Meg Wolitzer: How I Learned to Be a Mentor (and Find Mentors) Throughout My Career
For the bestselling author, most recently of The Female Persuasion, being mentored felt completely natural. Stepping into the role of mentor herself would be harder.
The first one was a teacher, and later on there was another teacher, and then a camp counselor, and an employer, and finally a writer. Each one was accomplished and confident and admirable; that was clear to everyone who knew them. But to me, there was something else: Each one was also kind enough to give me her attention and offer her advice and time and take me under her so-called wing.
The words “mentor” and “protégé” can sound kind of stiff and formal, when often the relationship between two such people is warm and spontaneous. In fact, sometimes the two people involved don’t even think of themselves as occupying these roles at all. It’s only much later, when they look back, that a hindsight clarity might set in, and both people can see exactly what once took place between them, and how it mattered.
When I was young, I was taken under the wing of a few different older, wiser women, and I was comfortable there. (After all, in addition to their attentions, I’d grown up with a very encouraging mother.) But later on, when I was called upon to be a winged one myself, I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t feel up to the task.
I was in my mid-20s then, a few years out of college. One of my jobs was as an instructor in a nighttime creative-writing workshop, where my students ranged in age from early 20s to late 70s. In that class was a young woman, only a couple of years my junior, a terrific writer and someone who always brought a lot to class discussions. One night she seemed upset and distracted, and after class she lingered awhile. When I gently inquired about what was going on, she blurted out that her sister was gravely ill.
I felt great sympathy for her, of course, and expressed it. Then, the following week, she lingered after class again. I sensed that she wanted something more from me, a particular sort of solace and attention that she imagined would spring fairly naturally from my older-and-wiser-person self. I think she hoped that I would give her what those older, wiser women had given me. And why wouldn’t I? I liked her and admired her, and I knew what a hard time she was having. I thought of those older women with their cardigans, their dignified bearing, their calm, middle-aged-person airs. I possessed none of that, as far as I could tell, nor did I want to possess it. At the time, I still wore Keds and a bomber jacket. I traveled around New York City in a pack of friends. Not only that, but I didn’t know much about grief. I felt that I had no wisdom to dispense. I had no wing to offer.
I ached for her, but I realized that I wasn’t ready to assume the position of greater knowledge and understanding. And I suppose I feared that once I did assume that position, it would stick, and I would have to give up the possibility of ever being someone’s protégé again.
I can’t remember what I said to my student that night. In fact, the memory comes to a halt right there, at the moment when she looked to me for deeper consolation and guidance. I banished that conversation from my mind, but I continued to think about the encounter once in a while, feeling uneasy about it, knowing that I had disappointed her.
And then, as is always the case, time passed. It passed and it passed, and very naturally I began to ease out of my protégé status on my own. A few different young people seemed to see me as a mentor, and I liked it. None of them were in a moment of crisis, as my student had been, but all of them wanted something from me, and I was willing to give it. We didn’t think of it this way, of course. The words, the titles, would have made it sound too official, too transactional, rather than emotional and voluntary. But it was real.
I became increasingly comfortable in my new role; I didn’t even miss that other role at all. Then, a few summers ago, I found myself teaching another workshop, this time at a summer writing conference. Once again, the students ranged widely in age. On the very first day, in the lobby, a middle-aged woman tentatively approached me.
She was carrying her belongings in a big duffel bag, and she also had a rolled-up poster with her. From a great distance of three decades I thought I recognized her, and I felt a stir of feelings, but I wasn’t sure I had the right person. I asked her whether she had been my student a few decades ago. Yes, she said, she had been. We talked a little bit about the class, and how, while she hadn’t become a professional writer, she still loved to write, which was why she was here at this summer program. Then, rather indelicately, I asked her whether her sister had become very ill back then. She nodded. So I told her that I felt I’d disappointed her. She put down her duffel bag and rolled-up poster and listened as I spun my confession of inadequate mentoring.
“I think you needed something from me that I wasn’t ready to give,” I said. “And I’m sorry about that.”
But then she told me she remembered it differently. “You took me out for soup after class at some weird little place where you said you and your friends always went,” she said. “And then you gave me a book you loved. You wrote something really nice in it. It meant a lot to me.”
I didn’t remember any of that, but apparently it was true. Somehow, without my knowing it, I had been a kind of mentor to her anyway. I didn’t have to demonstrate gravitas or appear to be from another generation. I was myself—quirky, young, not too much more experienced than she was—and apparently I still had something to give, and she gladly took it, and it mattered.
In fact, when she found out I would be teaching at this conference this summer, she decided to bring me a gift. The rolled-up poster was her artwork, which she had signed to me, warmly and kindly. We were both so much older now: two women deep in middle age. Her sister had died, and my student had gone on to live her life, one that would be forever punctured by her early loss, and framed by it too. She worked in a helping profession, and attended to people in crisis, and was writing her own book about it.
It seems to be now, as even more time has passed since our brief reunion, that my early ideas about what a mentor is and what a protégé is have become outdated. The world is often in crisis. We need older people for their experience, and younger ones for their openness, and sometimes vice versa.
These days I have no fears of losing that young-upstart-protégé thing. I lost it long ago. And I also have no fears of how I will be seen if I offer advice to someone younger. I’ve come to accept the existence of my very own proverbial wing. It’s been there much longer than I knew.