Big win from mentoring

Sunday, February 26, 2012
Hugh Kiernan

Hugh Kiernan's very successful mentoring experience made possible by the Grace Marion Wilson Mentoring Project (Non-fiction).

"I know a fair bit about my own writing. I have published books and stories. I read with the aim of building my knowledge. I read a lot. I feel I have to write certain things because then they might come true. I write a lot. And I have these surprising urges to tell the truth. The problem is: I still can’t see the back of my own head. Damn it.

In 2012, I was awarded the Grace Marion Wilson Mentoring Project (Non-fiction) administered by Writers Victoria. I was well into a manuscript exploring the impact of illness on my identity when I made the application. I thought a mentoring relationship would be just the thing. There was plenty to gain.

Robin Hemley, Director of the Non-fiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, has been available to me for sixteen hours of one-to-one discussion and manuscript reading. That’s not a lot of hours and we didn’t want to use them up on copy-editing. The time is spent tackling generic and other conceptual issues. I send him pieces of writing and we Skype or email. Robin visited Melbourne twice in 2012 and on each occasion we got together for a mentoring session.

I am fortunate to have access to someone with the creative and technical skills to participate empathetically in what I am doing while viewing it objectively. Robin has the experienced writer’s knack of naming things with confidence. I’ve always had intuitions about what works in my writing but I’ve been preoccupied with the execution. I didn’t necessarily see why something was actually working. With Robin’s mentoring, I’ve come to know my own writing so much better.

I’d always known I write lyrically. Robin said he thought my writing had “a light touch”. I thought about that phrase. I could see it guiding my choices about narrative, like deciding where to hold a spinning top before pulling the string, letting go and stepping back. Later I sent Robin a story exploring the silences in conversation and he focused on one scene, saying it was “a nice moment”. I sensed I was using my own voice as a writer to pull the strings. It hadn’t felt like that before.

I remember struggling with one particular piece. I couldn’t see its place in my manuscript. Robin drew my attention to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It’s a collection of Vietnam War stories with themes encompassing truth and fiction, memory and the past, and how those things might — or have to — work together. Robin suggested I think about them in relation to my own writing, and “include the reader” in my musings, as Tim O’Brien and others have done. I realised I had been writing fiction while thinking of it as memoir — illness can do funny things to you! From then on, I thought about my writing more freely. I felt ready to place the spinning top back down on the table.

I would not have made such discoveries on my own. Robin Hemley’s mentoring, despite the time constraints, has moved my project that much closer to publication. It has been a big win for me. There’s a way to go yet but now I am much better equipped to go it alone. Even though, further along, I know I’ll still be confounded at times by not being able to see the back of my own head. Damn it"