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So, You Want to be a Mentee? A Look at AWP’s Mentorship Program

So, You Want to be a Mentee? A Look at AWP’s Mentorship Program

Author: Chelsea Catherine

December 19, 2017

What did I expect when I signed up for AWP’s Writer-to-Writer mentorship program? Honestly, not a whole heck of a lot. AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is a nationwide writing organization that holds a giant conference once a year and provides “support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers.”

It sounds good, but I wasn’t sure if AWP was down with people like me. (Me being a gay, a lesbian.) I’d already applied to their mentorship program last year, which matches emerging writers and published authors for a three-month series of modules, but they couldn’t find anyone to match with me. My second application was fueled by both anger and too many beers on a Tuesday night. Eff this, I decided! I was applying again. I would remind them I’m here. A lesbian writer of literary fiction. Yes, we exist.

In my drunken application to AWP, when asked what I would gain from the program, I wrote:

I want someone to back me up. Too many times have I reached out to straight writers who just don’t get my work… There’s got to be someone out there who wants to read what I’m writing and understands it. Someone who can look at it from a literary perspective and critique it. Someone who can find new routes for me, who can encourage me in other genres and in general. AWP has reach. That’s what I want from you. Use your arms, reach out, and find someone like me!

And do you know what? A funny thing happened. A very funny, wonderful thing.

AWP found me a mentor.

My mentor turned out to be Sassafras Lowrey, who, in hir own words, is “is a straight-edge queer punk who grew up to become the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award.” But Sassafras is a hell of a lot more than that. Ze is a survivor, a warrior, a writer who works full time somewhere else (hir “muggle job” as ze calls it) but still makes time to be a published author. Sassafras loves My Little Pony. Sassafras includes everyone. Sassafras sends me great pictures of both hir doggies and the changing landscape in New York City and the surrounding areas. Ze also has really great glasses.

In hir writer-to-writer application, ze wrote:

In my relationship with a mentee I hope to support a beginning LGBTQ writer further develop voice and vision for their work. The personal ‘gain’ in this relationship is about furthering a fellowship amongst marginalized writers who don’t always feel welcome within traditional publishing environments.

Yes. This was exactly what I was looking for! I’d always felt like I was on the outside looking in when it came to writing communities. In my groups, I was the only woman writing about women in relationships (with each other). My peers made me feel like an alien. Why were my narrators always so “masculine” sounding? Were the two main characters “together-together” or what?

One time my workshop leader found it unrealistic that in my story, a woman who has only had heterosexual relationships previously, enters a relationship with another woman. “Do we believe this?” he asked the class.

“It seriously happens more than you know,” I said.

He ignored me and went on to seek the opinion of the more butch and “obvious” lesbian in the workshop. Clearly, she would know better than I would.

From reading some of hir mentee application, I knew Sassafras would never treat my work like this.

So, we said yes! to the dress to the mentorship program and were paired within the week. The rules were clear: work as hard as you can and the next duo with a published book will become AWP’s next top writer partnership!

I’m joking.

There was no stipulation about book publishing. Most of the encouragement we received revolved around trying the modules they would send and letting them know if we felt like it wasn’t working out with our respective partners. They encouraged us to talk with the other mentees and mentors. Explore, they said! Grow!

Okay, I thought. I could do this. The modules were mostly about community and reading (which writers do you like? why?). There has been some craft work, too. But the greatest thing I have gotten as a mentee from my mentor is support. In the writing sphere, but also in general.

My favorite things so far:

  1. Sassafras and I are both super liberal and have the same kind of goals. There is innate comradery in this, and support.
  2. Sassafras and I have exchanged lots of reading material! I’ve read so many new, amazing things through my mentorship. I read a story about what it’s like to be a black, gay man with HIV. I’ve read stories about what it’s like to be trans and be kicked out, what it’s like to not fit anywhere, especially along a gender binary. For me (a cis, white woman) these are incredibly important narratives that I need to constantly be seeking out.
  3. When I’m feeling down, I can text Sassafras and ze will give me advice—most recently hir advice has ended up with me watching “The Tick,” a comedy superhero hero show. This is actually more helpful than it sounds.
  4. With Sassafras, I’ve regained confidence. Comradery is one part of this program, but consistent, rooted support of your work is another. I’ve regained confidence in my nonfiction because of Sassafras (even though we are technically in the fiction track. We are rebels!).
  5. Motivation: feedback from Sassafras has encouraged me to write a memoir. It’s been a little over a week and I already have 41,000 words. That’s how I know it was the right choice. I know Sassafras and I are a good match, because hir feedback actually makes sense to me and has encouraged me to challenge myself instead of feeling bad about my work.
  6. Most importantly, Sassafras has never questioned my experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community, nor has ze questioned those of my characters. Ze won’t, ever. And that is what I was looking for when I sent in an application to this program.

I’m not sure what it’s like for the other mentors and mentees, but us queers definitely have it down. We’re only a couple of weeks into the program, but I’m excited to see what more it will bring. I’m also excited about what it means for others like me, especially those who’ve had less opportunities at their disposal (read: more gays who are not white or cisgender). I encourage AWP to continue seeking applications from these groups and matching them with supportive mentors. That is the way we grow, the way our voices are heard. Use your arms, AWP, and reach!

Chelsea Catherine photo

About: Chelsea Catherine

Chelsea Catherine is a queer writer living in Vermont. She is a PEN Short Story Prize Nominee, winner of the Raymond Carver Fiction contest in 2016, a Sterling Watson fellow, and an Ann McKee grant recipient. Her most recent work can be found in Blood Orange Review.

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