I was involved in an interesting conversation the other day on Facebook about shampoos and grooming tips for collies. (For those of you who don’t know, my alter ego is a professional dog handler—mainly collies, but I’ve shown many breeds over the years.) The gist of that conversation was most people don’t like to share what’s hidden in their tack boxes or what goodies might be lurking in the totes full of spray bottles. Seriously? When did grooming a dog at the show—or at home, for that matter—become a state secret?
That failure to share knowledge made me think of a handler several years ago who had cans of shaving cream in their totes, covered with plain paper or a lot of duct tape, and each can was labeled “secret mousse.” Like it wasn’t incredibly obvious those cans were simply shaving cream? And, when asked what that shaving cream was used for, the majority of people were told it wasn’t shaving cream and the question was put aside. Honestly????
I stated, for the record, that my tack box and the tote of bottles is an open book. I am more than willing to share the knowledge I’ve garnered over the decades (OMG—it has been over three decades of dog showing!) on how to groom a dog to accentuate virtues and downplay faults. If we don’t share our knowledge with those just starting out in this crazy hobby of showing dogs, where will the next generation of fanciers come from? I had several mentors, some of whom were/are giants in the breed.
From my mentors I learned the things I needed to start “playing dog show.” I learned the bloodlines I was working with, what puppies did at certain ages in their development, how to groom to make that dog look his/her best, and how to present that dog. I will also be the very first to admit I am still learning, and I pray that the day I stop learning is the day that I am placed in the ground. I also learned that paying it forward reaps its own rewards. I have promised myself that I will be a mentor to those who ask me for help, and I will NOT take the role of dictator and assume that if the dog doesn’t come from the lines I have incorporated into my breeding program that dog is automatically a “pet.” I will also admit, it’s taken me a while to reach that point in my life, but every dog has redeeming qualities—it’s up to all of us to find, recognize, and appreciate those qualities.
And that started me thinking about the writing life and the mentors I’ve had in this incredible journey. This is my chance now to name just a few of these people. First of all, there was Barb Wright. She and I met a long time ago at a creative writing workshop offered by the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, when I lived in Wisconsin when my kids were little. I’ve lost track of Barb, but she was also a writer. She wrote fantasy and she was one of the first to read my pitiful attempts at novel writing. She had such wonderful insights and suggestions and she steadied those first, toddling steps to completing a manuscript.
And, then there are my old AOL writing buddies: Cyndia Depre, Ellen Recknor, and Rebecca Green. Cyn is an incredibly talented mystery writer. I can’t really call what she writes as “cozies” because her novels are a bit too edgy for a cozy. Cyn could spot a plot hole a mile off, and then start throwing suggestions out to fill in that hole faster than a puppy can destroy a new pair of leather shoes. (I’ve had experience with puppies and new leather shoes, by the way.) Ellen Recknor, who I bow down to. Published under several pen names, winner of the Spur Award, nominated for a Pulitzer and author of such great reads as Prophet Annie, Leaving Missouri, and Me and the Boys, and just a great friend. I think I was one of the first people she talked to when she started writing The Legendary Kid Donovan. Imagine this premise: A sixteen year old boy goes west to meet his uncle, his only surviving family, only to learn his uncle has been murdered for a share of a failing mine, and the kid has inherited his uncle’s only other possession: a brothel. I know I laughed out loud when Ellen told me the premise of that novel. Ellen has taught me the value of perseverance and determination. She kept prodding me to keep sending my manuscripts out. And, Rebecca Green…one of those people who is among the best at brainstorming. I still have pages and pages of conversations saved from the AOL IM brainstorming sessions we would have until all hours of the morning. One of these days, those sessions will turn into my next manuscript.
Lastly, but certainly not the only person who has guided me along this path is a member of my master’s committee: Mr. Aaron Michael Morales. Aaron is one of the edgiest, brightest, sharpest up and coming Latino writers in this universe. (For an incredible read, find Drowning Tuscon and make sure that you’ve got time to read this, because not only is it written with such an edge the words cut, it is breath-taking in its characterization and insight into the human psyche.) Aaron pushed me to go in directions I never would have thought to go with my writing, was incredibly hard on me (but, as he said, he knew after the first class I had with him that I could take the heat and I would also craft a better story with that kind of intense pressure), and made me a better writer for all of it.
And, I know I haven’t mentioned everyone who I consider a mentor. But, if these people had not been willing to share knowledge, had not been willing to offer constructive criticism (unlike one person in the old AOL chat circles who offered to be a critique partner and so literally tore my MS to shreds that I stopped writing ANYTHING and EVERYTHING for two years), and had not been supportive over the years, I would not be the writer I am today.
I’ll admit I’m not a great writer. I’ll argue I’m a good writer and with everything I write, I become a better writer. I have to admit also, that even though I’ve long since forgotten the name of that person on AOL who shredded my MS, I have never forgotten the pain or the sheer, breath-taking brutality of that attack. Every workshop I enrolled in while working on my master’s degree, and every critique I have ever been asked to do for anyone has been influenced by that cruelty. I know how deeply wounding a non-constructive critique can be, no matter how tough the writer claims his/her hide may be. I promised myself, when I finally forced myself to write again, that I WILL NEVER offer an unconstructive criticism of any one’s writing, and no matter how bad the writing may be, there are still gems to be gleamed within that work. It is my job, as a critique partner, as a member of a workshop, as a fellow writer, to find those gems, bring them to light, and gently push/prod/guide that writer to also see those gems.
So, I have to ask. Is being a mentor, sharing knowledge, really a state secret? If we don’t mentor one another, guide one another, offer insights into this writing life, where will the next generation of writers come from?