This is Why I Mentor Young Writers

I was chatting with a friend today about the difference between a job and a career.  I proposed that the difference between a job and a career is that a job is just about making a paycheck, while a career is about making yourself better.  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized there’s another part to that job-career dynamic.  A career is also encourages you to make other people better.

So maybe you’re not a rocket scientist or a civil defense attorney or an FBI agent or a garbage man, but you’re something.  And whatever you are, there’s always someone new trying to figure out how to get started in your field.  For us, that’s copywriting or publishing or whatever — we exist in the ether between fantasy and cash money — and I think that’s the most important reason in the world to actively seek out and encourage the next generation.

Long Ago and Far Away…

When I was young, I was blessed with a series of very important and influential mentors.  People who kicked my ass, who inspired me, who showed me how to get things done and above all else, gave me a chance to put those lessons into motion.  From that second grade teacher who tried to humiliate me for writing stories in class instead of doing the lessons to junior high English teachers who encouraged me to write instead of paying attention, high school artist and writers who helped me get my first real gigs, the editors at those gigs who beat me into a finely honed tool, college professors who gave me long lectures about perseverance and finding my own dreams during their office hours and even that editor who hired me to write when I thought I’d be taking pictures, I’ve been blessed with people who pushed me, molded me and made me better.

It would be a moral failing on my end to not mentor.

Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I had anything to share with others, though.  I didn’t think I could be a teacher.  Then this girl came along and changed everything.  She wanted to be a copywriter, or she thought she did, and I didn’t figure it hurt to give her a shot.  I mean, someone gave me a shot, so why not, right?

That kid changed everything.  Through mentoring her, I learned a lot about myself and relived the difficulty of finding my feet in the world of publishing and writing.  I might have started back in a time when newspapers were still a thing and the Internet was just a place to look at low-res porno, but it isn’t all that different today.

You may have forgotten that breaking into writing for a living is tough.  You have to have experience to get the good jobs, but you can’t get experience at doing that level of work without having any experience.  It’s one of those snake eating its own tail sort of things.  Once you have 20 years of writing experience, well, it’s no big thing — but when you have nothing more than a freshly minted degree and a song in your heart, you’re on the slow climb.

Unless someone gives you a hand up.

Being a Good Mentor

Being a good mentor means being available.  It means proofing the same fucking piece of disaster copy five or six times and giving very detailed and specific feedback so the kid in question learns.  Being a good mentor means never saying no to your kid’s reasonable requests, to turning them on to opportunities you’d have loved when you were them.  It means doing twice the work for the same amount of pay, even though you know the likelihood that your student will fail is high.

Mentoring is a selfless act.  But it’s also a selfish act, don’t fool yourself.  By building a better tomorrow, you’ll have a lot lower risk that you’re going to have to deal with fucking idiots in your field down the line.  You’ll keep your profession strong, you’ll reinforce those ideas that made your profession great.  You pass down the lessons you learned the hard way — because, let’s face it, the hard way sucks.  That’s part of the reason I write this blog.  I do it for you.

For those of you who believe in bootstrapping (that is, that we should all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps), you’re the worst type of human.  No one gets to where they’re going alone.  We all need and deserve a guide.  You don’t have to give your kid a client, but you damn well better teach them how to fish one up.

I only take on a few kids a year, but there’s absolutely nothing more thrilling than having one of them come back and tell me they’ve landed a private client.  Nothing better.  It’s better than landing my own new jobs, by a long shot.  I encourage you to reach out to new talent, see what it’s like.  You never know who you might end up saving from a life more ordinary.