Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mentoring and the Disneyland Dilemma

Let me tell you a story . . .

Once upon a time, in the wilds of suburban America, there was a family -  Mary and Fred and their six year-old daughter Moonbeam  - who had never been to Disneyland.

And Disneyland was all that Moonbeam ever talked about.  She had watched all the commercials, seen all the movies. Everyday, she pleaded with her parents.  She cajoled, hinted, remarked, nagged, cried, whined  and otherwise relentlessly explained to her parents that if she did go to Disneyland RIGHT AWAY, she would curl up in a ball and “just die!”

Now, Mary and Fred had endured examples of Moonbeam’s "determination" before and decided that, rather than suffer another siege with their young, headstrong daughter, they would take her to the Magic Kingdom next month.

That night, Fred and Mary considered this decision.  They knew that the trip would cost a lot of money and would be something that, good or bad, Moonbeam would remember for the rest of her life. They wanted to make sure that they did it right.

They soon realized that they needed some advice.

Now, Fred and Mary had two neighbors: Pete, who lived on the house on the right and Tommy on the left, and it occurred to Fred that he should go and ask his neighbors for guidance. He saw Pete in the yard one morning and asked him.

“Well,” Pete said as he watered the carnations, “the parking can be bad and traffic will be terrible and the crowds – the crowds can be a nightmare!”

“Ok, I get that, but what’s it like inside?” Fred asked.

“Oh, I have no idea” Pete said, “I’ve never been . . . but that’s what I’ve heard.”

Fred sighed, realizing that he was no farther along than he was before.

Just then, Neighbor Tommy came out and headed for his car.  Fred said goodbye to Pete and rushed to catch Tommy before he left.

“Glad I caught you,” Fred said. “We’re planning a trip to Disneyland and needed some advice.”

"No problem,” said Tommy. “Been there a couple of times. I can tell you everything you want to know."

And so, Fred spoke at length with Tommy and got all his questions answered. 

The trip went off without a hitch.  Tired but happy, Moonbeam came home with a personalized set of mouse ears, signed autographs of all the Disney Princesses and a heart full of memories.

So now . . . what’s the point of this story?

Here's the point: advice is easy to find. But valuable advice – advice that you can learn from and that will head off disaster – can only come from someone who has actually been there, actually done the thing that you want to do.

Neighbor Pete was a nice guy.  He really wanted to help Fred but, in the end, Pete had nothing valuable to contribute to the conversation because he had never done what Fred was planning to do.

As a writer, we are often as lost as Fred.  What is the best path for me to take? How do I know what I’m doing is the right thing? How do I make the most out of my career?  How do I know if my writing is good enough to not only be published and sell, but to attract a group of fans who will continue to enjoy my work and keep me in business?

All good questions.  All have the very same, very logical answer:  

Asks someone who actually knows. Someone who has been successful at doing what you're trying to do.

Yet so many writers ask – and depend upon - the wrong people for advice. 

These are examples of the wrong people to rely upon for solid writing advice:

Your Friends: unless they are published writers or experts in the craft of writing, they cannot really help you.  They can, and often will, support you, tell you that your work is great, but they’re not actually in a position to know.

Your Family:  same as above but even more so. They love you and don’t want to see you hurt.  They may tell you that your writing is great but might just as easily not understand what you are trying to do and try to convince you to quit “for your own good”. So you won't get hurt.

Your Critique Group:  I’m sure this surprises you, but your critique group can only help you if one or more of their members have real life experience and have published the kind of writing that you write. They can - and will - certainly give you their opinion, but its value must be questioned. Their opinions are ones of someone who, just like you, is struggling to find their own way.  They can be wonderful to talk shop with, to commiserate about your rejections and to help celebrate your acceptances but - as for valuable, real-life writing advice - it can pretty much be hit-or-miss.

Now you probably went to these folks - your friends, family or critique group - first because they were handy, nearby and eager to help. The emotion risk is limited because you never really expected these people to tell you anything that might hurt your feelings or deflate your interest in writing. 

But what we all need as writers is someone who knows what we're facing.  Someone who has seen the landscape ahead.  Someone who has struggled as you are struggling now, who has seen that place from which all creativity springs, someone who has met the challenges you are facing now - and succeeded.

In short, you need a mentor.

By definition, a writing mentor is someone who has been successful at doing what you want to do, who has knowledge you need but do not yet have, and is willing to share that with you for the purpose of making you a better writer. It is always best when it is a personal relationship where the mentor can show you what you need to know and where you, as the mentee, can get answers to those specific and individual questions that you need answered.

Now, you may have no idea where to find that mentor – but mentors are absolutely available to you regardless of where you live!  You probably have come in contact with a successful writer you could ask for help.   Writer’s conferences, classes, readings and personal appearances might be just the places to look. They might be more than willing to share their experiences with you.  And there are personal coaches and teachers like myself and many others here to review your work, figure out where you are professionally and help you plan the next step in your writing career. We’ve done the work and have been successful. We give classes and talks, offering up our best advice for willing students. We can be there for you, too.

If you read something that clicks with you, something that makes sense and helps you see your writing in a new way, seek out that writer's other published works and try to see them in person at presentations and conferences.  They might be quite approachable and you could ask them for a couple of minutes to discuss their experience.  You will be surprised at the number of us willing to help, if for no other reason than we see this as a way to pay back the people who helped us along the way.  Many offer services that are affordable and can be customized to fit your particular situation.

So reach out.   Find someone who can help you along the way – and get moving!

Here’s the truth of the matter: the only way to get solid, valuable advice about your writing is to find someone who have been down that road, done what you want to do and can guide you through the hazards and pitfalls along the way.

It’s just that simple.

If interested is seeking out my help, feel free to email me at or call me at 951-266-9363.

Until next time, keep writing!
(My personal thanks to one of my mentors, Steven Barnes, for the inspiration for this post)