While mentoring bright, ambitious younger women has given me abundant joy more than 40 years in journalism, I have come to realize how much my mentees have mentored me.
Consider Lori, whom I met in a small writers group when I was a young mother writing freelance for newspapers and magazines, and she was a college student who was thinking she just might have it in her to write. She went on to become a highly successful author of books about spirituality and travel.
In time, our roles converged and sometimes reversed. Once when we were grousing about fees, she suggested, “Always ask for 25% more than they offer. There’s usually wiggle room in the budget. The worst they can do is say no.” I tried it, and more often than not, it worked. We continue to review each other’s work, and I can rely on her comments to be both tactful and honest.
Once during one of our periodic long lunches in which we meet halfway between whatever Iowa towns we are living in, I was complaining ad nauseum about my then boss, a mercurial woman to whom a deadline was merely a suggestion. Lori listened long and hard, then said briskly, “I’ll pray for you, dearie, that she has a stroke on the potty.” I don’t know when I have laughed so hard. I never felt as harshly toward that boss again. And when she did die, I took no pleasure from it.
The mentor-mentee roles also reversed between me and Katherine, who as a college student asked to intern at a publishing company I worked for as an editor. When I told her we were not able to pay interns that summer, she coaxed me into interviewing her and offered to work for free. I was reluctant about taking advantage of her, but she proved so invaluable that she was eventually hired full-time, then moved on to a much higher paying job elsewhere.
After her brief youthful marriage dissolved, she crafted a rich, full, solo life as a beloved auntie and solo world traveler.
I miss going to quirky art house movies with her, and I rely on her to tell me what is fresh and provocative to see and read. I would never have come to love the mind-bending book, “Cloud Atlas,” had Katherine not recommended it.
After I underwent a sudden divorce when I was in my late 40s, I found a higher paying job at an interior design magazine. There, I relied on a much younger editor, Krystal, for her unerring sense of style in stories on food and entertaining. I became one of the “tasters” for her food stories, going with her to the magazine’s test kitchen to try dishes out. As a result, my cooking improved.
She also became my dating guru as I shakily reentered that daunting world. Once at lunch, I mentioned that I was going out with a fellow who was handsome and charming but who was disappointed that I had no interest in golfing with him and that I would not consider dying my grey hair. Her advice: “It will only get worse. Never go out with him again!” (I took it.)
In the last year, I have been mentored by Anna, 18 years my junior, who called me out of the blue after reading a poem I had published and invited me to become part of a poetry radio show at our local radio station. The director of an agency that provides loans to people with disabilities, Anna inspires me with her passionate advocacy. She also is such a good guide on the matter of pronoun usage that I am no longer bewildered by people who think of themselves as “them.”
Finally, I am lovingly mentored by my daughter Kate, whose counsel I rely on in everything from fashion (“Do I look like mutton dressed as lamb in this?”) to nuances of tone in my writing, be it trying too hard to sound woke or using terms that make me appear out of touch. More than that, she inspires me with her generosity.
I was touched once when a family member remarked, “Kate is the nicest person I know.” She often makes me think of what Henry James said when asked by his nephew for advice: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
Rebecca Christian is an Ames, Iowa, writer.