You hear it all the time: women don’t help other women; women undermine one another at work rather than lift each other up. But pretty much every success I’ve had in my career has come from the support of other women. I’ve been lucky to have multiple mentors who have changed my life. Here are three lessons I learned from three mentors that shed light on how to find a mentor, and keep her.
1) Good mentees start by giving. (The get will come.) One of the most important mentors in my life is the literary lioness Francine Prose. We met fifteen years ago when I was a graduate student at Columbia, and I was awarded a fellowship where I was given a stipend to help her with research for a book. In exchange, Francine would read my work. I was supposed to put in ten hours a week, but I didn’t count them; instead I went above and beyond what the letter of our agreement stipulated. I also asked for nothing more, and sometimes less, of Francine’s time than I was “owed.”
This might make it sound like I allowed her to take advantage of me, but I was aiming for a longer-term relationship beyond the one-semester fellowship. Sure enough, when the fellowship ended, she asked me to continue working for her. Fifteen years later, Francine has blurbed both of my books, and has become a good friend. But even now, when we make dinner plans, I go to her neighborhood (or to her house). I don’t ask her to come to mine. And that’s how it should be.
2) Be open to ways to deliver and receive value that don’t involve money. When Gloria Feldt was writing her book No Excuses, I had just founded the online site for women writers SheWrites.com with Deborah Siegel, who introduced us. Gloria was looking for an editor, and in the past I’d charged $60 an hour for my time. But Gloria made me a different offer. Rather than paying me, she suggested, she would act as an advisor as I took my first shot at running a company.
I spent many hours working with Gloria on her book, but I didn’t keep track of them. Instead, I bided my time, knowing that when the moment came, I had someone with more than thirty years of experience as a leader and CEO in my back pocket.
Sure enough, a few months into She Writes’ existence I had to fire an employee under very stressful and difficult circumstances. I called Gloria, who was at the Phoenix airport waiting to get on a flight. I took out a paper and pen, and for twenty minutes, she walked me through exactly what I had to do, what to say, and how to best manage the process with my staff and the organization, answering every one of my questions and then asking me questions that hadn’t even have occurred to me. The right mentor, at precisely the right moment? Priceless.
3) Go with your gut. Without question, the love of my mentor-life was the late Diane Middlebrook, the poet, biographer, and feminist best known for her seminal biography of Anne Sexton.
Diane and I met in London when I was in my late twenties and she was in her early sixties, and at first blush it wasn’t obvious what we could do for each other. Her field, biography, is very specialized and academic; as a memoir writer, the world I wanted to be in (I thought) wasn’t the one she occupied.
But Diane saw something in me from the moment we met, and Diane always followed her instincts with gusto. So she invited me to lunch. We talked for three hours. Even then it wasn’t clear what we could do together; what was clear was how much we liked each other, with that rare warmth and quickness of connection that characterizes the beginnings of so many important relationships.
Months later, Diane grabbed my arm at a cocktail party she’d invited me to and said, “I’ve got it! We’ll start a salon together.” A salon for women writers, to talk about the craft and business of writing. We did it, and that salon became the foundation for SheWrites.com, and She Writes is the foundation for She Writes Press, and this month, my first novel, Wishful Thinking, came out with SWP. It’s about a divorced mother of two (like me) who gets a time travel app on her phone that lets her be in more than once place at a time. The physicist who invented it? Dr. Diane Sexton. She’s brilliant, she’s unforgettably original, and she and the main character, Jennifer Sharpe, fall hard for each other. It was easy to write.
There was no strategy when I met Diane. There was just feeling. And I’m so glad I paid attention to it.