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
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
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
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
article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or
produced without her express written permission.