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Mentoring the Dummling Drafts

October 10, 2012

“They pitched the tent and got things in place.”

In a classic hero’s journey a wise mentor guides the “dummling” hero from ignorance to knowledge, as Merlin prepared the young Arthur to become King. Some mentors provide gifts that aid their protégés in times of need, like Dumbledore, who willed the sword of Gryffindor to Harry Potter. And some mentors are fortune tellers who see the innate potential of the students under their wings.

Mrs. Bowen, the librarian at Highfield Public School, was my first writing mentor. She guided my voracious reading beyond the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew to meet feisty female characters created by authors like Louise Fitzhugh and Lyn Cook. After I gobbled up Cook’s Pegeen and the Pilgrim, The Bells on Finland Street and Samantha’s Secret Room, Mrs. Bowen encouraged me to write to the author. This seemed inconceivable to me, rather like writing to a goddess, but Mrs. Bowen just smiled and mailed off my fan letter, care of the publisher. Within a few weeks, I received a gracious hand-written reply from the author herself. My teacher’s gift was to show me that writing is an occupation, conducted by real, hard-working people. Then she challenged me to be one of those people and write my own stories.

Mrs. Bowen read my early drafts and, unlike most of my readers, who said, “good work,” or “it’s very long,” she offered specific comments about the quality of the writing and asked pointed questions about the characters’ motivations (or lack thereof). My mother typed the final copy of “The Mysterious Island” and Mrs. Bowen championed my story. She encouraged me to share it with other students and solicited a written review from our school principal (“The unusual ending caught me totally by surprise!”).

Now I have a host of mentors among the members of our writing group. They guide my efforts by asking finely-tuned questions. They offer gifts of information and eagle-eyed copy-edits. And sometimes, they uncover innate potential in murky characters and tangled plots. Like Merlin, Dumbledore and Mrs. Bowen, they teach me to extract small gems from dummling drafts.

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