All of My Mentors Are Dead

by Bridget Becker
The Internet Writing Journal, November 1998
When I first began to write, I survived on a very tight budget. I couldn't afford to take classes, join writer's groups or buy expensive writing guides. I knew I needed some type of professional guidance. A mentor, perhaps. I didn't know anyone else who wrote so I went to the library and found three personalities I felt were suitable mentors. There's just one hitch. All of them are dead.

Dead mentors are the best. I am never disillusioned by them. I don't have to visit their house one night, full of joy from a recent writing success, only to find them passed out drunk on the sofa. There's a lot to be said for that.

Another advantage to having dead mentors is - no lectures. When I require their particular brand of inspiration I merely pick up their biography or a collection of their quotations. Then I get on with my work.

My mentors are failures, too. They failed at almost everything they tried until persistence collided with serendipity resulting in unprecedented accomplishments.

Selecting a mentor requires some research. The first step is to determine the genre in which you want to excel. Make a list of the leaders in that genre. This list will eventually be narrowed down to 3 mentors. One woman, one man and one fictitious character; man, woman or animal.

Each mentor must meet the following minimum requirements;

1. They must have accomplished something unprecedented in their field. It's always best to learn from the guy that did it first.

2. They must be dead. Fictitious characters must have been killed off by their creators. The only exception to this is cartoon characters. Great cartoon characters never die.

3. They must have overcome a flaw such as mental illness, drug habit or physical impairment.

4. They must have been highly criticized by their peers. Misunderstanding seems to hover around genius.

5. They must have died in poverty or obscurity. Poor mentors are much more interesting than wealthy ones.

6. They must have believed they were failures at one time in their life. This belief is often mistaken for humility.

Other traits found to be admirable in dead mentors...

1. Dying under mysterious circumstances

2. Little or no formal education

3. Promiscuity

4. Disdain for authority

5. Defiance in the face of reality

6. Uncanny wit - a characteristic that is closely linked with superior intelligence.

I advise you to select a right-winged mentor, a left-winged mentor and a middle-of-the-road mentor. This will keep you balanced. Choosing Timothy Leary, Abby Hoffman and Jane Fonda could bring disastrous results. My mentors are Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain and Eeyore (Winnie The Pooh). I tried to select mentors that would like each other even if they differed philosophically. I don't want them arguing with each other on the bookshelf in the middle of the night when I'm trying to write.

One of the best ways to locate potential mentors is through their words. Bartlett's Quotations is a helpful source. Search by topic, then write down the names of everyone in your field who had an opinion on the subject. My favorite topics are Failure, Honor, Trust, Commitment, Death and Persistence. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations can be found at http://www.cc.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/bartlett/

Review your list of possible mentors. Read their biographies. Determine which ones are most deserving of your admiration and emulation. Collect pictures of them. Refer to them frequently. Climb into their heads. Dress up like them on Halloween. Learn from their accomplishments, but, more importantly, learn from their failures.

Don't expect miracles from your mentors. They can't teach you how to write. They can teach you other things, though. Dorothy Parker teaches me to use language in unexpected ways, Mark Twain teaches me to maintain a sense of humor and Eeyore teaches me the patience to handle disappointments. Great writers all have one common characteristic. They wrote what they knew. Your mentors can help you define what you know and adapt that knowledge to create writing that is uniquely yours, just as their writing is uniquely theirs. Let your mentors help and you may find your own work holding a prominent place on a young author's bookcase.

AN INTRODUCTION TO MY MENTORS

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy has all the elements of a mentor. She spent most of her life writing about death, betrayal and suicide, yet fooled everyone when she lived well into her seventies. She was most known for her biting wit but my connection to her comes from her disastrous relationships with men. Love was less than kind to Dorothy. The one she truly loved, Robert Benchley, was married. The other one she truly loved, who wasn't married, turned out to be a cheat and the one she didn't truly love, but married anyway, was a bisexual. Independent women aren't good at relationships. They insist on being treated as equals which is the only compromise they're willing to make for love. Through it all, Dorothy never lost her sense of humor. Or her bottle of booze.

Dorothy Parker said...

On Sex Appeal: "Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses."

On Suicide: "...Guns aren't lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful. You might as well live."

On Absurdity: "Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania."

Mark Twain

Mark Twain became my mentor at a young age after watching Hal Holbrook's many performances. I was much older before I realized the social impact of his works. He revealed the ignorance of racism through the voice of the racists and, sadly, the very people who fight racism today would ban his books from the public school systems. His satire is legendary and virtually no topic escaped his notice, especially if it harbored even a trace of hypocrisy. Nevadan's are fortunate to have access to Mark Twain's life in Virginia City and Carson City, although the fire he started in Lake Tahoe didn't do much to enhance his popularity in the area. He was a bit of a scoundrel.

Mark Twain said...

On Adversity: "By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man's, I mean."

On Classics: "A classic-something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

On Caution: "Put all your eggs in the one basket and-WATCH THAT BASKET."

Eeyore

Every six-year-old knows that Eeyore is wise. He's the glue in Winnie The Pooh, the voice of calm and reason. The dreamer. The world is not kind to dreamers, even in The Hundred Acre Wood. Dreamers don't seem to accomplish anything. The critics don't understand - the ability to dream is the accomplishment. Nothing that is wonderful in this world could have happened without dreamers. And it's not easy being purple.

Eeyore said...

On Space: "Sitting on thistles doesn't do them any good. Takes all the life out of them."


On Perception: "To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks."

On Expectations: "One can't complain. I have my friends.Someone spoke to me only yesterday.

** Bridget Becker is a freelance writer living in Carson City, Nevada. She published a monthly tabloid called The Bar Flyer which contained sporting events, community fundraisers and stories about the owners, employees and customers of the many bars & restaurants in the area. She published 27 issues and is now focusing her attention on her freelance career.

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