Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mentoring~Pay It Forward

A while back, I received an email from a young woman writer. I’d never met Tammy, although her parents and I were acquainted. In her note, Tammy mentioned that she’d finished her first novel. “My mom told me that you’ve been published...and I was wondering if you have any advice you’d like to share?” Of course.

Tammy sent excerpts of her book, unique and riveting. She was talented. Back and forth, we emailed about editing, publishers and agents. I encouraged her in the face of the inevitable rejections, reminded her of the current tumultuous state of the publishing industry and, when she secured an agent, cyber celebrated with her.
Not long after, I received the email I’d been hoping for. Tammy announced, “My book sold!—for many writers, the three happiest words in the English language. (The most jaded among us say, even happier than “I love you.”)

Reading Tammy’s thank you, I thought, Hurray! another writer launched. Not by me certainly, but with a little nudge from me. I’ve been nudging quite a bit over the last decade. The way I see it, mentoring upcoming talent is not only a pleasure and a privilege, it’s a responsibility. Years ago, I got nudged myself and I’m determined to translate my gratitude into something useful.
When I was in college, three professors took a special interest in me. Harry Lee, a novelist of grand repute in the 1950’s, no longer writing by the time I sat breathlessly absorbing his knowledge of the craft; Shirley Yarnall, my creative writing teacher with two novels and an off-Broadway play under her belt; and Jeanne Roberts, a world renowned Shakespeare scholar who guided the freshman literary magazine. These generous souls didn’t confine their teaching to the classroom. Lee gathered students around him at the local pub where he talked about writing over beer and Cokes. Shirley had English majors sitting at her feet in her living room as she discussed how they could improve their work. In her eighties, Jeanne showed up at one of my book signings so I was able to tell her tearfully how grateful I was for her always challenging me to meet her high standards. Throughout my career, others—mostly in midlife and beyond—mentored me. And now I figure it’s my turn. Many of my friends think the same way.

Nancy Baggett (right) recently held a launch party for her marvelous new book, Simply Sensational Cookies.Well, not just for her book. She made sure to share the spotlight with Jeanne Sauvage and Jeanne’s debut book, Gluten-Free Baking for the Holidays. The women met online when Jeanne adapted one of Nancy’s recipes to a gluten-free version. They met in person at a meeting for culinary professionals and stayed in touch. Later, Jeanne asked Nancy to write the forward for her book. Nancy says, “After testing several recipes, which I thought were fabulous, I agreed.”At the launch party, the beaming first-time author (left) thanked Nancy for her contribution and her friendship. For more on Nancy's book and some great dessert recipes, go to

Richard, a physician, teaches radiology to young doctors heading into his specialty. “I love these kids. Yes, they’re adult men and women, but they’re kids to me—like family. I’ve had a wonderful career. Now it’s payback time.” He not only instructs his students in the medical discipline, he takes an interest in their lives and their futures as he helps propel them toward success.

Alan coaches math to middle schoolers. He gets paid a pittance in dollars for his work. But the rewards are inestimable, he tells me, glowing at the high marks his students receive after he’s gotten them up to, then past, grade.
Toba volunteers to work one-on-one with underachieving high school students—some of them potential drop-outs—encouraging and helping them find within themselves the ability to succeed academically.

In my version of the aphorism, there’s a time to sow, a time to reap, and a time to mentor. So play it forward. Pay it forward. Try mentoring if you want to leave the world a better place than you found it. And there’s a splendid personal bonus attached: as you show newbies the way, you renew your joy in the work you’ve always loved.
Toby Devens


  1. I've been mentoring people in my critique group for the past 30 years. It's a great feeling when someone sells a book that you worked on with them. But even though I do a lot of mentoring, I still need an a little help from my friends. It works both ways. And I think we're never too experienced to take advice when it's needed.

  2. I've benefited from wonderful mentors over the years (Rebecca and you included), so I'm doing what I can in my new locale to pay it forward. It's fun and rewarding, but I always remember why I do it - thanks to friends and mentors like you.

  3. Teaching young people that "it's not how smart you are, it's how you are smart" is so rewarding. Many students have no idea that they can accomplish so much. They've never been asked to do their best. Sometimes they need one-on-one to help them understand their potential. Once, I volunteered to accept the challenge of helping a dyslexic student who was quite capable intellectually, but had never experienced academic success. After a few months of driving a distance to meet him once a week, he challenged me and asked, "Why do you do this?!? Why do you come every week? Why are you so nice to me?"- he still didn't "get it"...
    I responded, " Aren't other people nice to you?"
    "No," he said...not knowing where I was going.
    "Well, they should be!!!!" and that was the end of that discussion. He never asked me again. We worked together for 4 years.
    I always wanted to be a cheerleader in High School, but never even made it to the call-back list.
    I finally found a way to make the squad.
    One of the marvelous things about mid-life is having time to find the way to make your earlier dreams come true.
    Thanks, Toby, for your blog post. Thanks for including me.

  4. Ruth is right--she's been mentoring other writers for decades. For me it's been a much more occasional and very organic thing. For example, I never said to myself, "I going to mentor Jeanne," I just saw an enormous talent, and was given a couple opportunities to help bring a little attention to it. The cookbook biz, and the writing biz in general is a tough one, and it is quite gratifying to help others just coming along the rocky path.

  5. I told N about your post, and he said I should let you know that I was awarded the Washington Romance Writers' Mentoring Award this year. I was in Belgium when they gave it out, and I had to track it down, but it's finally here, where you can see it.

  6. Congrats on that award, Rebecca. You've been an inspiration and a hands-on advisor to scores of writers. And, Nancy, whether one does it in an organized fashion, or as an organic expression of a natural impulse towards generosity, the outcome is the same: people helping people.

  7. Toba, you made the squad and then some!

    Amazing to me that those with the busiest schedules somehow find the time and energy to reach out in service to the community, and to individuals who need their help.