I didn't know I wanted a writing mentor, back in 2000.
Actually, I had barely admitted to myself that I wanted to start writing in a serious way.
But somehow, writing had slipped back into my life, hitching a ride on my accordion.
It had started out slowly, just letters and e-mails to friends about my newfound passion for Cajun music. Once we moved to California, I started to write short articles for the monthly newsletter of a local Louisiana French music association. I felt compelled to find words for my musical obsession.
People started telling me I should start to take my writing more seriously. But I had my doubts. I hadn't done any creative writing since high school. The memories of my overwrought poetry still made me cringe.
But I started looking around for a writing class. Casually at first, then with more urgency, when a musician friend, who was just a year older than I, died suddenly. Time to stop putting things off, I told myself.
There are any number of avenues for budding writers, at least in my part of the world. When I walked around my Berkeley neighborhood, I saw plenty of flyers for writing classes, workshops, and coaches.
But nothing seemed to fit. These offerings seemed to fall into two categories. Some had a distinct self help flavor. Freeing your inner child through writing. Journaling through loss and grief. Women facing midlife.
I didn't want a therapy group. But my interests weren't genre-specific, either. Fiction or nonfiction? Journaling? Poetry? I had no idea.
Then I found it. Or, I should say, I found her. My mentor.
I was looking through the catalog for the UC-Berkeley extension and spotted a course called "Writing as a Practice," taught by Jane Anne Staw, a product of the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. She had been teaching nonfiction classes for awhile, but this was a new course. A new approach to creative nonfiction, for beginning writers. (I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't even know what that term meant, back then!)
The idea was to develop a writing practice by linking it to another activity that was already a regular part of your life. Like yoga or dance. Or your daily sprint around the track. Walking the dog.
Or playing the Cajun accordion.
The class was perfect. And so was she.
For the first week's assignment, I wrote about a gig I played with my year-old Cajun band. It was right after that very first Saturday class, in fact.
I started carrying a notebook around. I wrote every day. Writing had become as necessary to me as breathing. As essential as playing the accordion.
At the end of that first semester at the UC-Berkeley extension, Jane Anne invited me to join one of her private writing groups. I felt honored--and out of my depth. Most of my peers were much more experienced as writers. But I signed on and continued to write little essays about my music. I didn't know where it was heading.
When that first writing group ended, she invited me to join another one of her groups, for people who were working on larger projects. Like books. She thought I had one in me.
I protested that I wasn't exactly writing a book. I was terrified at joining a group with real writers. But I was so flattered that she thought I could do it.
She cautioned me that I wasn't being given a gift. "You'll have to suffer for this," she said.
She was right, of course.
She ignored my protestations that I wasn't planning to write a book.
At the first group meeting, when I introduced myself, and presented my modest goals, she listened politely then added:
"Blair's writing a book."
She knew me better than I knew myself.
Nine years (and many revisions) later, that first assignment I wrote for Jane Anne's class became a chapter in my memoir, Accordion Dreams (University Press of Mississippi, 2009.)
I never would have aspired to writing a book, much less pulled it off, without her guidance.
These days, she is on the core faculty of the creative writing program at the University of San Francisco and continues with her coaching practice. Her writing guide, Unstuck (St. Martin's, 2004) came out in paperback a couple of years ago. I recommend it highly.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders