How to Establish a Literary Mentorship

by Brenda Joyce Patterson
published in Community

Five years ago, if someone told me, “You will translate Romanian poetry into English,” I’d have said, “Who? Me?! You’re crazy.”

Sadly, I speak only one language – English – fluently. 

But life and opportunity will forever have their way. 

Let me tell you a story.

In high school, I was a serious student with college aspirations.  My class schedule was chockablock with college prep classes. I visited the guidance counselor regularly to ask what else I should be doing. Regular visits, each school year for three years. Every visit I was told that what I was doing was sufficient. That there was nothing else – no other classes, clubs, activities – I could do to improve my academic chances to get into college.

Two years later at my library job, I checked out books for a woman whose high school freshman daughter was studying to take her first AP exam. And with that interaction, I discovered a world of books for AP classes and CLEP exams

I also learned an open secret. Opportunities come not only through actively seeking them out but just as often from being open – watching and listening – to life and the people around you. 

Decades later and after a series of life-altering experiences, I got serious about writing. I joined AWP (Association of Writing and Writing Programs) and attended my first writing conference, AWP2018. I met novelist Diane Zinna, then the AWP Director of Membership Services, the second day of the conference at the AWP membership booth. She encouraged me to apply for their Writer to Writer Mentorship Program, which is free to AWP members.

I was accepted into the three-month mentorship in poetry on my first try. With that bit of providence, I learned another part of being open – action. 

A Hand Up

Mentorships are built – formally and informally – into academic study. Outside of academia finding a mentor can be difficult but not impossible. However, formal education is not always a viable option for everyone. You’re here at DIY MFA, so you know there are other ways to get education as well as mentorships. You can also get access to nonacademic mentorships through writing associations and other programs such as Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match.   

But why is having a writing mentor a big deal? 

Having one fosters a more personalized and intimate study of your own work and your chosen genre of writing. A mentorship can deepen the range and skills needed to produce your best work. 

My Writer to Writer mentorship with poet Callista Buchen was affirming and enlightening. She answered craft and writing business questions. She critiqued my poems. We discussed other poets’ work. She also encouraged me to focus on three areas to expand my writing and my writing career: compile a poetry manuscript, apply for writers’ residencies, and collaborate with other poets.  

Working with Callista, I could see where the knowledge gleaned from my self-directed study fit into a writing career, into my writing career. 

At the same time, Diane Zinna, the mentorship’s creator, forged a community among all of my cohort’s mentees. The diversity of writers – age, ethnicity, writing experience/genre – encouraged us to share our work and try new things. It laid groundwork for me to try a budding Romanian-English translation project with fellow W2W cohort, poet Romana Iorga

Impossible Means I’m Possible

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

― Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

No matter where we are in this writing life, we’re all prone to fear and anxiety. (Lord knows, I am.) 

Fear makes it easy to retreat and label things as impossible or not for us. Reaching out can push us past the supposed impossibility of our dreams. When you stretch yourself and step into places, into work you think of as impossible, you’ll find much is within your grasp. You’ll find in the “impossible” your own version of “I’m possible”. 

Below is a small sampling of writing mentorships available. They are projected to operate during (and beyond) these viral times.

Emerging Translator Mentorship Program

Founded by former American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) board member Allison M. Charette, the Emerging Translator Mentorship Program was “designed to establish and facilitate a close working relationship between an experienced translator and an emerging translator on a project selected by the emerging translator.” The mentorship lasts for approximately nine months. 

Romance Includes You

This Harlequin-sponsored mentorship “offers aspiring romance writers from underrepresented communities the chance to work one-on-one with a Harlequin editor for a year on writing a romance novel and includes an offer to publish their book and $5,000 (US) to support their novel writing.”

SFWA Mentoring Initiative

Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America connects “emerging writers to each other and to established pros” to build community, share knowledge, and network. For SFWA members only, it is focused on professional development rather than artistic development.  

We Need Diverse Books Mentorships

WNDB offers an annual opportunity for eight aspiring authors to be matched with an experienced children’s book creator and receive individual support and feedback on a completed draft of a work-in-progress or your portfolio. The mentorship lasts one year. 

Resource websites

Mentorships and opportunities for mentorships often hide in plain sight. Many websites that regularly compile writing opportunities often include mentorships opportunities as well. The following websites either compile opportunities or feature articles about mentorship how-tos.


Founded by New York-based writer Camille Wanliss as a resource to champion “diverse voices in literature, poetry, television, film and theater by spotlighting opportunities for writers of color.”  Mentorships, fellowships, and publication opportunities are added monthly.

The Practicing Writer 2.0

Reader, writer, and literary advocate Erika Dreifus edits/publishes the free (and popular) e-newsletter that features opportunities and resources for fictionists, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction.

Trish Hopkinson: A Selfish Poet 

Hopkinson offers poetry/writing resources including mentorships at her website. She also provides a list of other websites with poetry/writing and submitting resources. She is also a Writer to Writer mentee from Fall 2019.

Writer’s Knowledge Base

Curated by cozy mystery author Elizabeth Spann Craig, Writer’s Knowledge Base is a search engine of over 40,000 articles on all aspects of writing.

Apply for mentorships whether you believe you’re ready or not. And write in the meantime; write regularly. Habit is the best tool against fear and self-limitation. If an established mentorship isn’t for you, set up your own mentorship. 

Your love for writing will have led you to or along the fringes of other writers and/or writing groups. Is there a writer (or possibly writers) in the group whose work you admire? 

After you’ve thought out what you’d like to learn from them, ask if they would be willing to share craft techniques and writing wisdom with you. If they agree, you can discuss how much or little time they’re willing to work with you.  

A mentorship requires work from you. Ask questions AND listen…a lot. Take advantage of the mentor’s experience by asking these two questions: What questions should I be asking to get the best from this experience? What questions would you ask if you were me?

No worries if you don’t remember to ask these questions. You might be too overwhelmed with processing the incoming information to ask anything other than procedural questions. However, there’s no time limit on asking. Leave space for you to reconnect with your mentor(s) and to ask more questions. Whatever information you gather later will always be of help to you and give you wisdom/knowledge to share with other writers.   

Whether you find a mentor or decide to be your own mentor, now is as good a time as any. Don’t be afraid to take a path you never thought of traveling. I promise it can and will make all the difference in your writing life.

Who knows what paths will open for you?

Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.

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