One of the other topics that came up during the Q&A of Angela Oh's keynote at CAPTIVATE was Mentors. One student asked: Who were your mentors?
She responded that she had few mentors and that none were women, let alone women of color. In her travels she has met many "first and only" Asian women in academia, women who seemed welcoming enough but only so far. She was often perceived as a threat to their "only-ness."
At dinner, two Asian women from Seattle who were part of a coalition to investigate racism on campus also mentioned their lack of mentors. This suprised me since they are women who have worked in advocacy in the Seattle area for several years, and who would likely make very good mentors to others. It was an odd juxtaposition of women I saw as mentors yearning for mentors of their own.
I have often looked for a mentor and have been fortunate to find incredibly generous teachers over the years, white men at first, but more recently women of color. But no one I could call 'mentor' on my overall journey through life or even 'mentor' of my art journey.
Last week, after giving my first public storytelling performance, one of the other storytellers advised me against taking any storytelling workshops right away. This surprised me as I have been trying to find ways to get to a storytelling workshop as soon as possible. I had fallen into my old habits - get interested in something then take as many classes as possible to learn about it. Seasoned Storyteller was backed up by Guild President - build your style first, get it firm - then go to workshops. There's nothing worse in their minds than to become a replication of another storyteller.
They told me that they could tell from a storyteller's style who they had trained with. One Teller's students barely moved on stage, performing stories within a predetermined two foot square that framed their face. Another Teller's students gestured with open palms and a slight lift of the fingers. They argued that all the Teller's were good teachers and even recommended certain ones for certain techniques, but overall, cautioned me that I had the building blocks of a very unique style that could only emerge with more practice.
I went home stunned but also very gratified - here were two people who didn't need me to be their 'student' as an ego trip and who saw in me the potential for something unique as a storyteller, something that needed to be protected until it had been strengthened. They had offered good critique of my performance, but they were comments designed to bring out the best in what they perceived as my potential and the potential of the story.
I could not help but wonder how my writing journey could have been different if I had had writers/teachers who had said the same to me - we see great potential, uniqueness. Now go and practice. Write. Submit. Don't try to anticipate market. Strengthen your unique style.
In short, mentored me. Because I'm beginning to understand that's what the difference between a mentor and a teacher is. A teacher can teach technique and the ability to see style in other work, to make connections between sets of experiences and moments in history. A teacher is about mechanics. A mentor is someone who brings out the best in their students, whatever that unique Best might be. A mentor is both knowledgable and humble. Rare indeed.