So, you didn’t get an MFA… you can still get a mentor

Mentoring.jpgImage created by nyphotographic

I was recently working on a lengthy project for the online magazine where I work. As I gazed upon my freshly created content calendar, I found myself astounded at how far I’ve come, both technically and professionally. Looking back, my development has been cultivated through a lot of personal work, trade-research, and continued efforts to build imperative professional networks. An even greater portion of my progress, though, can be attributed to the fact that I had and have really great mentors. So, I thought I would write today’s post on the value of mentorship.

 ***

Everyone knows, if you want to be successful, you should get yourself a mentor. Or, do they? When I entered college as an 18 year old transfer student to Arizona State University (ASU), cherry picking courses I thought would make me a great fiction writer, I sure did not know this. When I applied for various Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs, and used chapters from my YA fantasy novel manuscript as application writing samples, I did not know this. When I became a bitterly confused twenty-one year old, rightly denied entrance to all of those MFA programs, I still did not know this. It was not until my first semester as a graduate student—in an alternative program—that I learned the value of an experienced, approachable mentor.

In the Fall of 2012, I was accepted into the ASU Master of Liberal Studies (MLS) program, headed by Professor Paul Morris. At this time, I did not have a community of literary writers with whom I could trade work or ideas. Every week I checked my Submittable account zealously, fingers crossed and hoping for good news. And every week, without fail, my submission statuses read “pending” then “rejected.” I was miserable and struggling to find my place as a writer, because I lacked a trusted sage to offer direction. But then, while discussing Spring 2013 courses with Professor Morris, I let slip my fear of failing in the publishing industry. Without pause, he morphed from adviser into untitled mentor and literary community of one.

Over the course of a month, I sent him two or three drafts of the same fiction piece needing critique. Impatiently I waited for his replies. In between emailing him drafts, I sent inquiries asking which field of publishing would best suit me. I was eager to learn. He was amiable enough to answer.

It did not take long for Professor Morris to realize that I needed more instruction than he had the time to give. So he suggested that I apply for an internship, preferably with one of the literary magazines (lit mags) on campus. Such an internship would provide direct access to the world of literary publishing, and could shed light on the field in which I would excel: literary, genre, or scholastic publishing.

Hayden’s Ferry Review is probably the most notable lit mag at ASU. Produced by a team of very skilled graduate students within the MFA program, it has a national reputation for excellence. As such, it was the first internship for which I thought to apply. But, I was not an MFA candidate. Therefore, I was not eligible to work with them. Professor Morris suggested instead that I reach out to Patricia Murphy, the founding editor of Superstition Review, an undergrad—also prominent—lit mag on campus. Nerves rattled my resolve as I hit send on my first email to her. Maybe she too would deny me. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t.

It was clear from the beginning of our exchange that I was not as prepared as the other applicants to her Spring program. Most of her students were undergrads majoring in creative writing. I had a BA in English literature, but had taken only the entry level courses in fiction and poetry. I had no experience with workshop or lit mag jargon. In one email she asked me to name my top ten favorite authors of fiction, and I responded with ten pulled from every genre but literary. It was a tough sell proving that I deserved a spot in her internship, but somehow, some way, she accepted me.

That year-long, two-part internship was integral to my success in the field of publishing. Though I have had many caring, adept, and effective mentors since Patricia Murphy, I can honestly say that she was the strongest influence on my professional development, to date. That internship taught me the difference between genre and literary writing. It drove home the importance of setting achievable deadlines; as well as, why every writer should train themselves to adhere to those deadlines. Additionally, it underscored the fact that there are generally three key components to a well-oiled, sustainable lit. mag.:

  • a strong understanding of the competition;
  • a balanced, highly organized editorial calendar; and,
  • rigorous brand management.

Superstition Review demands a lot from its interns. But, in doing so, it molds those interns—as I was molded—into knowledgeable assets: emerging editors ready to dig in deep and work hard for the next lit mag, publishing house, or company in general that should employ them.

A semester after finishing my internship with Superstition Review, I applied to intern with Cleaver Magazine. Although I missed the application deadline for Cleaver’s Fall 2015 internship, I was accepted to begin in the Spring of 2016. I was charged and ready for my next publishing venture.

Now I work under the guidance of Karen Rile, the co-founding editor of Cleaver Magazine. I began as an intern who read then voted on all submissions. This past June I was invited to become a regular reader. And, in the past few weeks, I was promoted to “Social Media Maven” and manager of the Cleaver Magazine Editors’ Blog. The Cleaver culture is inclusive, encouraging, and promotes progressive thought about literature and language. It has increased my confidence as a writer and strengthened my skills as an editor.

I am still on the fence as to whether or not I will re-apply for an MFA. But, in the interim, I feel fully equipped to pursue a career in my field of passion. This is because I remained open to teachable moments and sought out mentors who were/are experts in my field.

So, to other writers, creatives, and anyone else trying but failing to conquer their field of passion, please listen. Until you have a seasoned vet to help to give you direction, to show you the foot holds in the mountain that you intend to tackle, you are going to struggle. And, the flame that fuels your drive and dedication to your craft, will burn out much quicker than you imagine.  Though you may not have previously known, you know it now: if you plan to be successful, get yourself a mentor.

 

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