Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Mentoring Aspiring Writers

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A few months ago a former student who was looking for ongoing support around her writing project approached me. This student, let’s call her S, was in a class I taught at a community college many years ago. Subsequently she took a private workshop that I ran. Now she wanted to know whether I would be willing to receive her work, in installments, then read and comment on it?

Despite an over-full schedule I agreed to be her mentor. I was flattered to be approached with such a request. But more importantly, I know all too well the inspirational effect of having a more established writer take and interest and provide feedback on work in development. It’s a position of honour and privilege to be a mentor of any kind, really. Having benefited from mentorship when I was starting out as a novelist, I’m happy now to respond in kind.

Teaching and mentoring have been part of my identity as a writer almost since I began to publish. At this point, I’ve been doing both for over a decade – at the University of Toronto, George Brown College, through the Writers In Electronic Residence (WIER) program, which partners middle and high school English students from across the country with established writing mentors. I’ve worked as a Writer-In-Residence within several public libraries, facilitated private workshops and classes, and mentored within the Humber School for Writers Correspondence Program.

Although no one can teach you how to capture your soul and translate it onto a page, a good writing instructor can certainly help you improve your technical skills, recognize and strengthen your voice, and coach you to express your unique imagination with conviction. A good writing mentor acts as a cheerleader, helping to ease insecurity through the writing process, and s/he offers honest feedback on drafts.

As I receive monthly submissions from S, I am reminded of the nerve it takes to share your work-in-progress, and the near breathless ambition it takes for aspiring writers to claim the identity of “writer’. I remember before my first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence was published that when I would dare say I was a writer often the first question to come my way was, “Well, what have you published?” When this happens aspiring writers usually blush then swallow the lumps in their throats. They try to hide their self- doubt and maintain their already fragile confidence in the face of external challenge.

As a writing mentor it’s my job to provide that confidence until the writer can forge confidence for him or herself. It’s also my job to teach the writer how to develop their skills and identify areas of strength. I hope I demystify the writing process, and provide an example of one way forward. I remind aspiring writers that we must all find our own way forward. The key, of course, is no great mystery. The key is to focus on the writing.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Elizabeth Ruth

Elizabeth Ruth’s first novel, Ten Good Seconds of Silence, was a finalist for the Writers Trust of Canada Fiction Prize, the Best First Novel Award and the City of Toronto Book Award and was named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine, the Vancouver Sun and the London Free Press. Smoke, her second novel, was chosen for the One Book, One Community program and also named a top 10 book of the year by NOW Magazine. Her most recent novel, Matadora, will be published in April, 2013 by Cormorant Books.

Go to Elizabeth Ruth’s Author Page