FIELD NOTES :: CAITS MEISSNER’s TRANSCRIBING THE JOURNEY :: PT 2 :: How To Find Your Perfect Mentor
“Finding Your Perfect Mentor” is the second weekly episode of Poet / Artist / Educator Caits Meissner‘s “TRANSCRIBING THE JOURNEY,” our newest FIELD NOTES series-within-a-series. Bald and brave, these process notes offer not only a remarkable look inside the creative process but also include selections from #caitsprompts, her ongoing social media catalyst / feed. (available on twitter) Read the series introduction here.
How To Find Your Perfect Mentor
This morning I woke to a quiet chorus of birds in New York City. A rarity, and in my neighborhood, the absence of raucous Bachata blasting was a welcome reprieve after the heavy rain. It was the perfect ambience to drink in an email that had arrived in my inbox from Roger Mitchell, one of my favorite poets and friends, who happens to be approximately 80 years old, making him roughly 50 years my senior. In it, he talks life, writing, encouragement- all in a literary tone that makes an email read more like an old fashioned letter, filled with treasures, quips and stories. I was inspired to share my history of collecting incredible mentors with you, in hopes it helps you find your own. Editor’s note: Read along with me, or bookmark for later, when you are able to drink it in. It’s a long one, but it’s worth it.
I first met Roger, who is wonderfully accomplished, through my father, his hiking partner in the Adirondack Mountains. My father handed me his book, and I rolled my eyes, young and full of judgement for what these poems would be (old, white, boring.) Instead, I cracked the book open and found a voice that deeply resonated with my own. Poems that propelled poems out of me. Poems that transcended age and reached out the the infinite spectrum of existence.
At once, I reached out to Roger- and for the past six years, have considered him sounding board, mentor and friend. And now, I receive emails with wonderful bits of intimacy, such as this one:
“So, I’ve got into the habit of reading bits and pieces of John Ashbery’s poetry just before sleep. He is something else, convinces me that the mind–before grammar or logic enters it–is a big
place we ought not leave too far behind. Not exactly news, but his demonstrations are vastly convincing.” (Thank you for the beautiful reminder of Ashbury’s brilliance, Roger!)
Reading it, I feel a rush of gratitude zoom up through my spirit. I have crossed the threshold. I have become a receiver of the stories that don’t make it into the books. I learn by listening. This is mentorship at its most organic, it’s most beautiful.
But how do we find our mentors?
I have women friends in their 30’s struggling to find a mentor and have no idea where to locate them. Similarly, years ago a young woman approached me asking me to be her mentor- we hadn’t met in person and the request arrived over the Internet. She said she had been searching for a mentor and I seemed to hold all the qualities she was seeking. I found it wildly flattering and touching, but somewhere in me, I knew it wasn’t going to work. And it didn’t grow, just as I’d suspected, into a natural, blossoming relationship, because it had no foundation from which to flourish. Instead, it was a cute title we used when we bumped heads in public. No depth or true exchange occurred. And to no fault of anyone’s, we just weren’t the right fit in these roles.
Mentorship happens much as romantic relationships do- there is a spark, or their isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Here are some ways to cultivate life and put out feelers for your inspired, organic, connected mentor:
1. PUTTING YOURSELF OUT THERE.
When I was first stepping on a stage to deliver poems, I hid behind a voice I mimicked from others and wrote, even, in a voice that didn’t reflect my own. It was a learning curve, but also a tactic I used to stay safe, pretending to be like the people I saw winning accolades. Luckily, I had Tishon, one of my dear friends, who was honest with me when the pieces didn’t resonate for these reasons. Eventually, his constructive critiques sunk in and I began to write the way I wanted to, which propelled me to get on stage at louderArts- a venue that both tremendously inspired me and profoundly scared me. The poets at this venue were my favorites and they were monstrous writers. And though wonderful individuals, they were also known for not always being the most welcoming bunch and sighs, eye rolls and disinterest would seep to the front of stage from the dark corners back of the room.
In a fit of bravery, I chose to read a new poem on the stage- Motherf *cker #1, which was a literary/image-driven poem depicting the life of a low level rock star man. It was from experience, having been relational with an ego maniac in the community, and the piece seemed to hit it home. Lynne Procope, poet I admired kneeled down in front of me, “Where did you come from?” She asked, “And when are you coming back?” I’ve never forgotten that one moment and how welcomed I felt.
Soon after, five women who co-ran the venue invited me to participate in a workshop alongside four other young women. They were grooming us to “be the next them”- and though we all grew into our own versions of ourselves, the experience was invaluable. Most valuable was that true connection developed and of those women has stayed in my life as one of my dearest friends, and is still a poet I consider a mentor.
(This is a loud shout out to Marty McConnell, who just won the Independent Publisher Award and for her book of poetry, Wine For A Shotgun!)
The lesson: Do things that scare you and put your work into the world. Step on a scary stage, write and submit your work, go to a networking event. Put yourself in clear view of people you aspire to be like.
2. REACHING OUT A HAND FOR GENUINE CONNECTION
Back even further, at the tender age of 17, I was a camp counselor in the deep woods of upstate New York. The overnight camp was artsy, Unitarian-oriented and working there was some of the most fun and poignant summers of my life. In this setting is where I met Janice (pronounced Jah-Niece), who had arrived to lead middle schoolers in interactive programming around diversity, acceptance, race and privilege. Though it was a tall task, Janice was one of the most incredible people I had met- even laying eyes on her colorful, gorgeous person was a treat, the wrapped locks and deep skin and silver jewels- and I was instantly drawn to her warm spirit.
However, the camp was entirely comprised of white liberals, and as savvy as they thought they were when it came to politics, many of them floundered in the day to day of living aware- especially without having had access to people who were different from them. Janice picked up almost immediately on racist nuances, her daughter and niece who had joined as campers felt ostracized and “exotic,” and clung to my activities in the art shop instead of making the kind of deep friendships that normally characterize sleep away camp.
My best friend Ella and I had already been spending the summer digging into our radical politics when Janice and her family arrived. Instantly, we stepped up and began to listen, problem solve and help work through what was being exhibited at the camp that made Janice feel unwelcome. Though we were over twenty years younger than Janice, we were able to provide a safe space, and in turn, learn a great deal from this powerful woman. And it was just my luck that in the fall I was moving to Brooklyn, where Janice lives. She took me in, gave me a job where I worked alongside her, and a home when I had a bad roommate experience. Eleven years later I still call her my BK Mom, she’s married my husband and I and her daughter and I have curated shows together, dear friends.
The lesson: When drawn to a person as a potential mentor, figure out how you can support them and reach out genuinely. Figure out what are the unique gifts you have to offer and fill a need. Of course this is best when it happens without thought (Ella and I didn’t scheme on this, our hearts simply jumped up to help because we were moved to), but it doesn’t hurt to do a little thinking first, too.
(Extra hugs to Janice Marie Johnson who just finished her PhD in Multifaith Ministries and works as Multicultural Ministries and Leadership Director for the Unitarian Universalist Association. Hi Mom!)
3. BE YOUR BEST SELF
When I first began teaching in public schools, I knew I’d found a large part of my calling. While I can be humble about my artistry- and doubtful and insecure- there is one thing I will never downplay, and that is my teaching ability. I rock the classroom and I know it. Not to say all of my classes have always gone smoothly- they haven’t- but I have what it takes to create transformative experiences with a wide breadth of people. And I have also been transformed by my students. In my journey, much of my learning and enthusiasm was attributed to my Program Manager, Allison.
While Allison was unparalleled in her support to all the teaching artists she worked with, taking time above and beyond what was asked of her to help guide and shape our life as successful educators- we developed a special connection. I, too, was sparked by teaching in a very deep way and wanted to celebrate all of my stories from the classroom with Allison. When I needed her guidance, I asked. Sometimes she gave it to me when I didn’t ask and needed it.
We became a team, and wonderful friends in the process, but Allison has always been a voice of reason, wisdom, inspiration and comfort for me. If Allison likes it, I know it’s a success. She does not let me off the hook easily, but she gushes when it’s deserved. Through doing my best and pushing my own boundaries as an educator, I’d attracted Allison because she saw herself in me and wanted to cultivate my abilities.
The lesson: Why would a mentor want to work with you? Because you are already doing great work! A mentor wants to cultivate gifts that are already apparent and they trust a potential mentee who is self motivated and putting their best foot forward. Often our mentors see themselves in us, and therefore, feel they can help us in our similar journeys. So, whatever you do, do it well.
(High fives and cheek kisses to Allison Millewski who has been teaching photography in Cambodia and other areas is South East Asia through her phenomenal organization, PhotoForward.)
Follow me on social media [@caitsmeissner] to receive an abundant flow of #CaitsPrompts!
4. MAKING MEANINGFUL INTRODUCTIONS
My father has always been the king of making my connections to meaningful people- and not just Roger as listed above. When I was a thirteen year old, bored out of my mind in the mountain town where we’d spend our summers, my father assembled a team of his artist friends to each take a day of my week vacation to mentor me. Day one was blind contour drawing by the river with Vry, day two pottery on Barbara’s wheel, then poetry with Tam.
When I moved to New York dad introduced me to Beth Mount, and given our shared interest in disability advocacy, art and using it to make a just world, we began working together. Beth was my entry point into seeing how my art could support social change and gave me my first freelance jobs. We’d commune over dried mango and coffee at her apartment (which was covered- every inch- in a bright collage of patterns, photographs, art and sculptures.) These pre-meeting sharing sessions sparked me to find how my work, too, could help people through creativity.
Even though it was with my father’s help, it was meaningful. He knew who I would relate to and sussed out the mentors ability to relate to me, as well. The connections held gifts for both parties and made sense (well, the friends in the mountains certainly were doing Dad a favor, but still.) I now try to also pass on meaningful connections for relationships when I feel two individuals can really benefit one another (and I have lots of success stories! I’m a yenta of mentas- get it?)
The lesson: All jokes aside, I do believe that what we put out in the world is often gifted back to us, which is to say, if you help others make meaningful connections, connections will begin to be made for you. But don’t introduce two people who may be a burden to one another. Be mindful and intentional of who you are connecting.
5. BE PATIENT.
Not everyone is going to have time or energy to be your mentor. If you are approaching someone on the Internet you admire, chances are they have gotten a number of emails like this already, which means they are highly desired. If they do not personally reply to you, they are not necessarily an selfish jerk, they are probably just overwhelmed and overbooked.
This is not to say you shouldn’t reach out- but perhaps an ask for mentorship is too much. Start small and allow a relationship to unravel. What can you offer your dream mentor? Support? Internship? Marketing? Kind and honest words? If the connection doesn’t happen organically through in-person circumstance, then you may have to do a bit of conscious cultivating.
And if it doesn’t work, move on. There is something very special about being mentored through someone’s songs or poems or art from afar. Often people offer courses or workshops to fill these needs, which can be incredibly fulfilling experiences. They are already giving you their best. Cherish that knowledge and then, open and space and energy to connect to someone who is the right mentor for you. Someone who will read your work from time to time, share life lessons, advice, open the door to opportunities, invite you in to their process.
Best of luck in finding your mentor. They are out there for you!
For more information on Becoming a Fearless Writer, accessing your authentic voice and owning your power through words, join me for this free teleclass!
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Transcribing the Journey is a series of journal entries where Caits reflects on the journey of writing- her trials, tribulations, growth and thought processes- to share in communion with you, dear writer! Follow along here, or on her blog, and feel free to share out!
Winner of the OneWorld Poetry Contest, Caits Meissner attended the 2008 Pan-African Literary Forum in Ghana, studying under Yusef Komunyakaa. She has been published in various journals and books, including Saul Williams’ recent anthology, CHORUS. Her poetry/music album was released to online acclaim through sites such as Okayplayer. The Letter All Your Friends Have Written You, Caits’ collaborative poetry book with poet Tishon, arrived January 2012 on the Well&Often
imprint, a press where she also serves as Founding/Education Editor. She has performed at venues such as Joe’s Pub, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Highline Ballroom, NYU, Columbia University, The Kitchen and the Blue Note Jazz Cafe.