Mentored for Life

Trying to identify your “most influential mentor” can leave you sorting through a lifetime of teachers, coaches, parents, a spouse, cool uncles who told you to listen to Coltrane, colleagues, indie rock gods and grant writing gurus who have all contributed to your gainful employment. Inevitably, you worry about how many mentors you’ll exclude, especially the living ones who may skim three hundred words just to see who you mention. So, in lieu of celebrating mentors I’ve actually met, I’d like to pay homage to novelists who still make me grow as a teacher, writer and human being. (Could I be more humanities about this?)

Whenever I draft a syllabus or re-draft a story, I return to prose that inspires and humbles by example. The lyrical introspection of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse always educates, as does every conflicted narrator in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. I’ve been routinely schooled by Lorrie Morre’s wit and grace, by Junot Diaz’s skillful use of an opening line to immerse us in a culture, and by Toni Morrison’s ability to blend history and magic in an unadorned style. Michael Ondaatje’s novels offer seminars on painting the epic landscapes of memory, whereas the high expectations of Edith Wharton and V.S. Naipaul keep me revising. These mentors can be as demanding as J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash, their fiction as brutally confrontational.   

Naturally, to preserve my line of work, I’ll say it takes good teachers to show us how these novels better us, but reading for subtleties of style, syntactical experimentation and boldness of voice is where the real learning begins. Kung Fu movies make us hope for the day a mentor will announce “the pupil has become the master,” but the best novels I’ve ever read keep me bound as an apprentice. 

Dr. Kevin Henderson
Assistant Professor of English

Assistant Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences

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