Dani Shapiro
January 5, 2016

On Mentors

This morning I read these words in Terry Tempest Williams’ Introduction to Wallace Stegner‘s novel, Crossing to Safety: “Each time I pick up my pen, I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. Be bold, he says. Be brave. Be true to your birthright, what you recognize in your heart.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors, about the wise ones who have walked a few paces ahead of me and have had the generosity of spirit to show me the road. I’ve also been thinking about being a mentor, since after twenty-five years of teaching, there is an ever-growing flock who think of me that way.

I’ve certainly been blessed by extraordinary mentors. Some have been hard on me. Some have challenged me to be bold and brave. Others have been cheerleaders. Others have opened doors. Still others have made me feel less alone in the world. They form an inner chorus and are with me when I pick up my pen. But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.

A writer sits on her chaise in her sunny office on a winter’s morning in 2016 and is transported and ennobled by a profound connection to a writer who filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse on an early spring day in 1941. A writer checking Instagram during an afternoon break sees that an artist she thinks of as a muse-mentor has “liked” one of her images – but how can it be? That artist has been dead for more than a decade. It turns out her daughter runs her beautiful Instagram account (I can think of no better purpose for this form of social media) but the feeling is one of communion.

We need those who are able to remind us to become who we are. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” Stegner writes. “You grow because you are not content not to…you grow because you’re a grower.” But we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning. We do our work – hewing steadfastly along the edge of our most intimate sensitivity – and we protect our gifts in order to best do that work. We nod to the past, and look to the future. And then – then we find the quiet courage to let it go.