How I Found My Mentor By William Kowalski

A Guest Blog from William Kowalski. William is a novelist, screenwriter, and book reviewer for the Globe and Mail.

Whenever one dedicates oneself to a discipline that demands years of practice, be it writing, cooking, or Zen Buddhist meditation, a good mentor is indispensable.  Unfortunately, good mentors are also scarcer than nuns in a disco.  There are plenty of people willing to tell you what you should write, but free advice is worth what you pay for it.  Yet if you want to skip months or even years of false starts, wrong paths, and amateurish mistakes, a writing mentor is the best solution.

I was fortunate enough to find mine early.  When I was seventeen and just out of high school, I entered a summer writing program at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.  It was run by Ken Schiff, a professor and novelist, and it was staffed by three accomplished writers who had somehow mustered the patience to spend the summer with a gaggle of pie-eyed youngsters.  One of those writers was a man named W.S. Kuniczak, who went by the sobriquet of Jack.

Jack was, in my idealistic eyes, everything a writer ought to be.  He was a short but burly fellow, an ex-soldier with multiple ex-wives; mustachioed, gravel-voiced, and chain-smoking, he spoke beautiful English with an indefinable accent.  He had been born in Poland, and because my last name is Polish, he took a special interest in me.  (All those jokes about submarines with screen doors have created in our kind a need to stick together.)  I gave him a short story of mine called “Happy Birthday”, which was, if I recall correctly, about a U.S. soldier in Vietnam who is forced to kill a woman in self-defense on his birthday.  I was a dark and moody youth.

Jack praised my writing, and he also made some suggestions.  If I were to change a line here and there and alter the action a bit, the story would be much the better for it.  Would I be willing to do that?

“No,” I answered immediately.  My story was perfect as it was, and no one was going to mess with it—not even a man whose first novel, The Thousand-Hour Day, had been an international best-seller.

Many years later, Jack would remind me of this hasty reply, which luckily he’d found more amusing than arrogant.  We fell out of touch after that summer, but when I was deep in the throes of writing Eddie’s Bastard, my first novel, I tracked him down and asked if he would be willing to read a draft and tell me what was wrong with it.

“You’re not going to tell me no again, are you?”  he asked.

“I’ll listen this time, I promise,” I said.  I did listen, because by then I had been thoroughly humbled by the travails of writing a coherent story.  His advice, which I have described in another article titled “Returning To The Right Foot” (available for free download on my website, was what made my book go from mediocre to readable.  Jack passed away in 2000, but I consider myself forever in his debt.

To find your mentor, you will need more humility than luck.  It has been my experience that some aspiring novelists will approach a more experienced writer with the stated goal of learning from them, but in reality they only want to glom onto what they perceive as fame or success.  This is disheartening, not least because would-be mentors often do wish to share their experience and expertise with someone–but first, that someone must be proven worthy of their time and energy.  A willingness to listen and learn is just as attractive to a potential mentor as a high level of native talent, perhaps even more so.  If finding a mentor is really important to you, be prepared to kneel in the snow outside the temple gates for as long as it takes.  This is a small price to pay for what will, I hope, be one of the most satisfying and enriching relationships of your life.  It certainly was for me.

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