An Open Letter to Writing Mentors and Mentees

Tomorrow marks the end of my mentorship with the Young Writers Initiative. I had the honor of working alongside the brilliant Angel Martinez during these past two months, and it’s easy to say that I’ve learned a lot from her. Our attempt at proving we are the best mentorship pairing–I mean, our culminating project, is this post you are reading right now. This the story of our meeting, a run-down of things we learned about each other, and our tips and tricks for making the most out of a mentorship.

1. Origin Stories, Hopes, and Dreams 

I spent the first few months of quarantine contributing to several online publications. I had no intention of getting my name out there or building a portfolio: I was simply looking for a way to keep myself busy. But, over time, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was starting to get recognized in the writing community–so much so that a LinkedIn connection had referred me to Riya of The Young Writers Initiative. She then offered me a spot as a mentor for freelancing in her nonprofit’s summer mentorship program.

I knew from the start that I would have the liberty to choose who to mentor: in fact, I was even allowed to give a list of requirements my ideal mentee should have! One night, I received the Google Drive containing all information about the aspiring participants. Prior to looking at Cindy’s answers and portfolio, I was somewhat underwhelmed by many of the options presented to me. Thankfully, she lived up to the saying, “Save the best for last” – her writing samples were so heartfelt and personal, her answers well thought-out, and her determination to make the most of the opportunity given to her so evident. Aside from that, her genuine and cheerful personality shone, it was so infectious! I remember thinking, “This is it! This is The One!”

I was never a part of any real-life mentorship programs, which are said to be easier since you’re supposed to know each other beforehand. I was super apprehensive prior to our first session and was even wrestling with imposter syndrome. Fortunately, it went smoothly – we built rapport from the very start, thanks to our common interest in K-Pop and of course, a love for the written word. There was some awkwardness, sure, but it was the endearing kind :^)

‧⁺˚*・༓☾ ☽༓・*˚⁺‧

As with many other students, I was doing quite a bit of soul-searching during the quarantine. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but it didn’t really mean much when all I was doing was sitting on my couch staring a blank document and wondering about my place in the universe. I had applied to be an Advanced Editor for the Young Writer’s Initiative a few months prior, and was slowly making my name in the writing world without really being published anywhere significant. That said, without any sort of writing routine in place, I felt quite stagnant. 

Seeing the call for mentees on TYWI’s instagram was the wake-up call that I didn’t know I needed. I knew wanted this mentorship. I knew I wanted it because I had been trying to make writing something bigger than a passion for the last year and didn’t know how. I felt like a weak (and very ugly) duckling trying to stand on two feet in this literary world. As silly as it sounds, this felt like my chance to change things, once and for all. 

Knowing that only 7 mentees were going to be selected for this program made the competitive spirit in me flare. I write in a variety of genres (prose, poetry, fiction) so I had no idea which mentor I should choose to apply to. I read through the profiles of these very capable writers, and still couldn’t come to a decision. It was only when I got to Angel that my heart did a flip and I stopped reading the bios altogether. Despite us having our roots in different genres, I ended up not applying to anyone beside Angel. I really wanted to work with her and to get to know her as a friend. Long story short, I took a risk putting my eggs all in one basket, but I don’t regret my decision at all. Angel absolutely rocks!

2. Learning from Each Other 

I’ve been writing by myself for most of my life – I never had anyone to check on my work and give me advice, which was probably a conscious decision on my part, since I had this debilitating fear of mediocrity. I was fine with this for the longest time but now I understand just how much of a difference it makes when you have someone to bounce ideas off of, exchange constructive criticism with, and share perspectives with. 

Contrary to popular belief, the learning that takes place in the context of a mentorship is not one-sided. Cindy has inadvertently taught me (and the readers of her amazing blog!) so much about the ins and outs of writing that I feel motivated to jump back into fiction writing, which I’d abandoned years ago. She entrusts me with so much of her experiences and opinions, all of which inspired a lot of pieces I’m currently working on. Her questions, which revolve around everything from our shared craft to our shared experiences, have also provided moments of introspection and clarity in such an overwhelming time. And despite how slow of a reader and TV show watcher I am, she is trying to refine my tastes and make me more cultured. (When I finish Leigh Bardugo’s collection of works and Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s over for you all.) Needless to say, our relationship has evolved beyond the normal mentor-mentee type: she’s literally the younger sister I never had! (Minus the petty catfights.)

People may be hesitant to take an opportunity like this because they’re scared of their trade secrets getting exposed but I highly recommend coaching up-and-coming talents who only have pure intentions and passion for their craft. You lose nothing from contributing to the accomplishment of other people’s goals! Sharing even 0.0000001% of your time and talent to guide them towards the path to success is immensely rewarding! Though what Cindy managed to achieve over the short span of two months is in large part due to her talent and skill, knowing I was there to help in any way I could just made my heart soar.

‧⁺˚*・༓☾ ☽༓・*˚⁺‧

Angel has been a guide for me in practically every aspect of the literary world. She has introduced me to the fact that a lot of literary magazines actually exist outside of the New Yorker and other very elite journals (that would probably make me cry at how long it took for them to get back to me with a rejection). It is all due to her that I am a contributor to some of these magazines and have published my work in a large number of them! 

My biggest worry in working with Angel was that I was a heavily fiction-based writer. I had always been prejudiced against nonfiction and always argued that there was nothing interesting about the world we already know. Boy was I wrong! Angel brought me headfirst into the world of creative nonfiction, and I cannot tell you how much it has broadened my horizons. I now write personal essays on a weekly basis and a majority of my recent publications have been in the vein of creative nonfiction! Although I love the escapism that fiction offers me, I find that channeling my emotions into a personal essay has so many benefits. It allows me let the burdens I carry around like armor go. I can really just release all of my thoughts onto the paper and edit it later to become something lovely. 

Besides showing me two whole new worlds, Angel has helped me immensely by making modules, videos, and even answering my strangest questions through email. She introduced me to Notion, a productivity and organizational tool, that has completely changed the game in my tracking of submissions, writing schedules, and brain dumps. I probably would be a mess right now without it! (Notion, please sponsor us.) 

Besides the writing stuff (which don’t get me wrong, is super important!), Angel has taught me what it’s like to have a writing BFF. Not many of my friends enjoy writing and squealing about books as much as I do, and having Angel lend a listening ear when I need to yell about Peter Kavinsky or adorable Patroclus is something that I will forever be thankful for. ❤ 

If I were to continue talking about all the things that Angel has taught me in writing, and not to mention outside of it, this piece would be fifty pages long. I’ll suppose I’ll stop here and let you bask in the knowledge that Angel has probably taught me more than I have learned in school for the last 13 years of my life. 

3.  Recommendations for Mentors and Mentees Out There 

I don’t think the bond Cindy and I share is something that can be replicated at all. But I guess I could give any aspiring mentors out there tips on how to make the most out of an opportunity like this. *shrugs*

  1. Get rid of your superiority complex. Don’t even try to deny you have it. This is the most important piece of advice I can give. Having been recruited for this position, you might think that you’re the best at your craft, the supreme authority – so much so that others need you so they can be the version of themselves they want to be. While it is true that you are there to teach someone else the tricks of your trade, that doesn’t make you better than them in any way, shape, or form. Ditch the condescending tone, and get rid of the impression that you are the only one doing the teaching and your mentee the only one doing the learning. 
  2. Be invested in your mentee and their work! I saw the potential and drive in Cindy very early on and knew that she was someone 110% worth betting on. Get to know your mentee and what they hope to get out of this mentorship. Go above and beyond in providing them with the resources needed to improve in their craft, or simply address any questions or issues they might have. If they release any of their creative output to the public, show support and promote it as well! (To be honest, I never saw it as a job – Cindy is a naturally gifted writer, I don’t know how anyone is allowed to have that much talent, especially at such a young age! All her works have been such a joy to read.)
  3. Learn how to give real constructive criticism. Don’t point any flaws out without providing any possible alternatives or ways to make it better. But at the same time, don’t micromanage and revise everything your mentee has done to the point that it can pass off as your own work. They have their own unique style and approach that you are only supposed to help refine and improve. On a slightly similar note, don’t be stingy with compliments! When they’ve done a good job, lavish them with praise! Motivation is the lifeblood of any creative, and giving it out has never hurt anybody!
  4. Treat them as your equal and more importantly, your friend. Don’t be afraid to get to know them on a deeper level and discuss things outside of work, and allow them to do the same with you. If you didn’t have the privilege of choosing who to mentor, there’s a chance that you might have been paired with someone you can’t seem to vibe with. Maybe that’s because you’re only looking at things on a superficial level. Show genuine interest in anything they’re willing to share, and be open to learning and trying out these new things too!
  5. Don’t allow the formal dissolution of your mentorship to be the end of the road for both of you. I think if you’ve got #2 down, this shouldn’t be a problem for you. Stay in touch, and ask for updates on creative projects! Continue sharing things that you feel they will find useful, though it’s understandable if it’s not at the same pace as before. Send them things that remind you of them, and the obsessions they’ve mentioned in passing during previous conversations – anything at all to remind them that you are there, you always will be, and you root for them no matter what.

‧⁺˚*・༓☾ ☽༓・*˚⁺‧

I am slightly intimidated to share after Angel’s massive PSA (LOL), but here we go! Here is my guide to being a great mentee and making the most out of your mentorship. Hopefully this can help make your experience nearly as good as mine and Angel’s. 😛 

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Your mentor offered themselves up for this job because they have a lot of love for what they do and want to share it with you! I am a naturally inquisitive person, and Angel has helped me immensely by creating modules to help me learn! My questions have gotten me deeper into blogging, nonfiction writing, and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine! Your mentor might not be as dilligent as Angel (i.e. they might not make modules for all the questions you ask), but they should still answer your inquisitions to the best of their ability. There’s always something to gain from asking about the things you’re curious about! 
  2. Take risks and put yourself out there. Everyone is going to tell you this, but only because it’s true! You are never going to learn if you don’t step out of your comfort zone. If possible, send your work (especially the ones that feel al little shaky) to your mentor! Ask for feedback and try to see your work through their eyes. It’s scary at first, but remember that you’re their mentee for a reason. You’re here to learn through them and to grow, and unfortunately, developing skills does not happen through osmosis. You need to put in the effort to get feedback and criticism to really understand how your work is through the eyes of an audience. In the same vein with #1, if you are curious about their feedback or certain changes they made, feel free to ask them more questions about their edits! This is a great way to get in their mind (in a non-creepy way) and see the thought process for why things were changed. 
  3. It’s okay to follow in your mentor’s footsteps at first, but remember that you are not their shadow. Not everyone is exactly the same, but you are learning from this person because your interests align and you both have a love of writing! That said, you are not restrained to everything that you mentor does. You can (and should) branch out too! You can apply to places they don’t necessarily work at, and you can write and submit to different genres as well! They are here to guide you, not be your cookie cutter. 
  4. Angel already covered this in immense detail, but I want to emphasize that establishing a lasting friendship is SUPER important! The best mentorships are when the mentor and mentee see eye to eye and and enjoy one another’s company in addition to helping one another out professionally. This is especially important if you, like me, don’t have many writer friends. Your mentor is a friend! Like any other friendship, they could be your best friend if you put in some effort! Get to know them. Talk about fictional characters and TV shows and share emo Spotify playlists. Tell them about your weak stomach and rant about college. This mentorship is a heavy door, and it takes two to keep it from closing. Hold your side open. There’s so much more to be uncovered. ❤

4.  Final Takeaways

There’s something special about having a bond with someone living across the world who understands you in ways maybe even your closest friends don’t. As a mentor, it’s probably incredible to know that you’re changing the life of someone out there. It’s even more incredible to think that even though you might live in separate cities, countries, and time zones, you’ve come together to create something great. 

I think it’s safe to say that Angel and I won’t be saying goodbye to one another very soon, and despite our imaginary rivalry with the other mentors and mentees out there, we hope that your program succeeds this way too. 

For those of you who are not yet in a mentorship program yet, keep writing. We hope one day you’ll be able to find your writing BFF. ❤ 

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