Mentors and a Game by Denise Low
My writer friend Robert Day has a game he plays. He shakes your hand, and then says, “There. You have shaken Nabokov’s hand, twice removed, and through him, Leo Tolstoy’s hand.” This physical touch-tag game shows the human aspect of writers’ lineages. Alongside the written books exists a living network of friends, teachers, and mentors. These all provide support for the next generations of writers. Sometimes the lineages are stories, not handshakes. Poet Langston Hughes lived in Lawrence, Kansas, most of his childhood (1901-1915), and his school friend John Taylor told stories about Hughes to Katie Armitage, who told stories to me, and I wrote a biography. A mentor for Hughes was his third-grade elementary school teacher, an African American educator named Mamie Dillard. He remained close to her the rest of his life. Mentors help young people with no expectation that the youngster will become famous. They support the lineage of the literary tradition because they love it. This kind of generosity inspired Rainer Maria Rilke to exchange letters with an aspiring poet, collected in: Letters to a Young Poet: Rilke, Rainer Maria, 1875-1926. An important part of literature is the community of those who love the craft and art of writing. They may become as famous as Leo Tolstoy or Langston Hughes, or not. Whom, in history, would you like to shake hands with? Who are your mentors? What kind of mentor will you be when your turn arrives?