Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Guest Post: Salima Alikhan on Private Writing Study with an Author-Teacher-Mentor

Salima at Bethany Hegedus's Writing Barn
By Salima Alikhan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

We’re a lucky community here in Austin to have fantastic, established local authors offering private mentorships.

When it first dawned on me that my unwieldy story was beyond the help of the wonderful critique group I’d had for years, I talked to others who had mentored with local author Bethany Hegedus. I heard glowing reviews.

One of these authors had been in my critique group, had worked with Bethany on her own unwieldy story, and had managed to unlock the puzzle of how to make it work at last.

My experience as a mentee, therefore, is limited to working with just one person, but it was exactly what I needed. I’d written fiction all my life---since I could hold a pen---but had never taken a creative writing class, nor had I done any writing workshops by the time I decided to work with Bethany.

I was relieved to find that Bethany shares my philosophy that artistic nurture and support are far more productive than harsh or shaming criticism. Yet that’s not to say I didn’t work incredibly hard in my mentoring program, and inevitably go through growing pains as a writer. Lots of reading homework, assignments on craft and structure, re-shaping the way I thought about story.

I had to wrestle myself out of old writing habits, which can be painful to break.

In terms of what it felt like to be a mentee, it was basically as though someone had reached into my mind as an invisible facilitator and asked me deep and resonant questions about what I wanted to say.

Bethany & Salima at a themed launch party for Dear Teen Me
Bethany is very concerned with characters’ emotions, desire lines, and motivations, but first and foremost, with whether those align with what you as an author want to say. That is her priority.

I also don’t know if this is due to the hallowed privacy of the mentoring process itself, or Bethany’s method in particular, but she is naturally patient and nonjudgmental in her teaching, and you’re therefore never really afraid of disappointing her---which sounds like a small thing, but I think for us tender creative minds, it’s immensely liberating.

For someone to respond with nuance, empathy and knowledge to you as a hopeful, emotional, hardworking writer feels like a miracle, especially if you’ve been wondering for a while how to make your story work.

To me, the most important thing the mentoring process offers is not only a deeply expanded knowledge of craft, but a sustained self-belief that I can carry into whatever I create next.

Watching people from all backgrounds soak up this faith and fly is a great thing to see.

It’s an essential ingredient for writers in this precarious industry, and I’m so very lucky I received it in my mentorship.

Quick Tips

Salima's buddy Auri
  1. Word of mouth trumps all. Speak to the mentor's clients. If I had looked at Bethany's published books alone, I might not have known she was right for me since she writes contemporary and historical fiction, whereas I write fantasy. It was from speaking to clients of hers that I learned that she is great at serving a story regardless of genre.
  2. Ask the instructor about their teaching philosophy and approach to story criticism. Since a mentorship is a big commitment/investment, don't be shy about first asking for a phone chat or personal meeting to gauge whether you think you can work with the instructor.

Cynsational Notes

Salima Alikhan has illustrated three picture books: Pieces of Another World (Arbordale Publishing, 2006), Rocky Mountain Night Before Christmas (Pelican, 2008), and Lawyer's Week Before Christmas (Pelican, 2009), as well as The Pied Piper of Austin (Pelican, 2010), which she wrote and illustrated.

She is a member of SCBWI, and lives in Austin, Texas, where she is currently working on her first fantasy novel. An American Eskimo dog named Auri and a cat named Esme frequently help her in her literary journeys.

Bethany Hegedus is the author of Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009). Her debut picture book is Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014).

Bethany has served as the Hunger Mountain Young Adult & Children’s Editor since 2009. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, she is the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. Learn more about private instruction with Bethany Hegedus.

Salima's assistant Esme (in a mood)

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