On Having a Mentor
My work in progress is a memoir about my experiences growing up being parented by a mother with Bi Polar. Last year I applied and was successful in receiving an Arts Victoria grant to work on this book and a part of this grant was to receive mentorship with Alice Pung. I've been wanting to write about the mentorship process for a while, but wanted to feel far enough along in the process to have something valuable to say.
Having a mentor to work on a project is an incredibly valuable commodity. While I've written and had published various short stories and novels, when it came to my memoir I really felt like I wanted the extra support from an external person in the development of this project.
As a writer I am always too close to my work and struggle to maintain an objective editorial view, and with a memoir this is doubly so, after all this is all about me, my worldview, my memories, my selection of what is important. And because it is all about me it is even more of a struggle to take that step back and think of the reader and providing them a satisfying narrative. There are also so many other things to think about when working on this memoir such as ensuring that I maintain cultural sensitivities, and not exploiting my mother’s voice, and this is where Alice comes in. She has been my objective eye who is able to read my work and advise me on things I’m unsure about. Who is able to guide me and most importantly encourage me.
We first started the mentorship in July 2014. I set a schedule of when I was going to complete each section of the book and sent it to Alice. The idea was that I would finish the book in a year. It seemed to be going well. I wrote the first third which came to nearly 30,000 words. Then it came time to start the second third, but I couldn’t do it. Writing that first part took an emotional toll and I found that I needed to pause the process and just take a time out and work on something else.
In the meantime Alice received and read my first part. She prepared an incredibly thorough report about the partial and really helped me figure out the narrative voice and structure. She also validated me and reaffirmed that the book worked, something I desperately needed to hear.
While working on a project there is always this double-edged sword where I’m going between delusions of grandeur, and pits of despair. There are days when I think I’m writing the book, you know the one, the book that will change the world, that will become a canon of literature and last a lifetime and beyond. Then there are the days when I feel like an imposter and fraud and wonder why did I ever think I had anything of value to say. I find that these two voices in my head are even more prevalent when I’m working on my memoir. I feel so vulnerable and exposed just in the process of writing and have to switch of the idea of an external reader and just focus on writing this book and getting it out of my head. Having Alice’s encouraging words to hold onto has given me much needed comfort and impetus to cling to as I fight myself to write this book.
Finally, months later I began working on the second part of 30,000 words and I’ve sent that off. Now it’s time to start the last third and work on finishing the book, but again I’m pausing and treading water. Each time I begin working on a new section I have this moment of dread and abject fear. I desperately want to finish this book that I’ve been trying to write for 20 years, and yet I’m scared to. Once it’s finished I’ll have to deal with the process of submission, and hopefully publication. And while I’m desperate to get to this stage, I’m terrified too. This is where the judgement will begin and there will be no protection from it. It won’t be about a fiction novel I invented, it will be about me, and I can’t think of anything more exposing.
Again this is where having a mentor has been a lifesaver. I have someone I am accountable to and so when I struggle, I have motivation to keep going because there is one reader waiting for my book.
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Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher who draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write own voices stories for young people, who like her, are searching to mediate their identity and take pride in their diverse culture. She writes memoir, young adult and romance under the pen name Mae Archer.
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