I love mentoring writers. First, because finding the fault lines in someone else’s work actually makes it a little easier to find the cracks in my own. Second, it actually makes me feel smart, like I actually might, to my great surprise, know something about writing, which helps during those countless days when I wonder if going to dental school might have been a better career path. I often stay friendly with the writers I work with, but sometimes, they get good enough to get agents, and then book deals, and then they move on, and I feel that I’ve done my job.
Until one day I was hired by a new writer. Then, to my surprise, I became the one being mentored.
Let’s go back ten years. I was teaching an online novel writing class at UCLA, something I’ve been happily doing for a decade. While most of my students were pretty good writers and I loved them, I was always hoping for that book that was going to rob me of sleep, that would obsess me to the point where I couldn’t do anything else but read.
Gina came to my class with a novel that was about a young actress who decides to be a writer. It was light, it was fun, and I really don’t know how much I helped her back then, or what I could do for her other than tell her it was a good first effort and to keep writing. She came back the second year and instead of another light novel, she turned in the first pages of a novel that was so darkly brilliant that for a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath.
I had never done this before, but I picked up the phone and called her. I told her that her novel had gotten to me and that I wanted to work one-on-one with her on it, when she felt she was ready.
“Are you kidding?” she said.
She took more classes, and when she got her creative writing certificate at UCLA, she wanted to stay in touch. For the first year, we just worked on her novel, and every time I read more of it, I became more invested, while staying as professional and impartial as I could be. It made me feel good to help her, to share everything I knew, not just about books, but about agents, publication, and so on. I loved the book and believed in it, but maybe I also really liked being in control, being the expert.
She got an agent instantly, but it turned out to be the wrong agent. They were working to make the characters more likable, and the book more commercial, and then she realized the fit wasn’t right. “Trust your gut,” I told her. “Be brave and take back the manuscript and find the right agent.” She found another one right away. They were sure the book would be sold in an auction, but instead, she got back comments that the writing was brilliant, the story incredible, but that because it straddled commercial and literary fiction, they weren’t sure how to market it.
Until, of course, it sold.
So now we were colleagues. Well, sort of. There wasn’t anything more I could do for Gina. But then I was having trouble with my own work, and the readers I had depended on were flagging. One was too busy now with her own work. The other had gotten sick. And the third’s comments just didn’t make any sense to me anymore, but seemed almost barbed, aimed to hurt. I complained about it to Gina and then I stumbled, trying to figure out what to do. I was thinking up all sorts of plans when she interrupted. “I can look at some pages,” Gina said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I mean, wasn’t I the expert? Wasn’t I ten years older? But I couldn’t work, and I was desperate to figure out my novel, so I took a chance and showed her a chapter. To my shock, her comments were so on target, so helpful, I felt a huge rush of relief, and of hope. She had noticed things I never would have — how I could tighten a scene by getting rid of an extraneous character. Why a character shouldn’t just do a bad thing, but I should push it, and have him do something worse. I realized that I could learn something from her. She was the teacher now, mentoring me. And I grateful for it.
Working with someone I had previous mentored opened us up to something even better — something I never expected: one of the most important friendships I have. We’d talk about our work on video and then suddenly we’d be talking about our kids, or about our feelings or about food.
Sharing work is really like sharing your soul. My erstwhile mentee somehow managed to know what I needed to do before I knew myself. I didn’t think twice when Gina, previously an actress, now wanted to write a screenplay of essay I had written. Of course, I said yes. Of course, Hollywood and TV being an impenetrable fortress, nothing happened with it, and in frustration, I said, “We should do something original ourselves.” I didn’t mean it. I never considered it. Until I did.
“We should,” Gina said. We looked at each other from the video screen.
I’ve worked with writing partners before, and it’s always not worked out. I tend to be a speed demon and obsessive, and my first partner was slow and methodical. I want to delve into character and my second partner was madly in love with plot. But this time, we both could bring something to a joint project. We were each mentoring a partnership now. We were learning together that we could help each other revise in the other’s voice and style, without forcing our style on one other.
Maybe we both realized it was a safe place to take risks. We wrote a pilot, and we got a film agent who loved it and sent us notes. Notes! But instead of being happy, I suddenly felt sick, and it took me a while to figure out why.
Our balance of power had shifted yet again. Wasn’t the idea for this pilot Gina’s? Weren’t most of the great lines Gina’s as well? I had mentored her and then she had mentored me, and now I felt that I was her slightly dragging coat tail on this project. What if it hurt our friendship? That meant more to me than the pilot. So, I called her, hesitant. “Look,” I said. “I think the pilot is really your project. I think you wrote most of it. I think you need to take full credit.”
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. I braced for her assent, but instead, Gina laughed. “I was about to call you and say the same thing,” she said.