How to Find a Mentor
There are three levels of mentorship. You need them all.
Meg Cabot taught me how to interact with my readers.
She doesn’t know I exist, but still, she taught me.
One day, when my older daughter was in high school and Twitter was a bright new thing, she followed her favorite writer. Meg Cabot.
And Meg Cabot followed her back.
Now, I’m pretty sure that it was actually Meg Cabot’s assistant that followed her back. And a quick look at her stats showed me that she likely followed every single person who followed her.
But my kid? She was floating on a cloud. Meg Cabot followed her.
My daughter is 26 now and Meg Cabot is still one of her favorite writers.
I was still several years from being published. I didn’t have any readers at all. But I knew, in that moment in 2007, when my fourteen year old daughter was followed by her favorite writer, how I wanted to connect with them when they did come.
Meg Cabot doesn’t know me. At all. But still, she’s been my mentor.
A little story about mentors.
A friend posted something on her Facebook feed the other day that has stuck with me. I think it’s as good a description of mentorship as I’ve ever seen.
Imagine that you are in a skyscraper. You’re on the fifth floor. You’d really like to get to the eighth floor. Someone is already there.
That person, already on the eighth floor, can do one of three things.
These are the three levels of mentorship:
- Level One: They can ignore the fact that you’re on the fifth floor. Just do their own thing. Maybe think about how much they’d like to be on the twelfth floor. Maybe if their work is public enough, you can glean something that might help you figure out how to come up a floor or two.
- Level Two: They can shout out instructions to you and anyone else who might be listening. Find the staircase! Open the door! Take the first step!
- Level Three: Or they can get in the elevator, come down to the fifth floor, invite you in and take you back up with them.
Stephen Chbosky is a level one mentor for me. He has no clue that I’m on the same planet as he is. He’s never done anything to directly or indirectly help me become a writer.
But every single thing he does has been a favorite. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is in my top 5 books of all time. Jericho is my favorite television show. I love Rent, I love Wonder.
Just the fact that he’s able to create things that I love so much lifts me up and helps me to dream about what kind of writer I want to be. If he can do it, I think to myself, so can I. Maybe.
Sometimes just that ‘maybe’ is encouragement you need and it doesn’t take any special effort from the level one effort.
Tomie diPaola is a level two mentor for me. He came to do an author talk at my elementary school. I can guarantee you that he didn’t notice me. He’s spoken to tens of thousands of students over his long life (He looked like a grandpa to me then, thirty years ago, and is in his 90s now.)
But he said something about writing his stories on a yellow legal pad with a Sharpie marker — and he was the first real author I’d ever seen. Until that moment (I was ten) it had not clicked in my head that writing books was a viable answer to ‘what do you want to be when you grow up.’
I wrote on legal pads with black markers until I got a computer fifteen or so years later. Tomie diPaola was a level two mentor to me.
Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and Anne Lamott — who have all put what they know about becoming a writer into books that I have studied — are also level two mentors for me.
In fact, most of the mentorship I’ve ever had has been this level. A sort of indirect mentorship that involves someone putting their help out there and me picking it up and figuring out how to use it.
Ellen Hopkins is a level three mentor for me. She lives in the Carson City area, which is near Reno where I lived for a long time. She’s incredibly generous with her time and actively seeks out ways to take the elevator down and bring people up a level or two with her.
In other words, she is a natural mentor.
She was a visiting teacher in my MFA program during my first semester, which means that I got to learn directly from her. I also know her well enough, by virtue of us both being writers from the same area, that if I had a question, I could reach out to her and for her to know who I am.
Ellen is a Level 3 mentor for me, but she’s a Level 2 mentor for countless people. She consistently gives advice that anyone can pick up and run with.
We need all three levels.
Obviously, we all want Level 3 mentors.
The kind who take our hands and guide us where we need to go. The kind we know personally, that we can call when we need help. The kind who actually care about whether we make it to where we’re trying to go.
And hopefully we all have at least a couple of people like that in our lives.
Parents, maybe. Teachers. A boss or co-worker or friend who has already made it past your level.
Sometimes you can hire someone to mentor you at that level.
But Level 2 means a lot, too.
I mean — Ray Bradbury has changed my entire life and he died in 2012. He’s mentored me from beyond the grave.
Stephen King can’t personally mentor the millions of writers who want to learn from him. But he can give us the information he thinks is important, which he did in his book On Writing, and let us do what we will with it.
And even Level 1 is important.
It means a lot to just know that a normal person, not so different from me, was able to get where I want to be. It means that it’s possible and knowing that’s true is essential.
So, what will you do about it?
Make yourself aware of your Level 1 mentors. List them out. Keep that list where you can see it when you feel discouraged.
Remind yourself that the people on that list didn’t give up. Often that’s the only thing they did that the many people who haven’t reached their level didn’t.
Gather your Level 2 mentors. The good news is that because you don’t need anything more from them than what they’ve already offered — a book, a video, a website, whatever — then you don’t have to temper how much you take from them.
But most important (and this is what they’d want you to do, too) follow their advice. Don’t just read the book. Do the exercises. Put in the practice. They’ve told you how to get to the next level, but you still have to actually figure out the elevator and use it.
You can actually start to shift these mentors toward Level 3, sometimes. Maybe invest in a class they offer or see if you can manage to see them speak live. It can’t hurt to reach out and let them know how grateful you are for their work. How much they’ve helped you.
Cherish your Level 3 mentors. You likely will have relatively fewer of these than the other two. And that’s as it should be. Having too many could become overwhelming, after all.
Listen intently. Learn as much as you can. Be grateful when they come down and invite you into the elevator so they can bring you up a level. (Please, don’t stamp your foot and demand they take you even higher.)
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.