you enjoy it.
I do! Mentoring work suits me because I have always enjoyed meeting and working with different people and working alongside a mentee for a sustained period of time is always a privilege. The worlds of writing and emotional health are the worlds I am most interested in, and although I am in the guiding role as a mentor, I also learn a lot from the people I am mentoring, and this feeds back into developing my process.
Lastly, Cathy. What’s the most common obstacle you see writers face?
It’s keeping faith in their writing and themselves and because I know this territory well in my own practice, I can use my own experience to inform the conversation.
Haha – me too! Thanks so much for your time.
Find out more about Cathy, or contact her via her website.
Cathy Grindrod is an experienced Creative Writing facilitator, mentor and life coach. She is a former University of Nottingham Creative Writing Lecturer and was awarded an Honorary MLitt by Derby University in 2014 for her work to promote wellbeing through writing across Derbyshire communities. She runs The Writer Highway™ –a programme of writer support for people who love creative writing, wish to progress and want to give themselves and their writing more time and space. After 25 years as a successfully published and broadcast writer of poetry, plays and memoir, including a term as Derbyshire’s Poet Laureate, she has experienced all the joys and pitfalls of the writing life, and now enjoys sharing all she has discovered about writing and wellbeing with other writers.