I had a very interesting conversation last night about mentors, submissions, and punctuation. My friend, in a moment that sounded a lot like despair, wanted to know where her mentor was. “I can’t do this myself,” she said.
I know of a few amazing mentor stories. A woman whose teacher sent her poetry manuscript to the right editor. Someone who shared her agent’s personal phone number. There’s the inspiring story of Christopher Paolini and his mother with her small press. (And perhaps we should mention all those manuscripts typed by dedicated wives — but that’s history, right?) I have been known to go through a student’s manuscript and insert all the commas. (Particularly around the interjections in dialogue.)
But I also know a woman with an MFA in screenwriting, who until this past year (and she is my age) never sent out a screenplay. I know poets who have never submitted a poem. I am good at submitting poems — thank you, Nelson Bentley — but I have a very hard time submitting my short stories. I get a rejection, and don’t send another story out for YEARS. After being invited by an agent to submit my novel manuscript, it took 2 years before I actually put it in the mail. What can I call that except paralysis?
My conversation was with a very dear friend who has also been my mentor — at times. (I like to fancy that, at times, I have been her mentor.) One concept she has taught me is “aporia.” David Lodge, in The Art of Fiction, defines aporia thus: “a Greek word meaning ‘difficulty, being at a loss,’ literally, ‘a pathless path,’ a track that gives out.” But here’s the real point — aporia points to exactly the place where you must go.
When you hear yourself saying, “I can’t,” then you know what you absolutely must do. For heaven’s sake, do your work. And send it out. It may look as though the path gives out, but in truth it’s just getting more interesting.