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Mentors

By Rukhsana Khan

I think when someone thinks of a mentor, they think of someone who will help them, take them by the hand, in a professional capacity, and help them build a career.

And it seems the most common first step a lot of people who want to write take, is trying to find a mentor, someone who fits this description, someone who will take them under their wing and show them the way.

I’ve had a number of emails from people impressed with my modest success as a writer, who’ve come out and asked me to be their mentor.

From my perspective this is a foolish thing to do. First of all, I don’t know any of these people, secondly I’m not familiar with their work or their potential, and finally, I’m so busy still trying to get established and known for my work, building my career and taking care of my business, that I hardly have time to drop everything (as they seem to expect) and take up the challenge of building their careers.

And what they don’t seem to realize is that my word, or anyone else’s word for that matter, will only take them so far. It might open a door, but ultimately they will still have to produce something that’s impressive and publishable.

In fact, the type of mentors I initially described are few and far between. I’ve never had one of those types.

I’ve had a number of people who have profoundly influenced me in my personal growth and my career, so much so as to refer to them as mentors. But in fact all of them have been ‘friends’, peers even, who have not so much opened professional doors for me in terms of my career (most of those doors have opened as a result of my own efforts) but rather these people have opened my mind, expanded my way of thinking, so that I saw with a new perspective, and gained insight that I hadn’t known I’d lacked.

Depending on how open to new ideas and learning you are, I’m sure there are many of these types of mentors in your own life. To find them you need to be the kind of person who seeks out opportunities to learn and better yourself, whenever such opportunities are presented to you.

I’d like to talk a little about my mentors and how they’ve helped me grow.

After my parents, one of the most influential people who has mentored me happens to be my husband. When I first met him I thought he was the most organized person I’d ever seen, I even had the silly thought that he couldn’t be Muslim and be so organized! (Muslims aren’t exactly known for their organizational skills.) His organization was one of the things that impressed me about him. Later there were many other qualities, like his justice and fair play. In being mentored by him, I have tried to emulate, even imitate, his qualities.

After we were married, I got to know his mother, my mother-in-law. She is one of the most easy going kindest people I’ve ever known. I have an incredible amount of respect for her. She became another mentor to me.

As a person of faith, it might be surprising to know that one of the people who has taught me the most is an atheist from St. Louis, Missouri. We engaged in many debates on a writers’ forum, debates in which he challenged every aspect of my religious beliefs, and in which I in turn, defended every aspect of them.

I was rather immature when we first began our internet dialogue. At the time I thought that you could only respect someone whom you agreed with. (I have since changed my mind.) I started out by hating him. I felt he was an adversary, an opponent, someone whom I had to fight. At one point he told me that even though he disagreed with me, he respected me. That astonished me so much that at first I didn’t believe him. In time I learned to respect him too.

This person taught me how to debate without personally attacking your opponent. He taught me how to maintain my dignity and composure even while under attack. And he taught me how to hone my arguing technique. He taught me to analyse an opponent’s words, discard the baiting and insults, and reply only to the underlying point they were making. And if there was no point to their utterance, to ignore it. In this way, you stick to the issues being discussed and do not make the person a target. He taught me all of this by example.

I asked him at one point how he was able to remain so calm and composed and he told me that he’d belonged to a debating club where they used these tactics. As soon as anyone made a personal insult, it meant they could find no flaw in the other person’s reasoning and out of frustration, had decided to attack personally. He told me that a personal insult always diminished the attacker, not the person being attacked, unless that person responded in kind.

He also introduced me to an excellent book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defence by Suzette Haden (First published in 1980 by Prentice Hall). I’ve applied the principles of this book to all realms of my life. And the techniques that I learned from my friend and this book, have been instrumental in all the television appearances I’ve made.

In fact recently I was somewhat ambushed on a television show I’d been on several times before. I was clearly told by the producer who’d called me, not to worry, that the show would not be confrontational. When I got there, the topic being discussed was women in Islam, and as the only Muslim woman on the panel I was called upon to defend every atrocity ever committed by men against women in the name of Islam.

It was my worst nightmare come true. But keeping in mind the basic principles I’d learned, of not returning attack with attack, I managed to hold my own, even though my heart was palpitating during the whole ordeal. Even as the other panellists interrupted my response and snickered at my explanations, I maintained my composure. It was a good learning experience. If I’d known what the panel was going to be about, I still would have gone, I just would have been better prepared in my arguments. And I learned that in the future, before going to such a venue, I should discover exactly what the topic of the show would be, what position I was called on to defend, and what the position of the other panellists would be.

Another mentor of mine is a British woman who has taught me kindness and tolerance towards others, even foolish people. I found her to be such an example of patience towards others, that I try to emulate these qualities within myself.

Now you might wonder why I am including people who have not helped me professionally as mentors. They haven’t done anything for my ‘career’. The point I’m trying to make, in a roundabout fashion, is that in pursuing your goals of getting published, you should also pursue more personal goals of becoming, well, a better person. Growth on a personal level actually does impact growth as a writer. Writing, like many artistic expressions, is directly related to the personality of the artist. Some writers say that writing is an exposure of their souls. I think this is a fairly accurate idea. You can try, but it’s next to impossible to hide what you truly stand for, when you’re writing. It comes through whether you want it to or not. As a result, some writers say that it is a soul-baring process, that writing leaves them feeling naked and vulnerable before the eyes of the world.

Lastly I’d like to mention a woman who had a profound influence on me, both as a person and as a writer. Her name was Linda Smith. I feel comfortable in mentioning her name because she died not too long ago of breast cancer. As a writer she was one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. (To purchase her books please see the links below) But more than just talent, she had a heart of gold. She truly was a mentor in every sense of the word, also encouraging me to submit to her agent and trying to open professional doors for me.

None of that panned out, for whatever reason, but I learned more from her, in about the year that I knew her, than I had learned from many a person in a lifetime.

I think what impressed me the most about Linda was her optimism, her joie de vivre, and her giving nature. As she began to sell books, she also shared her expertise with her friends. She was directly responsible for the success of a number of popular children’s writers today.

She helped me on a story that I’d been working on for a long time. It was a story set in rural Pakistan, about a girl who was afraid of chickens, based on two incidents that occurred in my family. My mother told me that when she was a young girl in Pakistan, her aunt had killed a ‘snake’ in the bathhouse, that turned out to be a parantha, a hair tie. And I thought of the comic possibilities of working up your courage to confront such a danger as a snake, only to find that it was a hair tie. I also thought about how often we inflate our fears, and yet, when we face them they turn out to be smaller than we’d thought. And my sister in law had told me that when she was a girl in Pakistan, she’d been afraid of the chickens that roamed the courtyard of their house. I combined these two ideas together to create Ruler of the Courtyard.

It was Linda who told me that the way I had written it was too violent for Western sensibilities. She told me I could not have the girl in my story, Saba, actually ‘kill’ the snake even if that’s what they would have done over there. It was too un-politically correct. I had to tone it down. Once I did, the story became much more acceptable. In fact it’s coming out in March of 2003 and has already received a starred review in Kirkus (Dec. 15th issue).

I want to be like Linda. I want to encourage and help other people on their road to publication. And I do my part. There are a number of people whom I encourage in their writing. A number of people whom I have asked to send me stories. I think it’s important to give back to others. I think it’s part of being grateful to share the gift and encouragement.

At the same time, I guess it’s only natural that I would resent it when people impose this on me.

It’s a delicate balance.

One thing people need to remember in all of this is that there’s no such thing as ‘luck’. People make their own luck. It’s a matter of ‘preparation’ meeting ‘opportunity’. Even if a mediocre writer has a lot of ‘luck’, knows a lot of people, and has a lot of doors opened for him, he’ll still be a mediocre writer. It’s very hard to sustain any kind of success in the long term if the talent and preparation isn’t there. I have come to the conclusion that the strenuous rejection process that is involved in writing is part and parcel of the creative process. It’s absolutely necessary in order to weed out those who are less than serious and committed. It also weeds out those who expect quick riches and quick results, and it forces those who are serious about learning their craft to reach deep down within themselves and pull out the best writing they can muster.

People who succeed as writers are not usually those who have not been rejected. It is those who have learned to take rejection in stride, those who buckle down and pull out their best anyway. Even when, and perhaps especially when, nobody else believed in them.

It is true what they say that writing is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. And that perseverance is often more important than talent. But never underestimate the role of talent. Given the other factors, talent is what will set you apart from the crowd, what will cause you to rise, like cream, to the top. But then again, all the talent in the world won’t help you if you have nothing worthwhile to say, no gems of wisdom to share. To find those gems, those insights, you need to keep an open mind, and keep developing yourself as a person.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you in some way. People you admire, people you’d like to emulate. Cultivate their friendship in the hope of emulating their qualities. And even if you feel like you’re just imitating them, at the beginning, keep up the ruse. It often happens that it becomes genuine after a while. I heard someone say that if you want to be noble, start by faking it. Soon enough it becomes real.

Look for the mentors in your every day. They are bound to be more influential in the long run, than any famous person who happens to take you under his or her wing.

You can buy Linda Smith's books at the links below:

When Moon Fell Down Mrs. Biddlebox

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