“MENTORING WRITERS” by Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Wayson ChoyIf you have been published before, it seems inevitable you will soon mentor someone else’s promising talent. Talent is always promising the world something. How can you resist?

In the 1950s, before I was ever published (that’s not counting high school annuals), I found my most demanding mentors in my first writing classes at UBC. The best thing that could happen to me was that Professors Jacob Zilber, Jan de Bruyn and Earl Birney all insisted on taking me seriously, even when I lost hope of ever being seriously published. I had never understood punctuation rules and, frankly, wrote my sentences sloppily.

“Did you want to be a writer?” the poet Earle Birney asked me, as he handed back my first typed manuscript. Shocked at the red X’s and dark arrows criss-crossing that naked first page, I barely whispered, Yes. Did Professor Birney touch my shoulder to steady me—or did I imagine it?

“Punctuate,” the voice said, and a hand waved me out of the office.

My three mentors never paid much attention to my feelings of hopelessness, nor what must have been hopelessly amateur writing. I was stubborn. Damn hard lonely work, they began telling me in so many ways. Can you take it?

I took it. As long as I showed up for their classes, they taught me, each in their no-nonsense manner. Finally—as my learning picked up momentum—one after another, they began to point out a few of my emerging storytelling strengths. I grew to understand that I had passed the first test: I was persistent. The illusion that writing would be easy soon collapsed: somehow, craft mattered.

“Distracting,” Professor de Bruyn would say, slashing his blue pencil through a whole paragraph of what was, in my opinion, an inspired sequence of ringing parallel sentences.

“Dangling,” Professor Birney wrote, leaving me pages full of X’s and blunt comments about subordinate clauses.

“At this point, what’s the character risking here?” Professor Zilber queried. “Where’s the tension?”

As long as I kept coming back and met my rewrite deadlines, and as long as I was willing to learn (flinching as usual), and as long as I improved my craft—“Good,” Birney said. “You’ve learned all the comma rules”—they willingly taught me. Then, one day, they abandoned me to the cruel world of lonely hours and rejection slips.

Frankly, writing is a hopeless jog on an endless track. But a writer is deeply possessed by that primal obsession, an obsession for which every single word was invented: the need to create and tell a story.

That’s why, even now, working on my fifth book and in my seventieth year, I love mentoring writers.

Who would not mentor those who are constant, who with every rewrite demonstrates he or she has learned to reach that next level of craft; even, perhaps, reached the next rung of their potential. I don’t care how hopeless she or he feels; if the novice shows up and the next bit of writing has improved in some significant way, I breathlessly jog along.

Finally, after some intense meetings between ourselves, with other trusted readers working closely with the promising writer, he or she is now no longer just rewriting, but has reached the ‘re-creating’ level. That is, the narrative is tight and moving; the protagonists risk much; sentences are alive with active verbs and sensual images; the plot-turning story entices me to turn the page. The writer now is way beyond merely jogging. Reading page after enchanting page of a forceful narrative voice, I barely catch my breath. I even forget I am only reading a manuscript. The life force of a fascinating tale overwhelms me. I slam the manuscript down. I promptly say, Goodbye!

No use encouraging the competition.

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