My book group just read A Paris Wife by Paula McLain, the fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, and we all agreed to having mixed feelings about Hadley and her role as Hemingway’s ‘rock’ during his early career in Paris.
The book evokes the bohemian world of 1920s Paris and name drops a lot of literary giants but at its heart is the relationship between Hadley and Hemingway. The book made me question the extent to which Hemingway relied upon and needed Hadley’s stolid support during those early days.
I wondered how many writers feel they need someone close to them to be that kind of ‘rock’ – to provide emotional as well as (often) financial support (although Hadley certainly didn’t appear to contribute financially). Then there’s the more mundane support in terms of housekeeping and family duties (Hemingway could, after all, leave Hadley and his child at home while he went to a cafe to write without being bothered by any of those pesky fatherly duties!). In this day and age, I’m not sure anyone quite gets that kind of all round, ‘solid as a rock’ support – we are all juggling so many work/life issues that we usually have to find that support from within, rather than from someone else.
Hemingway also found mentors for his work in Paris (most notably Gertrude Stein) so it’s not entirely clear the extent to which he fed off Hadley’s unwavering (if unimaginative) support for his writing (although he certainly seemed to feed off adulation and praise of any kind!). Hemingway also never lacked self-confidence or the belief that he was destined to be a ‘great’ writer – but how many of us can say the same?
So how many of us writers feel we need a ‘rock’ in our life to reinforce our confidence and help propel our careers forward (especially early in our careers when we are still finding our literary feet)? Do we require a ‘rock’ of unwavering support? Or a mentor who respects and promotes our work? Or do writers really only need a ‘room of one’s own’ in which to flourish?
In my own career I’ve certainly had very supportive friends and family, but I don’t think I’d classify any of them as a ‘rock’ in the vein of Hadley Richardson. Most of the time I feel I have to rely on myself more than others to keep the writing going. Likewise, I’ve some terrific writer friends who I turn to for much-needed support but none of them have ever really acted as a mentor for my own work. I’m not sure in this modern age whether the same kind of ‘mentoring’ really exists like it did in say 1920’s Paris. But then again, maybe I just don’t hang out in literary enough writing circles!!
So TKZers what do you think? Do you have, or indeed need, a ‘rock’ in your writing life? Have you been lucky enough to have a mentor for your career? And if you were to give advice to someone contemplating the writing life, what would you tell them regarding having either of these?
By John Gilstrap
Twenty years ago, when I taught rookie firefighters the basics of their craft, we all understood the vast chasm that separated the sterile learning environment of the classroom from the training crucible of a real fire. On paper and in books and in training videos, even the complicated stuff looks easy—or if not easy, then at least predictable. When we took new guys into their first Rookie Roast, we knew that panic was the greatest hazard our students faced. By extension, it was my greatest hazard as an instructor, as well. (You get in trouble if you actually roast rookies in a Rookie Roast.)
Before you could emerge from the far side of rookie school, you had to prove certain proficiencies. You had to carry a really heavy load from here to there, and you had to navigate a very stressful and confining maze without showing signs of panic, all within a prescribed amount of time. And you had to, you know, raise ladders and put out fires and stuff. There was no faking the practical tests. (One day over a martini, ask me about the time when we had to test all of the battalion chiefs to the rookie standards. That was a hoot!)
I miss the simplicity of those days, when stupid was stupid, ugly was ugly, and if you screwed up, the screw-up was a source of ridicule. I have often said that if you’ve never been chewed out by a fire captain, you’ve only been mollycoddled. The sensibility at the time was that a little embarrassment ensured that mistakes were never repeated, and that as a result, the entire crew had that much better a chance of returning home whole and healthy.
For all the harshness and grab-ass, though, it was a wholesome and nurturing environment. You had to respect people to ride them hard; otherwise, you just ignored them. Mentors were everywhere, just waiting to be asked. There was a tacit, reasonable understanding that experienced firefighters knew more about firefighting than inexperienced ones, and the longer I stayed in, the more I realized how little I understood that when I was a know-it-all rookie. Come to think of it, most rookies are know-it-alls when they are fresh from the exhilaration of rookie school. It was the mentors’ job to help the new guy massage his knowledge into experience.
I was reminded of these good old days during last week’s dust-up over allegedly mean-spirited critiques. I don’t want to reopen the wound, or even examine the specifics of that particular case, but I was stunned by the vitriol.
I am the first to admit that I am fully self-taught in this writing gig. I know nouns and verbs and adjectives, but once you get into participles—dangling or otherwise—and pluperfect anything, it’s time for me to leave the table. I don’t know that stuff. I’ve never taken a writing class. I don’t say this with particular pride, but I say it without shame.
My writing career, then, was built on the principle of rejecting rejection. No one ever told me what I was doing well—truth be told, I already had a good sense for that. Instead, I got rejections, the mere existence of which told me that the aggregate of what I was doing was wrong. The specifics were left to me to figure out. I sought trusted opinions to help me ferret out the bad stuff. What wasn’t identified as bad was presumed to be good. It worked for me. It continues to work for me.
What I would have given for the kind of critiques that are offered here! Sure, not all critiques are as helpful as others, but in all fairness, not all submissions give you a lot to work with.
When fellow authors give me a manuscript to beta-read, it never occurs to me to soft-pedal my opinion or to blow even a single ray of sunshine. They give it to me to help them find and disarm the landmines, and by agreeing to do so, I owe them the respect to be brutal. I don’t worry about bruising their fragile egos because professional writers’ egos have turned to stone by the time they’ve got three or four books under their belts.
I believe that far too many people are lied to by their friends and their families and their teachers. Alternatively, the average friend, family member or teacher wouldn’t know commercial-quality fiction if it bit them on the nose. Either way, there are a lot of marginally talented (or talentless) people out there who are angered and embittered by their first brush with honest critique. I don’t get it. Why ask if you don’t want to hear the answer?
Better still, why listen to an answer if you think it’s wrong? In a business where there are no rules, all that’s left is opinions. I’ve got mine. Miller’s got ’em too. Jim Bell, Joe Moore and Michelle Gagnon, and all the rest of us denizens of The Killzone have opinions, and look how often we disagree with each other. That’s all a critique is: an opinion.
If the deliverer of an opinion has a little fun in the process—even if it makes some people squirm—so what?
The job of a mentor is not to make someone feel good about oneself. The job is help the student master the skills that will lead to him feeling good about himself on his own.
Sometimes—let’s be honest here—that means choosing a different career. As the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, flee the burning building.
By: Kathleen Pickering
I spent most of this past week at The Myrtles, a haunted plantation in Louisiana, with my mentor, the award winning, New York Times Best Selling author, Heather Graham. Luckily for me, Heather is not only my mentor, but my dear friend. (I don’t even know if she knows she’s mentoring me!)
Heather Graham on location at The Myrtles, St. Francisville, LA