This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of mentoring. (The posts to follow will be much shorter in length.) As an artist, it’s the questions around mentorship that I get asked the most about. I hope my reflections help you find your own answers. Please keep in mind my posts are never about one person or one event; they’re about issues/questions that come up enough times for me to take notice.
I know. You want a mentor. No, you NEED a mentor.
I was you. Really, I was that hungry, brash, (un)confident, sometimes fearful, twenty-something year old artist that voraciously read every literary work that came her way… because books saved my life too.
But one book, Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros (a gift from an undergraduate Spanish professor), led me to an entire world of literature unbeknownst to me. And, finally, I found myself reflected in the words and images of groundbreaking mujer artistas.
Usually, these writers were two or three decades older than me—which meant that most of them were still alive when I encountered their works (a miracle in its own right if you consider what those earlier generations faced). They were embodying the struggle of intersectional politics long before it became a vogue term in academia or an organizing concept.
As a jota, I can tell you they were gorgeous in all of their hard-earned artistic glory: intellectually fierce, unapologetic, just overall xingona, creative types. And many of them are still out there strutting their stuff. A few of them were/are even out and queer! Órale, writer fantasies do come true.
It’s not like I hadn’t been exposed to great artists—but white male heteronormative writers (dead or alive) never really turned this jota on. Go figure. Oh, I did learn many things from them and I genuinely liked many of their works. I even came to admire a few of them. Again, this is all before I knew any better.
It’s like coming into your queer sexuality. If the only thing you’re exposed to and offered is a pantheon of men, well, how do you look past their enshrined glory to find las diosas?
Like I said, I can admire the body of work of some of those canonical white men; yes, I even took a few home with me and brought them into my bed. But the books I made love to, or better said, that made love to me… that wholly intimate space is reserved primarily for womyn of color. My heart goes with them. Moreover, my sense of home is with them and with the few men of color (queer and nonqueer) who are my feminist brothers.
So when my Xicana jota corazón fell in love with artistas from my own culturas and from other communities of color—it’s about real amor. That kind of obsessive, passion filled, this is my first and greatest love ever, and I’m going to die if she doesn’t return my call, i.e. I was a whirlwind of super crushed-out sentimientos whenever I came near these incredible artistas. (Hmm, maybe that’s not real amor, but you know what I mean.)
That epiphanic feeling of self-revelation and affirmation when you discover another artist who speaks your vocabulary and creates worlds you’ve lived in (either real or imagined) is an incredible moment of coming into an awareness of fresh possibilities for you as a young artist of color. That feeling should never be devalued. It’s real. Not only does it validate your existence–it gives you hope.
The fact that someone who looks like you, thinks like you, talks like you, loves like you, has somehow in your eyes “made it,” because she’s been published or produced, well, it’s just kind of mind blowing. It affirms your own deseo to be an artist in this very non-affirming mundo.
Maybe she’ll see YOU, and she’ll see the brilliance (or potential) of your own artistic aspirations. We’re talking In Lak’ech and Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo, but, like, for realz.
If she acknowledges your talento in some small way, you know you will walk this non-mapped camino no matter what your parents say. You know it’s not a college education gone to waste; or, even more radical, it’s not insane to opt out of astronomical college expenses, and, instead, seek out life experiences in the bigger world and schooling in nontraditional ways.
Whatever your personal circumstances, all you know is that your spirit needs to pursue the unpredictable life of an artist or you will spend the rest of your days miserable. And you know that many unhappy days will greet you as an artist, but, at least, you will have your art. You just need the equivalent of the pope’s blessing from that badass artist that’s revolutionized your mundo.
Bueno, so back in the day (or last century), even without the ubiquitous Google and Facebook, if you were savvy (okay, a little stalkerish) you could track down such luminary mujeres at some local bookstore reading, or at some womyn of color conference, or if you were really fortunate, maybe you were even introduced to the esteemed artist by a comadre who happened to know her. Because at some point it seems like almost all womyn of color know each other, right?
Anyway, however and whenever this destined meeting took place–like you–I knew it was time to express all of my bottled up feelings and make her an offer she couldn’t possibly resist! ¿Lista?
OH MY GOD, I LOVE YOUR WORK! IT SAVED MY LIFE!! (Insert artist name here), WILL YOU PLEASE MENTOR ME?! PLEASE!!!!!!! (Feel free to throw yourself on the ground for extra dramatic effect.)
Okay, maybe you didn’t say it quite like that and you actually had a bit of swag or restraint. So here’s a quotation from a 2013 keynote speech given at Film Independent’s Film Forum Conference by one of my sheroes, Ava DuVernay:
I rarely meet people who tell me what they’re doing. I often meet people who ask, “Can you help me?” or “How do I do this?” or “Do you want to have coffee?” “Can I take you to coffee?” “Can we grab a coffee?” “I’d love to take you to coffee and pick your brain a little bit.” “Can I send you a script?” “Can you read my script?” “I have a script that I’d love for you to just check out if you can.” “Can you be my mentor?” “I need a mentor.” “I would love if you could mentor me.” “Is it possible for us to talk?” All of that energy, all of that focus to extract from other people is distracting you from what you’re doing. All of that is desperation.
You see, directly approaching someone to mentor you–without any real basis of a relationship–is the first mistake many of us make. It’s an ominous red flag to anyone who knows the value of his/her/their time or understands how basic etiquette abets the growth of any meaningful relationship. And what is a mentor-mentee relationship if not one of the most meaningful interactions you wish to cultivate?
These days because of the even easier access that technology affords us, we may outright ask for mentorship through text, email, FB messaging, etc., which means we don’t even try to sit in the same room with our would-be-mentors to see if we have a good energetic vibe together.
I mean, sure, she makes great art, but what if she’s not well? What if she’s not good at teaching, let alone mentoring? Just because someone is an artist, and even if she/he/they get teaching grants, it doesn’t mean that person necessarily knows how to teach or mentor. Honestly, I wish those kinds of artists didn’t take grants away from people who do invest in teaching well; people who teach with the same passion and skill as making their art.
And what is it that you really want or expect from a mentor? What is underneath this pursuit? In her keynote speech DuVernay went on to give very honest and real advice about the energy spent on chasing a mentor down. She said:
“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not spending time working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet. All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab, you’re being desperate and you’re not doing. You have to be doing something. Because all of the so-called action that you’re doing is hinging on someone doing something for you.”
Her full speech is available online and I highly recommend you listen to it whether you’re a writer in film or otherwise. The conversation around “desperation” applies to artists of all disciplines, especially emerging ones. I wish I had heard something like DuVernay’s speech years ago. It would’ve saved me a lot of embarrassment and self-created anxiety from the made-up stories in my head about why so-and-so didn’t respond to my mentoring request or why she said no.
Also, bear in mind, that your response (or lack thereof) to a potential mentor’s deferment or rejection also speaks volumes about your own character and intentions. Maybe you have an emotional outburst, maybe you give her the cold shoulder and write her off forever (Girl, who does she think she is saying no to ME?), or maybe your mamá raised you well and you’re one of the few who simply responds, “Gracias, I completely understand.”
In whatever manner you respond, I promise you, it tells a potential mentor whether she should keep her eye on you (even if from afar) or, Whew! She dodged the proverbial bullet.
But, wait, you’re not like other potential mentees, and you really do need a mentor. Other people have mentors–why not you? Plus, you’re a great person! Obviously, you just need to be persistent so she can see what she’s missing out on. You’d be a great mentee. You just know it. Maybe she didn’t understand what you meant by mentoring.
Like you, in my youthful naiveté and boundless energy, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was asking of these womyn who already had their hands full just trying to balance the precarious life of a full-time artist. Not to mention their mounting bills, the matters of their personal health, the responsibilities of their family and relatives, their friends (their enemies), their (ex)lovers, their students, their mentees, their mentors, and, yes, even their beloved pets who make their own rightful demands on them. Remember, they’re mujeres–nothing is easy for them in this mundo.
And, yet, they dared to be their own artists? Sit with this, seriously.
Isn’t this part of the reason you’re seeking the attention from that one special artist? You see how she dared to defy the world while carrying so much on her espalda and in her spirit. But maybe you weren’t aware of all the details in her professional and personal life (another telltale sign that no substantial relationship has been fostered). After all, from the outside, la vida de la artista always looks more glamorous than its mundane reality.
Now, if you knew about all of the things she was carrying in her life and you still straight up asked her to take you on–instead of offering to help unburden her load in some way–pos, then shame on you. Sinvergüenza. Como dicen, no tienes mamá.
Trust me, a loving regañada every now and then will do you some good, especially if you’re a person of integrity and reflection. Lick your fragile ego, and welcome the internal growth. And remember, I’m not saying these things without knowing the feel of chancla leather on my own audacious nalgas.
And I really hope she said NO to you loud and clear. The kind that leaves a ringing in your orejas. Because now you can thank her deeply in your corazón. She just taught you the most valuable lesson any “successful” or working artist can teach you: boundaries.
In the middle of her own fraught journey, facing battles and rejections of her own–I promise you–she too has been forced to learn the necessary art of maintaining boundaries: personal and professional ones. It’s a difficult task for many womyn of color to practice and uphold in our lives. It’s like a bra strap that keeps sliding off your shoulder and you have to keep fidgeting with it to keep “las girls” in place.
Never mind how many times we quote the imitable Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” We are always expected to give more. ¿No qué muy Xicana? All about community, ¿ o no?
We’re made to feel we should respond to every query, take on every young artist that needs us–because we of all people know how much need is out there in our communities! Oh, but, we must never expect adequate compensation or true respect for our own time and work. Our reputations as real-homegirl-down-for-la-causa-womyn of color artists depends on how much we can carry… without complaining.
Admittedly, for those of us who are consistently being queried about mentorship, and even if we know why it is imperative to decline the majority of such requests, sometimes we still allow mixed-feelings to creep up within us; because like the residue of very old Catholic guilt, indoctrinated emotional behavior lingers around our entire lives like some specter ready to possess us when we let our guard down. How we respond to pressure from within and without is altogether another conversation and journey around reclaiming the sovereign Self.
Because many mujeres write or make arte with our communities centered in our works and practice, we are expected to embody a politics of eternal servitude. With all due respect from anyone who expects this too often invisible labor from us/you–fuck that.
And, yes, I am straddling this essay between “we” and “you” and “me” because I’ve been on all sides of this plática. Look, if you’ve read this far and you’re thinking to yourself, “Gasp! I’m guilty of this,” or more like, “Ah chingao, I think I really fucked up.” Go ahead and take a deep breath. You did not commit a Cardinal sin. (Again, not that I believe in sin, but thanks to colonization we all get the gist of oppressive religious terms.)
I know, hardly anyone teaches us protocol. We have alternative traditions, but we’re so far removed from them that we just start acting like white folks (or men in general) and feel entitled to the time, bodies and spirits of other womyn of color. But now you know better.
Plus, a mature artist will set boundaries with you, with the entire world—even, and especially, with her own loved ones. Nobody comes between her and her work. Her work is her sacrifice. Her work is her eternal servitude to our communities. Her work is her life.
Like I said, déjala en paz.
And don’t be mad about her not accepting your request. She’s modeling exactly what you should be doing: the work! The work means revising, revising, revising. You can do that right now without any “official” mentor.
You can take classes too and/or create a workshop of peers whom you trust to give you honest and supportive feedback. In short, you can prepare yourself to be the best mentee for your future mentor by developing your own strong work ethic and discipline.
This will be the first thing that attracts any mentor to you-are you serious about the craft? Talking volumes about what you want to do as an artist is never the equivalent of actually doing the work.
When you finally do get to work with mentors, you will discover that even the best of the boundary practicing ones are still overly generous with their time. If you love them, you will become their protectors. You will not be the easy gateway for others to make more demands on them. Instead, you will probably be more like a gatekeeper, because you will want to keep them healthy for many more decades to come.
Above all else, you will want them to keep making their art. And for that to happen they need time. They may not get paid much for their art, but they have a right to their process and however long it takes them.
Bueno, that’s more than enough for now. On a future post I hope to distinguish between a teacher and a mentor. In my own life I have former students and some friends who sometimes refer to me as their/her/his mentor. I know such things are said out of gratitude, love, and respect for the teaching I do. I know I have to do a better job of kindly negating the mentor role whenever it’s applied to me.
At the moment, I’m not anyone’s official mentor. But I’m working on all areas of my life and, especially, my craft. One day, I hope to truly be worthy of a mentee. I want to be a damn good mentor too, because I know how my own life has been enriched by the mujeres who’ve taken me under their guidance.
Por mientras, I’ll continue to do my best as a teacher and as a student of life. Be patient. I promise you–you too will have mentors in your life. In the meantime, go and make your fierce art.