Why you need a creative mentor (and how to make it work).
A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep.”
~W. H. Auden
Unlike some pursuits, making artefacts that come from the mind (i.e. art, writing, design, performance) is especially subject to the push-pull feeling of wanting community and yearning for solitude. As creatives, we require time to introspect, reflect and work alone. At the same time, we also need to recognise the value of feedback and guidance from other people.
This came up recently when I was having lunch with my friend, writer Krissy Kneen. And it came up in a roundabout way. Krissy was wearing a simple black dress, over which she’d draped a black shawl with red – were they flowers…let’s say they were flowers – printed on it.
Point is, she looked grown up. Stately.
Then, as we fed ourselves on tarts with the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, Krissy revealed that lately there’d been a shift in how she approaches her work.
Maybe how she was dressed reflected a transition she’d undergone. Now – only recently – she’d begun to see herself as a mentor.
I wanted to know more about this transition, so a couple of days later, she chatted with me for GIM about the importance to writers of the mentor relationship. As you’ll see, most of the points she raised can be extrapolated to the creative industries more generally.
According to Krissy, one of the central benefits of having a mentor, is emotional support. Anyone who’s ever tried to express themselves on the page – or the canvas, the stage – knows how emotionally devastating the process of getting it right can be. A good mentor can help you to see it’s okay to feel bad about your work:
I think seeing that is a relief to some people. Sometimes you see people on the writing circuit talking about their books they seem so confident. And to have it all together. And know what they’re doing and they answer questions so slickly. Part of that is a bit of an act. And that’s not anything to do with the process of writing. It’s important for a younger person to realise that heartache and pain and insecurity are common to all writers.
Krissy says that by working closely with a mentor, you can also pick up healthy work practices. She describes how she has always worked closely with a writing partner, usually someone younger and less experienced than she is:
It teaches them the concentration I have. Sometimes people will get to the end of a tough passage and say “That’s it I’m exhausted”. And I get to the bottom of a tough passage and have a stretch or a little walk but then I get back to it, because I need to keep going to the end – it’s the only way to finish. And I think modelling that behaviour is really important. And also the idea that if they’re really stuck on an idea they can stop and say to me this is happening now, it’s making me feel like this and I don’t know how to move forward. When this happens I can sometimes make suggestions on how to approach the problem from a different angle, which is handy if you’re there on the ground when that’s happening for them. Plus it means you can watch each other’s computers when it’s time for a loo break.
Krissy is big on resilience because it helps a writer see a project to completion. And it’s also something that can be modelled through the mentoring relationship. She says one of the primary things she teaches a younger writer is to follow through:
….when you complete a manuscript you have to keep going with it. The biggest mistake I see is people lose heart. When they lose heart, they lose concentration. The difference between someone who is a writer and someone who is not is the ability to stick with and follow through on a first draft.
As well as emotional support, mentors can also guide creatives on the pragmatic aspects of business and career development, which are as important as the emotional/psychic parts of a sustainable creative career.
So, having discussed how a mentor can be a useful part of your creative toolbox, what are some tips for how to have a successful mentor relationship?
1. Don’t expect praise
One of the best pieces of advice I can give creative people is to interrogate your own need for praise (and with that, the need to give it). And I’m not talking about pragmatic feedback that highlights where a creative decisions works. I’m talking about the sort of praise that makes the ego expand like Augustus Gloop’s belly after he’s eaten too many Wonka bars. Praise like:
- You’re a great writer
- You’ve got an amazing future
- You’ve got what it takes to get published
This is all marshmallow praise. It doesn’t help you to know what steps to take next, give strategies for your work or prepare you in any way to overcome hurdles. So, don’t expect it from a good mentor. If you need this kind of ego-stroking to believe in yourself and keep at it, you may run out of creative stamina very quickly.
2. Don’t do anything that goes outside your ethical boundary
If you’re in a mentor relationship with someone you really admire, someone who’s well-established in your field, or someone whose work resonates with you, you should be conscious of the imbalance of power inherent in your relationship. Power imbalances aren’t always dangerous, but they can be if the person who has more power (i.e. your mentor) takes advantage of their position of power. Which happens. So, go into the relationship holding your admiration and fangirlism at bay and keep your ethical compass well hummed. Don’t do anything that makes you ethically uncomfortable.
3. Insist on discretion
A good mentor will understand the need for discretion. They will not broadcast your private conversations. They will hold the confidentiality of your relationship above most other factors. And you will respond in kind. The relationship depends to a large extent on trust so that the fears and vulnerabilities of both parties can be examined and worked with. Indiscretion always chips away at trust.
4. Use active listening
If you don’t know techniques for active listening, it may be a good time to check them out. Most good relationships are built on a solid foundation of clear and reciprocal communication. An effective mentor will not use their role in the relationship to download to you, without nuance or relevance, everything they know about the field. And likewise, as a mentoree, you cannot expect to simply sponge up all the knowledge you receive without engaging with it or exploring how it’s relevant to your work. Active listening techniques ensure that communication is an exchange, and not simply a lecture.
5. Be open
There’s not much point in fostering a mentoring relationship if neither parties are prepared to approach the ideas in an open way. As mentoree, though you may have firm ideas about how you want your work to look, take suggestions on board before you reject them hastily. And, as Krissy Kneen recommends in her GIM interview, as a mentor, it’s important that mentors resist a dogmatic approach.
Take it home
Though creative work is often done in isolation, a mentoring relationship can be stimulating and mutually beneficial. Making it work doesn’t ‘just happen’ though. Use these strategies to build skills to make the relationship resonating and powerful.