My Many Mentors

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Great Uncle Henry taught me to pluck Thanksgiving turkeys, and cousin Carol taught me to pluck my eyebrows. When my bowling instructor told me to quit thinking so much and “just let ‘er rip,” my average rose from forty to fifty; and my brother Bob showed me how to increase the pain of those I beat when playing rock, paper and scissors by licking my fingers before viciously slapping their wrists.

Having learned such important life skills from the best, when I began writing, I realized I should try practicing the techniques I’d learned from specialists around the world. Most people call them authors. I call them mentors.

A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” fascinated me as a child, and the words of Luis Alberto Urrea in “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” enthralled me last week. In between, a legion of authors enchanted me.

The authors of all those books became part of me, gave me a sense for paragraphs that pulse with rhythm, descriptions that usher readers into a scene and metaphors that surprise with their aptness. As I zipped through books in pursuit of compelling plots, I also developed an appreciation for dialogue that sounds real and for carefully edited works that give readers a sense of security. I was reading for pleasure, and, without realizing it, I was also learning from experts.

When I retired and began writing, my reading became more intent. Recently, though the plot of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” captured me, I read Urrea’s words slowly, savoring his mastery over them as much as I enjoyed his rich story. I recorded delicious bits of his writing, studied them and thought how I could do something similar within my voice and topics.

Urrea, like all my must-read authors, treats words like crown jewels, selecting each with care. In “A Hummingbird’s Daughter,” he wrote, “Tomas rode his wicked black stallion through the frosting of starlight that turned his ranch blue and pale gray as if powdered sugar had blown off the sky and sifted over the mangos and mesquites;” and I felt I rode with him. I would probably have written, “Tomas rode his black horse across his ranch through starlight as white as frosting,” and few would have hopped on for the ride. But because I studied the rhythms and word choices of his sentence, I might write a stronger description the next time I write.

As another of my mentors,  Mark Twain, said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I want to hurl lightening bolts like Twain and Urrea, but too often I propel tiddlywinks. For example, I know I overuse the tired twins, enjoy and like, but their alternatives rarely work. Value and appreciate are too refined, and the phrase, take pleasure in, seems a bit uppity. Casual use diminishes the compelling emotion of love. Treasure strikes me as over the top, and relish makes me think of hotdogs.

So yesterday, when I started “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” by the western writer Ivan Dog, I decided to watch for his use, or not, of like and enjoy. Does he sprinkle them liberally in his prose? Or does he have other techniques for describing or distinguishing the emotions they represent?

I’d like to discover his approach to my dilemma. In fact, I’d enjoy it.

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77 thoughts on “My Many Mentors

  1. I loved your post this morning Janet! I am reading Ivan Doig’s “The Bartender’s Tale”. I will now be looking for his use of like and enjoy as well! 😉

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    • You and JL first introduced me to Doig, and I read all his books. I’m rereading Dancing at the Rascal Fair because my book club selected it, but prior to that I read what I think was the last book he published and it delighted me. I think you would like it too if you haven’t read it already. It’s called The Last Bus to Wisdom and I think it’s Doig at his finest. I’ve forgotten, so please tell me again. When does JL hike into the wilderness?

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  2. What a wonderful, refreshing post. I love the way you’ve read and studied many great writers, to improve your own writing. I do the same thing. I may never reach their level, but I am slowly improving my skills. I write simple humor on my blog, but I have many serious stories I write, and try to improve every day. I like to think that sometimes, average and good writers, are carried on the backs of great writers – and its one heck of a ride.

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Patrick.I’m glad you stopped by. You speak for me when you say you may never reach the level of great writers, but you will improve. That’s exactly how I feel as well, and your last sentence is skillfully put and true. I consider it a privilege to read good writing and aspire to it.

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  3. This is a great post, Janet, In fact, I like it a lot. I am often surprised to catch myself paying close attention to the descriptive phrases authors use. Most of the time, I just build little mental images as I read. Every now and then, I find myself looking at bold landscapes, murals and portraits and I know I’ve found an author I can learn from – a mentor!

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  4. I would have happily ridden that black horse with you Janet! I love your writing…you have taken me down so many Memory Lanes, I almost feel like we grew up in the same neighborhood.

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  5. The surprises in your words are delights. Thank you.
    PS Ivan Doig words are powerful. Maybe I will re-read or find a new book to enjoy.

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    • I like the idea that my words contain surprises; it is something I work at. I’m sure some mentor planted the idea in my head and wish I could credit him or her. About Doig, I would recommend The Last Bus to Wisdom. It has a cast of likable, unusual characters and abundant humor all seen through the eyes of a young boy.

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    • Oh, Kayti, you are so kind. I’ve read your posts, and I’m not sure what you could learn from me. I already knew you appreciated fine writers because of the way you refer to them and quote them; your wonderful words are right; they do “…linger in our memory to nourish us…”

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  6. Lovely post, Janet. It IS a dilemma. I recently finished Kent Haruf’s The Tie that Binds. It’s not new, but I realized I hadn’t read it. I loved his way with words. It was the story, yes, but also that he made me feel as if I was right there on that farm, driving in that old car, and working those fields. I could almost see the living room walls plastered with post cards. Now, I may have to go back and look for the likes and enjoys. I like and enjoyed this post.

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  7. I think you are right-reading well written literature is a great way to learn the art of writing well. It is indeed, learning from the masters. I too, read aloud what I am posting. Now you have me pondering about my own use of the word “like”. I haven’t a clue as to how much I use it. Oh- there is so much to learn! thank you for sharing your thoughts and inspiring me. love Michele

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    • I think overusing like and enjoy is my problem, Michele, and not yours. Never once have I thought “Oh, she has the same problem I do,” when I read your fine writing. Reading aloud is one of my most important revision tools. I used to have my students do it as well. Many times they would interrupt themselves to say, “No, no that’s not what a wanted to say,” and I would celebrate on the inside as I calmly asked them what they wanted to say instead.

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  8. There are certain writers (Dan Brown and Danielle Steele being two) whom I cannot figure out how they went and got themselves published. They write in the same English language as James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje and William Trevor. But they don’t even bear a close resemblance to those wonderful writers. Trying to read writers like those two is like listening to a piece of chalk streaked across a blackboard. It’s an abomination.

    Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. Read good writers and hope some of the magic they perform will rub off. One writer you might want to pick up is Isak Dinesen. She sure could turn a phrase. And maybe she’ll be just what the doctor ordered for curing you of enjoy and like.

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    • I share the feelings you expressed in the first paragraph of your comment, Don, and appreciate the advice in the second. I will read an Isak Dinesen book as I’ve long thought I should; and I’ll let you know what I think. I also want to tell you that in my desktop folder labeled “On Writing” I have a copy of your blog of Nov. 2, 2014, “The Itch I Just Have to Scratch” that I’ve reread many times. I think it is as good an exploration of the mind of a writer at work as anything I’ve read. I notice and ponder something new each time I read it.

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  9. I enjoyed this post very much! You have organized the activity of writing in a way that colours outside my lines, and I enjoy/like/take pleasure in it. Actually, I role around in it like a dog on a sandy beach.

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  10. I love Ivan Doig. He’s a fine writer. For the “craft” of words, however, the best mentor I’ve found is Truman Capote and Norman Maclean comes a close second. I think “A River Runs Through It” is a nearly perfect book.

    My particular way of writing is to write and then see where I can do better. Nothing stops the story more quickly than worrying about words. Capote wrote about that particular thing a lot. He wrote about how when there is action, it’s easy to write compelling prose. It’s the static moments that are a writer’s biggest challenge, to keep them as alive as the moments of action and dialogue. If I find what he had to say, I’ll pass it along…

    Here’s a story about how Capote became my teacher….

    https://marthakennedy.blog/2014/02/26/truman-capote-dreams-daily-prompt/

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    • Doig is the best. For many years I greeted each of his new books with joy; and I was never disappointed. I can say the same about Capote and Maclean. I,too, write quickly when creating and slowly when revising; the revision process is where I worry about words because I agree nitpicking slows the flow of my ideas. I like Capote’s thought about the ease of writing action and the difficulty of keeping static moments alive. I’m going to think about that. But first I’m going to read your blog. Thanks for your informative comment.

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  11. thanks fro another thought-provoking blog – and some new writers to explore. I, too, often wonder how some writers get published. My struggle is with great and fabulous – especially when travelling. Perhaps I need to follow more travel blogs to see how others deal with describing experiences they really like and enjoy. 😉

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    • So good to hear from you, Sally. Ihope you do try the two writers I mentioned, and, if you do, I’d like to know what you think of the. I, too, have difficulty describing sights I see when traveling, but I rely on wonderful, awesome and marvelous. Maybe we should trade!

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    • Maybe it was just the right book at just the right time for me, but it swept me away. I loved some of the characters in it and found the story a compelling description of a place and time in history I was unfamiliar with. If you get it, please be sure to let me know what you think.

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    • Thank you for finding my blog, spending time on it, and responding to me. I appreciate it and will visit your blog soon. Aren’t we lucky to have grown up with books a constant presence? I truly believe they have enriched our lives.

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  12. I loved reading about your conscious analysis of other writers. Learning, learning, in your own way at your own pace, it’s such a powerful habit. Long ago I discovered something else: that when you have a specific problem in mind, for example “how do writers switch between scenes”, almost any novel will do. I got into the habit of grabbing three very different novels and checking that convention. It was fun and it worked.

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    • How wise you are, Rachel. I have another mentor and it’s you! I am attempting to write fiction to see if I enjoy doing so (so far I think I do) and I’m going to take your advice: when I come up against a problem, I’ll grab three different sorts of novels and see how the authors handle whatever it is I’m wrestling with. It does sound fun and I’m sure it will work. I’ll let you know when I try it, and how it worked for me. From reading “Fixing Mrs. Philpot,” I know it worked for you!

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  13. It’s so good to be inspired by your thoughtful prose. I shall look out for The Hummingbird’s Daughter next time at the library. Your contemplation of ‘like’ and ‘enjoy’ also make me aware of my over-use of these two words! ❤ Once again, blessings, Janet!

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    • I know people like different things in books, but I think you’ll enjoy the Hummingbird’s Daughter. I didn’t fall in love with it in the first few pages, but soon after and stayed smitten until the last word.(I just reread what I’d written looking for auto-correct bloopers, and discovered I’d used like, enjoy and love in the first two sentences. Then I got very clever and turned to “smitten.” Sheesh!)

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  14. My late Ma, could not abide the writing of Morley Callahan, naive, simplistic, he wrote brief stories of ordinary lives. A cold, pale nun on a winter street, a chap laboring to save enough to marry, because she grumbled I loved it, a big influence to this day. A joker gave me a “Shades Of Gray” Box set, which I hoped not to cark and have it found in my room…

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    • I’m going to have to have a look at Morley Callahan; I liked the brief descriptions you wrote of his work, but your late Ma, I understand, is not one to be trifled with. I’ll let you know what I think. Perhaps, to ease your mind, you should donate your Shades of Gray box set to a senior citizens center or something. Please don’t send it to me!!

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    • I just googled Morley, and he has written so much! Is there a book of short stories or a particular novel you would recommend? I also found it interesting that he was part of the Paris years Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast.

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      • Thanks Janet, Shades is long gone to the salvation army. I will look up my old favorite Morley for you, it has been awhile, I will look also at Ian Dog, like that name. cheers!

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      • I would recommend that with Doig (It is a great name, isn’t it) you start with either English Creek — one of his earliest — or The Last Bus to Wisdom, the last book he published before his death.

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  15. Janet, you’ve never written a tiddlywink word in your life!! You may yearn to throw thunderbolts but your work is more Iike nourishing rain. The kind of rain that makes people stand in it and smile with their arms outstretched. Welcome, refreshing, renewing. Bringing back old memories.
    I listen closely when you share your thoughts about your writing process and I’ll be reading with a new focus.
    (Treasure is one of my favorite words and I over use it….but I don’t care if anyone enjoys or likes it)

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    • What a lovely, lovely comparison, Mary. To borrow a very fine word from you, I will treasure your thought that my writing is like a nourishing rain that makes people smile and feel renewed. Not only did you pay me a meaningful, well-written compliment, you made me laugh with your last sentence. You won’t need to do another good deed for a month; your halo is sparkling!

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  16. Oh, I love this one. Not just for your masterful use of language (plucking turkeys vs. eyebrows, tiddlywinks vs. lightning bolts) but also for the beginner’s mind you continue to cultivate even as you master the craft. Glad you’re writing–we’re the lucky recipients:).

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    • What a lovely comment, Kay. Thank you. This writers’ craft of ours fascinates me. I like writing about it, reading about it and talking about it. And I feel so good when I write something and think, “I did well with this,” which doesn’t always happen!

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  17. Hi Aunt Beulah
    Well you have found me out here, I do love a good novel, but if it has too many fancy words then it loses me quick smart. I get totally engrossed in fiction, but I like it to have a resonance, and reality that we all or at least I can “Get It”
    You know I love a good story Aunt Beulah, I wish I could write with rhythm but unfortunately I just come out soundin’ just how I speak all the time.
    My Aussie slang and poor grammar just knows no other way to tell a story, I could write until the cows come home and I just won’t find me no rhythm.
    It’s just plain ol’ tiddley winks
    That’s ok, I’m cool with that, all good!!

    Your writing is smoooooth!!! Your mentors, authors, had a very easy student to teach, you were gifted from the get go Aunt Beulah, you crafted your own work and it is uncomplicated , rhythmic and real.
    All your readers love your writing
    So many words describe, but for me the one that always resonates is REAL, every single one of your stories, I am in each moment. I can pick up a book and start to read it and I feel like I have to read over and over until I am there. Then half the time I just don’t even get there..Crikey!!
    Your real stories are just like my favourite icecream, can’t stop eating it, reading in this case..
    Would love to read your fiction Aunt Beulah, I would need a few buckets of icecream, cos’ I would be in for a great time.
    You are a mentor to many of your readers
    One of the best Aunt Beulah
    Love and hugs
    From
    Annie in Australia 🌴🌞🌊❤

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    • What a sweetheart you are, my dear Annie from Australia. You made my heart sing with this comment. Oh, how I miss your blog; it used to give me a visit with you on a regular basis. I love it that you think my words are as good as ice cream. As my dad used to say, “Now that’s one helluva compliment!” I must tell you that the way you write in your own voice with your Aussie slang, gives your writing a lilting rhythm and a genuine feel. It can’t be beat. So very very good to hear from you; almost as good as a muffin and a cuppa! Love, Janet

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  18. This is wonderful, Janet. First I love how you segue from your early childhood mentors to authors-as-mentors. (Did you know that the score of 50 is also near my bowling average?)
    I have not read anything by Urrea but after reading that sample sentence he is on my list. I must admit to feeling woefully inadequate when reading a passage like that from Urrea.
    And, I use the word enjoy ALL THE TIME. Let me know when you discover the answer to the “enjoy dilemma”!

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    • It sounds like we should go bowling together sometime;We could both probably benefit from some stiff competition. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of Urrea’s book. I am on record as thinking it is of the highest quality, but I know it may not be everybody’s cup of tea. As for enjoy; my detective work assures me that everybody uses like and enjoy a lot; so I’ve quit obsessing about it. Whew!!

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  19. Thank the Lord for the Great Uncle Henrys, Cousin Carols & the Mark Twains in our lives! It’s amazing when I think about it, who & what shapes & inspires us!

    It’s wonderful that you enjoy reading still; my Favourite Aunt told me that Readers will never lose their marbles or get bored as they grow older. I am holding her to that.

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  20. I’m at a loss to describe my first book, but I know it will never reach the heights of a Dan Brown, let alone James Joyce. I write short scenes and multiple points of view in a world laden with fantasy tropes. I write what I love to read.

    Having said that, I also love to smell the roses and am not adverse to slowing down with a literary delight. Following your advice, I’ve just ordered Plainsong from our library.

    Thanks for another delightful post.

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  21. Thank you for your beautiful and most eloquently put post! I too have written a post recently on the power of mentors but of a different kind. Much the same though, I too believe that one should learn from the masters who had their own respective trades so figured out.

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