Mothers and Other Strangers

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When the Writing Mentor Becomes the Mentee

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.

A Year in Reading: Natashia Deón

When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.

I fear the silences.

The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud.  Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.

When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”

He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.

I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.

Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.

I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way.  Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.

Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.

For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women.  And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.

I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.

And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.

For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.

I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.

I’ll be carrying We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge and Surveillance by Ashaki Jackson for the times I need to be reminded why I must keep walking. Why we all do.

To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.

I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”

Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.

And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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