On the Importance of Author Mentoring
I often tell folks that one of the reasons I love working in the world of publishing — in any aspect; as author, publisher, event coordinator, instructor — is that by and large, the other people in this industry are truly great. Yes, there are a few overblown egos and perhaps an author or two who’s too busy envying a peer’s success to be happy for them. You find those types in every field. But by an overwhelming margin, this industry is populated with interesting, interested, kind, caring, diligently hardworking, decent and deeply generous people who sincerely want to see each other do well.
And they walk their talk, let me tell you. In no other place have I witnessed the kind of selfless outreach to those on their way up or to those who don’t quite believe they can do it yet, by those in a position to lend a helping hand. You are almost certain that it’s not motivated by self-interest or the hope of some kind of return (other than, perhaps, a little interest gained on such investment in the Great Karma Bank), because in almost every circumstance, those who can help are no longer in need of such aid themselves. Usually, they’ve already “made it,” whatever “it” means to them. It’s this position of comfort and security that allows them to look beyond themselves to those still struggling to find their place in the great world of books.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. There is always that person who, regardless how hard s/he is working toward his/her own success, somehow finds the time, energy and interest to still hold out a hand to help a fellow scribbler learn the professional ropes, find an effective new tool or technique, or to make a needed connection. And never underestimate the importance of these small kindnesses, for there are at least as many stairways to heaven built of tiny bricks and cobblestones rather than mighty slabs of granite.
Certainly I have been the beneficiary of such spiritual largesse more than once. Countless times, for reasons that often still mystify me, someone saw something in me that sparked such uncommon kindness. From my first English teachers who encouraged my early, clumsy attempts at creative writing; to my high school newspaper advisor who saw that I could never quite make peace with the inverted pyramid form yet still told me to stick with it; to my college professor who agreed to write the foreword to my first history book; to the many author colleagues who cheered me on as I “went for it” as an independent publisher when a contract fell through too late to find another publisher and still meet the deadline for my marketing hook; to the other indie publishers who constantly help me navigate this unsettled, revolutionary industry that never looks the same on any given day.
And equally certain is the knowledge that rarely can I pay these people back, because, as described above, most of them don’t really need my help anymore. And so it falls to me, and to others who similarly benefit, to pay it forward. It’s incumbent upon each of us to remain aware of those around us, so we may recognize those who may also be struggling as we once did, and to reach out that helping hand to offer advice, a listening ear, and maybe just a little hope. Someday, it will be their turn to do the same.
And that brings me to the particular example of this point that I’d like to share, one that points out that no matter how far you’ve come along this path as a writer and an author, there is always someone doing better than you are, and there’s always someone who could use your help. The grace of the situation enters when we remain humble enough to recognize that truth.
About a month ago, one of the more well-known Southern authors writing popular fiction today was honored with an award named after one of the most famous American authors of all time. Such an award is, in itself, such a massive validation of one’s lifetime body of work, it’s hard to imagine a greater honor. Until you imagine what it would be like if the famous author after whom the award was named shows up to present you that award herself, in person. And that’s what I want to share with you here.
Of course, anyone who knows me knows that Fannie Flagg‘s wonderful book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is my second-favorite book of all time, in large part because it inspired my favorite movie of all time, by the same name. But that work, for which Flagg also won a screenwriting award, and her book were just a part of the body of work for which she was honored. And she was given the award by Harper Lee herself, author of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird and whose name is carried by the referenced award.
Now if that isn’t the epitome of grace on Lee’s part, I just don’t know what is. I mean, this woman is literary royalty. She doesn’t need to bother herself to leave her comfortable home and traipse to some hot venue to give away a statue to someone who still aspires to breathe the same atmosphere. But she did. And apparently, it wasn’t the first time she’d made the effort to help an up-and-comer whose talent she recognized and believed in. No, there’s a long history of nurturing between these two incredible artists, and its story touched me and reminded me that fully half of what makes books wonderful is the experience we gain on the way to being able to write them. This article tells one of those heartening stories, and I just thought you’d like it, too.
May it continue to remind us all that none of us is ever too small to be worthy of a little encouragement, nor too big to be above lending a hand when we can. I hope that when it’s your turn to need help, you accept it with grace, and that when it’s your turn to give help, you do it with gratitude for the opportunity to give back.