Long Life Mentorship
Natalee Caple is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry and a professor of English and Creative Writing at Brock University in St. Catharines. Her latest novel, In Calamity’s Wake, was published by HarperCollins in Canada and Bloomsbury in the US. This article originally appeared in the National Post.
Jonathan Bennett invited me to read with him at our local bookstore in Peterborough, Titles. It was a great night. The store is like the ones I used to seek out for comfort in my teens and twenties: small, the owners friendly, the high wood shelves neatly packed with a thoughtful selection of works in a wide range of genres. I felt very much at home drinking wine and reading a list of ten things my mother told me with my dad at my side.
In the pub afterwards Jonathan was quietly beaming and we talked about how far we have come since we met fourteen years ago, new writers swapping notes on how to crack that tough nut Descant magazine. Jonathan, after a few, suddenly started to tell me about a writer friend he lost last year. This friend was an older writer who had taken an interest in Jonathan’s work. I realized as he told me the details of the tragic death of this man that Jonathan missed his mentor. That he was sitting there thinking how much he had wanted to show him this new book and all the books to come. How nice it would be if he could introduce us and have a circuit of his history around him, celebrating.
It’s funny, it’s only now that I’m somewhat established that I realize how important my mentors have been and how I need them to stay healthy and be successful and I wonder what it means to be mentored? Susan Swan and I have that lucky friendship. I said to her once: “Isn’t it funny, how we got close? I wonder why it happened. I mean, you were my teacher at York but I had already written three books. But you are my mentor and it’s different than I thought it would be.” She said, “Natalee, I chose you.” I can’t begin to explain how important it was to be chosen by someone established, talented, knowledgeable, and good. Like a lot of writers I recall plenty of times I stood in a line in school for Phys Ed and was not chosen. Much of my work I did in secret in the beginning and I cried every time I got a rejection. When the acceptances came in I was heartened but still, nothing compares to the day Susan said: “I chose you.”
Marion Engel was a mentor to Susan and I asked Susan recently what she thinks about when she thinks about mentoring. She answered at length:
“When I think of mentoring, I think of Marian Engel who mentored me. She was a reluctant mentor, always suspicious that my books would get more attention than hers and yet she gave me a lot of valuable encouragement and criticism. In was in her nature to be suspicious and maybe all mentors know their protégées will one day out grow them so she was just stating the inevitable. Anyway, she read (at my request) a rough draft of my first novel about the Nova Scotian giantess, 7’6 Anna Swan who exhibited with P.T. Barnum. It was called The Biggest Modern Woman of the World and there was a lot of measuring (of all kinds) going on in it. Afterward, she said, ‘I’m tired of hearing so much about the size of Anna’s vagina. I want to know about her soul.’ I was hurt but I took her criticism to heart and went back and rewrote the novel. My last memory of Marion was of her standing outside her house on Marchmont Avenue. She had cancer and that day I’d taken her to Princess Margaret Hospital and she got a bone fracture walking from my car to her house. She didn’t want my sympathy, though. She scolded me: ‘You, of all of us, have the biggest heart. You need to be careful.’ I never saw her again.”
“Susan,” I said, “You never did that. You never were jealous or suspicious and it drives me crazy that you never tell me what to do. I ask you and you just gently push me to figure out what I want.”
“I’m sure I tell you what to do. What about that guy, the drinker?”
“No, you don’t you never tell me what to do. You encourage me and you champion me to others and you listen when I’m scared or upset and you honour me by bringing me your problems and caring what I think.”
“I honour you?”
“Yes, you never wield authority over me. You just have been there telling me that I’m valuable and what I think and do is good and matters. I feel like there is someone out there who trusts me to make the right decisions and who really believes that if I never make any money it is still important that I was here.”
“Well it is, Natalee. I knew when I saw you that you would do magic. I chose you because I thought here is a girl who is really interesting. I’m going to help her because then I get to be part of what she does.”
I admit we were drinking wine over the phone for much of this conversation but maybe the wine needed to be drunk because it needs to be said that writers need many things: they need audiences, they need families, they need to take the right to be themselves into their own hands, and they need mentors because writing loves other writing and in that back and forth between our parents, our friends, our kids and our mentors we discover that we are part of a continuum, we are enmeshed in life and that feels really good. Thank you for choosing me Susan Swan. I demand that you live forever.