How To Tell A Mentor from A Tormentor

Iseult Gonne

This article first appeared in The Irish Times (print edition), 14.10. 2008.

IN AUTUMN OF 1916, Iseult Gonne sent a long letter to her friend and mentor, WB Yeats, in which she referred to his recent critique of her writing: “I am most thankful to you for those criticisms you have made on my scribblings,” she wrote. “Yes, they are bad.

“I knew it all the while and I am glad of what you say about truth and beauty. I will try and put it into practice . . . but just now I am still too tired to work.”

Too tired to work. When I first came upon those words, as part of research I was doing into Gonne’s life, I felt a terrible sadness for this young writer I was attempting to capture as a character. Yes, the work she was doing at the time could

sometimes be pretentious or derivative, but it also displayed a flair for language, a deep intellectual and spiritual engagement and occasional flashes of brilliance. It was, in short, typical of a promising writer starting out: tentatively emerging, learning by imitation, feeling its way towards a voice.

To me – drawing on years of experience as a writing mentor – it was clear that what Iseult Gonne needed at that point of her development was not a dissertation on truth and beauty but validation of her talent and motivation to keep on writing. WB Yeats was undoubtedly a poetic genius, but he was a lousy mentor. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, goes the old saying and in his case, it was true in reverse.

The saying is erroneous: many gifted writers are also inspiring and effective teachers. Looking back over the last century and a half, countless mentoring relationships spring instantly to mind:

  • Charles Dickens & Wilkie Collins;
  • George Lewes & Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot);
  • Charlotte, Anne & Emily Brontë;
  • Henry James & Edith Wharton;
  • Henry Miller & Anaïs Nin;
  • Marianne Moore & Elizabeth Bishop;
  • Zora Neale Hurston & Tillie Olson;
  • HG Wells & Dorothy Richardson;
  • Saul Bellow & Martin Amis.

MENTORING is an ancient and respected artistic practice, documented in cultures as disparate as bardic Ireland, ancient Greece, the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. Though it has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, literary history is in many ways a history of mentorship.

Today, two significant changes are emerging in the practice, as it becomes both technologised and commercialised. Contact between mentors and mentorees is now as likely to happen by e-mail, Webinar, Skype, fax or telephone as it is face to face, and it is also likely to be offered as a billable service.

A proliferating range of writers’ organisations provide some form of mentoring, ranging from a one-off critique or manuscript assessment, as offered by Poetry Ireland under its critical assessment scheme, to the sort of intense and continuous engagement provided by the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which seeks out emerging talents from around the world and pairs them with masters of their form. Recent pairings have included Toni Morrison and Julia Leigh, Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio García Ángel and Wole Soyinka and Tara June Winch.

While some fear that commerce may corrupt the exchange, others welcome the professionalisation of the role. Certainly, the fact that no money changed hands in the past did not guarantee a positive experience for protégés.

Careless or self-serving advice to a fledgling writer can be disastrous – for their writing, and sometimes at a personal level too. “Such relationships powerfully evoke primal childhood memories and fantasies,” says Anthony W Lee, author of Mentoring Relationships in the Life and Writings of Samuel Johnson . “[They are] sites of tremendous psychic power, with the potential for either self-regeneration or destructiveness.”

The power dynamics of age and experience are further intensified by gender and potentially complicated by sex. Again, WB Yeats provides an example.

All his life, Yeats used work as a means of approaching women he found attractive, with varying outcomes. (His protegee Ezra Pound copied the strategy, again with disasterous implications for Iseult Gonne). Saddest in Yeats’ case was his relationship with Margaret Ruddock, whom he met at the end of his life, after he had undergone his operation for sexual rejuvenation.

Ruddock was a beautiful and unstable actor and poet. At 27 (to Yeats’s 69), she left her husband and child to follow him to Majorca, seeking reassurance about her poetry and her life’s worth.He critiqued her work with supreme self-interest – at first, with extravagant praise, then later, when he moved on to another woman, with extravagant brutality: “You take the easiest course – leave out the rhymes or choose the most hackneyed rhymes because – damn you – you are lazy.”

Ruddock went temporarily insane, dancing in the rain down by the Majorcan seashore. She finished her life in an asylum and Yeats was long troubled by the role he, and his criticism, might have played in her breakdown.

william_butler_yeatsWHEN A PROTÉGÉE begins to find her own identity as a writer, it can often produce tension that infuses both the mutual professional interest and the romance.

“It’s the nature of mentoring relationships that eventually the writer psychologically ‘kills’ the mentor,” says poet and mentor Mary O’Donnell. “I recognise this myself as a practising writer because I too was mentored years ago and I understand the process very well.”

The dynamic is well illustrated in the liaison between Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. Nin’s letters, fiction and diaries contain dialogues about aesthetics that reveal a productive antagonism between her and her mentor, with Nin frequently rebelling against her lover’s conception of art and the artist.

Iseult Gonne never reached this level of confidence. Having parried Yeats’s sexual attentions and refused his offer of marriage, she moved on to a new champion, Ezra Pound, one of the most famous literary mentors of all time.

Pound nurtured the work of a remarkably diverse selection of writers, including James Joyce, TS Eliot and Ernst Hemingway. He took Gonne’s talent seriously and offered her excellent advice in his ebullient way, but again the guidance was compromised by his desire to seduce her. Sexually, he had more success than Yeats, but nothing of artistic worth emerged from the liaison.

Surrounded by these gifted, successful and sex-focussed men, Gonne’s artistic confidence failed her.  Always setting standards for herself were too exacting, her emotional confusion and admiration stirred levels of self-criticism that became disabling.

Exacting standards are essential at the end of the writing process, but she brought them in at the beginning – strangling her words before they found full form.

Soon after she parted from Pound, Gonne met and married Francis Stuart, himself a fledgling writer. She was encouraging of his endeavours, but she also meted out to him some of the lofty condescension she had been dealt by Yeats, an attitude that caused great trouble in their marriage. Stuart overcame her denigration and went on to write a series of controversial novels, while Iseult Gonne herself published nothing of note.

I CAN’T HELP but wonder whether she would have reached her potential if she’d met a mentor early on who was more supportive than Yeats? Perhaps not. But hers is a cautionary tale, yielding three rules for emerging writers and artists who want to avoid her fate. Rule 3: Steer clear of mentors who want to sleep with, or marry, you. Rule 2: Look for someone who gives criticism constructively and sensitively, who encourages you towards self-awareness and a sense of artistic purpose.

And Rule No. 1: never, ever, engage a mentor who leaves you feeling “too tired to work”.



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