Yesterday, Cathy and I invited our friends, Sheila and Gerry, to attend a cooking class at the Glass Rooster Cannery, where we prepared a Greek feast of falafel, spanakopita, hummus, tzatziki sauce, and baklava. Our instructor, Jeannie, offered tips as we cooked—how to cut an onion if you wanted your slice to retain its shape, how to fold your phyllo dough so the thin layers would have integrity rather than mushing together. She was a helpful presence who gave us permission to create according to our taste. “There’s nothing wrong here,” she often said. “It’s all about you and what you want.”
What a wonderful example of a teacher. It was obvious that Jeannie knew more about this than any of us, but she wore her knowledge lightly and never dictated what we should do. Instead, she made well-timed suggestions. “Maybe a little less oil on the phyllo,” she said to me once, and I was careful to brush more lightly from that point on. Not only did she offer advice, but she also had all our ingredients ready for us at our cooking station, and she cleaned up for us as we went along, so we could concentrate on the assembly of the dishes.
This is what a good writing teacher does—gives students an understanding of the elements they’ll need to practice their craft, stays out of the way and lets students try according to their own aesthetics, is quick to offer advice when things are about to go off the rails, offers a method of correction when necessary. A good teacher never dictates but instead finds a covert way of suggesting what they know to be the truth. A good mentor relationship is one in which the student arrives at understanding rather than having that understanding dictated to them.
One of my students told me last week they often hear my voice when they’re writing. I remember when that used to be the case for me. I had one writing teacher whom I heard each time I sat down to write. Gradually, that voice blended with my own voice, so today the principles he taught me are mine. When I hear a voice saying you can’t get away with this, or you need to do this, or why don’t you walk around that idea to consider it from all angles, I know my mentor’s teaching has become so ingrained in me it seems to have always been mine. At some point, the mentor fades from consciousness, leaving their influence behind them for the writer to use as their journey continues.
Like Jeannie at the Glass Rooster, a good mentor treads lightly but with great impact, passing along all they’ve learned, leaving it to the students to accept or reject and maybe somewhere in the future to pass along to someone else. “Advice is like snow,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge said. “The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.” We’re all learners in this writing game. A good writing teacher doesn’t try to create another writer like them but instead offers everything they know that will help that writer become the writer only they can be.