The Perks of Multiple Mentors by Brandon Crilly
I like to think that we’re only as good as the people we learn from (though admittedly I’m a high school teacher, so I’m a little biased) and how effectively we take those examples and mold them into our lives. I’m lucky in that I have multiple mentors, from different parts of my life, who all influence my writing in some respect. Not just the actual nuts and bolts of my craft, but how to approach the various pitfalls and challenges of being a writer. There is no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the guidance of specific individuals, regardless of how much most of them shrug off any show of thanks.
That was one of the main concepts that informed my short story “Wizard-sitting,” recently made available on Onder Librum and a bunch of other platforms, the sheer number of which is a little dizzying. The story focuses on an apprentice scholar, Eyal, desperate to protect her long-time mentor, Lonos, from being discovered by the Hierophar after a journey into the mists awakens his Gift. Like with most fiction, the original vision of the story was very different than the end result: there was going to be more humor, with Lonos as the unworried elder statesman, who’s lived so long that he doesn’t fear death or imprisonment, with Eyal constantly exasperated that he doesn’t try to protect himself more, forcing her and the other apprentices to “wizard-sit” every hour of every day. Over multiple drafts, though, the story became much more serious. The apprentices are anxious and terrified, because they know sooner or later Lonos will be taken. Eyal is particularly worn down, because Lonos is the only family she has, and losing him once when he ventured into the Stormtalons was almost too much for her. And Lonos himself became a much gentler character, while still stubborn and deliberate, leading to some great dialogue between him and Eyal based on how deeply they both care about the other.
The basis for this, like with most writing, is very personal: my mentors are individuals close enough to me that without them, I’d experience a loss very similar to what Eyal fears. I’m not only lucky in the people I can look to for guidance; I’ve also never suffered a major loss from my “family” (which is a broader term than blood, in my dictionary). With that, though, is the anxiety of knowing that will change someday, whether I’m ready for it or not. And it’s that anxiety that feeds into the story of Eyal and Lonos: they know that their days are numbered, whether they’re ready or not.
Equally important are the lessons that Lonos has imparted to Eyal (there’s a rich backstory to their relationship) and so I want to shift a little to focus on that, and the lessons I’ve taken from my multiple mentors. I’m a fan of passing on wisdom (again, teacher) so I’ll share with you some of the main lessons that have gotten me from an unpublished shmuck with delusions of grandeur to a published author with ongoing imposter syndrome (and maybe some accomplishments):
Being a writer who happens to teach is perfectly fine: One of my mentors is a former teacher of mine, who’s now a good friend. When I was just starting out in teaching and writing, I was grappling with how to balance the two in my mind, since being successful in both requires a lot of creativity and energy. He told me that I was either a “teacher who happens to write” or a “writer who happens to teach” – and either is acceptable, but deciding helps to organize your thoughts and avoid feeling like you’re being pulled in multiple directions. At the same time, you give as much as you can to both, not just because one is your day job (which gives me the freedom to write) but because slacking in one could spill into another. Luckily, I hate slacking. But this sense of identity is key, and it’s because of this advice that I know, regardless of my day job, I’m a writer to my core.
Escape your comfort zone: When I was in university, I got into a creative writing program that really set me on the professional writing path. I came into an arguably literary program writing SF, and my professor (another mentor, and a brilliant writer to boot) challenged me to write something totally different and stretch my wings. That particular assignment was the worst mark of my entire time in the program, and I think the only literary story I wrote for her. But I took the lesson: challenge yourself. Sometimes it’ll get you a C. Most times it’ll pay off.
Don’t take yourself seriously: There’s a difference between putting yourself down or falling victim to full-blown imposter syndrome, and avoiding a huge ego through good humor and remembering that published authors aren’t gods (I know, tough to imagine). I will admit that I was prone to self-deprecation too much until recently, but there’s something to be said for making jokes at your own expense. Like one of the writers I admire the most, you will never see me espouse my own greatness, or pretend like I know secrets about the craft or (gods forbid) everything a younger writer should know. Writers are just people, after all – odd, screwed up, sometimes downright insane people, and pointing that out sometimes is actually a good way to relieve the pressure. Particularly when you’re on a deadline.
Your first should be your very best: My final mentor (who, in the corniest way possible, happens to be my dad) has always been a supporter of my writing, and one of the few individuals who will critically look at something I’ve written and tell me exactly what he thinks – which, as I’m sure writers will agree, is a golden quality. Admittedly, he thinks that a literary story published five years ago is my best work, even after twenty-some-odd published works in SFF. But he also gave me one of my earliest pieces of advice on the craft, and one of the best I’ve ever received: your first at something should always be your best. Whether it’s the first published short story, or first novel, or first big interview, or whatever, it should be something you can be proud of, even as you improve upon and produce better or stronger things. Why? Because your first only happens once, and if you screw it up, you can’t ever get it back.
With that, I will say in no uncertain terms, and in the spirit of shameless self-promotion, that “Wizard-sitting” fits that last piece of advice perfectly. I could not be happier that this is my first TEGG story to be published. Over the course of writing it, as I injected more of my anxieties and elements of my relationships with my mentors, I came to admire Eyal and Lonos and really care about them (even as I made their lives miserable, as writers do). If you happen to pick up the story, I hope you feel the same way.