I read a tweet earlier from a #FicFest mentor. She’s sad about all the people whose entry she can’t pick and feels like she’s crushing their dreams. I’m sure this feeling troubles most, if not all, of the contest judges/mentors, since they are themselves not that far removed from the query trenches, and (being imaginative sorts of writerly people) probably have lots of empathy for what we (the contestants) are currently feeling, and what the majority of us will feel when the results are announced. Anyway, it got me thinking about what it means to be a mentor, both in this contest and other places, like my classroom.
First: Being a positive role model in the position of official mentor is beneficial to everybody who sees you, not just the individual(s) you actually mentor. The more successful people we see helping out, the more hope we have, and the more the abilities and the attitude of the general group improve.
Second: Do the FicFest mentors crush the dreams of those they don’t pick? I suppose you could look at it that way, but it’s only a very small, very specific dream: that of winning FicFest. The big dreams–writing a book, seeking publication, looking in the mirror and calling yourself an author–those will be just fine. Failing to advance to the agent round will be disappointing but will have no more effect on our overall careers than a low grade on an assignment has on my students’ overall journey toward their degree. Additionally, I’ve found that students (especially the good ones) frequently learn more from the wake-up call of a low grade. They step back and seriously assess their work to figure out what they did wrong and how to make it better. As mentors, it’s crucial that we remember failure can be helpful (although it doesn’t feel nearly as good to hand out).
Finally: You can’t help everybody, and mentors have a tendency to fixate on that. Sure, we’ve helped a handful, but what is that compared to the hundreds, nay, BILLIONS that we haven’t? There’s a bit from a historical novel I read in high school that’s always stuck with me. The heroine has a conversation with a doctor who has spent his entire career working for the poor. He says, “When I look at all the suffering surrounding me, I feel as though my life has been a waste. The few that I’ve helped are only a drop in the ocean.” And the heroine replies, “The people you’ve helped don’t feel like a drop in the ocean.” For the people we help–for the FicFest contestant who gets picked or the student who comes into the classroom thinking she can’t write and walks out knowing she can–it’s a game changer. As mentors, we can’t help everybody, but for those we do, the potential impact is limitless.