Why Bad Writers Are Good Mentors
Let me tell you about my best coach.
He was a running coach, mostly worked with distance runners.
He taught me how to train, how to coach, how to recruit students who’d never thought of running (it’s as easy as taking interest in their lives and saying something along the lines of “Why don’t you come out and run with us? I think you’d like it, and I think you’d be a fun person to have out on the track.”).
In just a year, he took me from shitty runner to...not embarrassing runner. And over a few more years, he turned me into a pretty decent coach.
My coach is a good guy, and he was a great coach.
Notice that I haven’t said anything about his personal athleticism yet?
Look, I love this guy, and I don’t want to say anything negative about him. He played football when he was in college, and he was built for it.
I had coaches who were WAY faster on the track. I had a coach who was an Olympic hopeful in his day. I had a coach who was on American Gladiators! And while they could’ve put a whoopin’ on this coach, no sweat, they were not the awesome coaches that this guy was.
The best coaches and the best athletes aren’t always the same people.
The best writing mentors and the best writers aren’t always the same people, either.
Before you get all up in my face, notice the difference between these two phrases:
Sometimes, bad writers are good mentors.
Being a bad writer makes you a good mentor.
See the difference? I’m not advocating that you find the worst writer available and pick them as your mentor. I’m advocating that you consider factors other than the NYT bestseller list when you’re looking for a mentor.
When they’re looking at coaches, a foolish boxer will pick a great fighter. A smart boxer will pick a great coach.
What You Learn When You Suck
Someone who is naturally talented can walk onto a golf course and smack a perfect drive like it’s nothing.
Someone who isn’t so talented walks onto a golf course and absolutely drills the ball onto the roof of a nearby(ish) house. Just hypothetically this happened to...someone. Who has no business playing golf and has a set of clubs with the thrift store price tags still on ‘em.
When you’re naturally talented, you can get away with sloppy habits. You can practice less. Miss a training day? Eh, no biggie. If you’re a talented writer, you can bang out a short story the day before workshop, show up, and people will mostly be impressed.
A good mentor has struggled, and in their struggles, they learn little tricks to shave a few seconds off your 5K. They learn cues that help you add 1 pound to your best deadlift. They learn that the little things make a tiny difference, and they know that if you’re not naturally talented, you have to do a hundred of those little things, cobble together a hundred tiny little tricks, all to compete on at the level of “decent.”
A mentor who is naturally talented doesn't have as deep a toolbox. When something isn't right, they're not as quick to figure out where things went wrong and how to get them back on track. A mentor who’s struggled for every little gain, every little skill, they’ll know how to solve your problems, and they can teach you to solve problems for yourself.
Great athletes are used to BEING the high water mark, not coaching someone to it. Whether it’s ego about being replaced or ego regarding what the upper limit should be, naturally talented, triple-A athletes struggle when they have to coach someone beyond their own personal levels of achievement.
A writer who hasn’t seen a lot of personal success, they’re very used to working with people who are more talented than they are. That doesn’t phase them whatsoever. It feels normal and natural for the student to surpass the teacher.
If your mentor has an ego problem, it becomes your problem, and what’s so diabolical is that it’s a problem you can’t solve for your mentor. You’re stuck until they grow up.
Coaches and mentors growing and improving, that’s a great thing. But they need to do that on their time, not yours.
Good Enough is Good Enough
Most athletes have a non-elite coach that gets them started. Usually a high school coach. Most athletes don’t stick with that coach forever.
When you’re looking for a writing mentor, don’t worry about shooting for perfection right off. Stop thinking about your next mentor as your one and only mentor who has to be with you all the way through your career.
Stop thinking about starting at the tippy-top with your mentor. If you’re running a 30-minute 5K, you don’t need an elite coach. You just need a good coach.
If you need a writing mentor, chances are you don’t need an elite mentor. Just a good one.
Learning Something Else
There was this one time, I'm on the bus with my coach and a bunch of other coaches. These other coaches, they're talking about how high school and college, that's the best part of life. While they're re-living their glory days, my coach, he doesn't interrupt anyone, but he leans over to me and he says, "Don't listen to them. Whatever part of my life I'm in, that's the best part. If the best part of your life is in high school, that's sad. You'll live a lot of years on the downhill if you go that way."
My coach taught me a bunch of running drills, and he taught me a lot of other stuff, too.
If the only thing you'll get out of your mentor/student relationship is the technical knowledge, then you don't need a mentor. You need a manual.
Find someone you can get along with. Find someone who has the time and the inclination to help you. Even if your writing doesn't improve a ton, if you have a good relationship with your mentor, you'll have something new to write about.
Get Elements of the Writing Craft by Robert Olmstead at Amazon
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