Sunday, November 07, 2004

A lost mentor

Anyone who writes – for pleasure, for a living, or anywhere in between – understands the role mentors play in the evolution of a writer. It's not something that is easily explained, for every mentor-protégé relationship is made up of unique personality-based intricacies that are often difficult to quantify.

It's like trying to explain a parent-child relationship: you can paint somewhat representative pictures of small slices of it, but you'll never be able to fully describe the complete entity.

Even though it's the kind of thing that I can't quite capture in words, I can safely say I've been lucky enough to have been mentored by some absolutely gifted writers. Whether they were professors in school, editors at newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, or just journalistic-types I happened to meet along the way, they all shared a number of gifts. The obvious one – the ability to write – was a virtual given. More rare was the ability – and the willingness, of course – to ably share that knowledge with a wet-behind-the-ears journalist.

Luckily, I always managed to end up in the orbit of someone who was both a great writer and a great educator. In other words, a perfect mentor. Each one has helped me take this crazy gift I was born with and shape it into something that would add something to the lives of people around me. They forced me to identify weaknesses and drill them out of my head. They challenged me to take on and master new forms of writing. They did so even when I didn't recognize my potential to succeed in these uncharted regions. They saw it, and they pushed me.

One such professor was James Stewart. He taught opinion writing at my j-school. I remember not looking forward to the course when I first registered for it. I didn't think it was hard-news enough. I resented having to lob softball opinions over the plate when I could instead be out there covering a right-now news story.

He changed my thinking not by drilling my head with the Gospel of the Editorial. He quietly showed me how to use my own emotions to elicit a similarly emotional response in the mind of my reader. He taught me that the editorial page was the heart of the newspaper, the spiritual center from which all reporters would reference their calling. When I exhibited an early aptitude for the genre, he spent whatever time I needed – in class, in his office, or wherever I happened to catch him in the halls of the j-school's building – to help me build my confidence and skills. Unlike most news reporting, opinion writing can be a soul-baring experience. He helped me get comfortable in my new skin.

I remember the in-class exercises best, where we would shape and refine raw thoughts until they resonated with our readers – actually, our fellow students – and stuck in their minds far longer than whatever news made it to the front page.

I learned lessons that semester that slept quietly in the back of my head for years before, one morning a couple of years back, I began writing a descriptive piece while sitting in the waiting area at the airport. I started doodling on my laptop about the scene outside the window: a rising sun, some condensation on the tarmac, planes backlit by the increasingly brilliant light. The lessons flooded back into my head as I turned it into a very personal, very powerful opinion piece on what really matters in life.

When I gave it to people to read, they cried. I knew there was something to this opinion writing thing. My life as a columnist started right there. And it's been an amazing ride since, one I hope goes on for a very long time. In truth, no form of writing fulfills me more than the opinion column. Using a limited space, you must tell a story and make your reader think – and think hard – about your perspective. It may start with facts, but you've got to build well beyond that. It's art, plain and simple. And I'll never stop learning how to push it just a little bit more every time I start with a blank page.

I found out earlier today that the man responsible for my developing such a passion for opinion writing, the aforementioned Mr. Stewart, passed away this past April at the age of 75. In an age when the Internet means instant knowledge of events that happen across the globe, the six-month gap from his passing to my finding out about it seems somewhat out-of-place. But with my university's insistence on sending my correspondence to my parents' house, and my parents', um, not-quite-real-time delivery methods, I just got the envelope this weekend.

In a way, the delay speaks volumes about who Mr. Stewart was. He quietly went about his business of teaching, writing, and sharing his gift with others. He was methodical in how he built a piece. His understanding of the editorial process was profound, and his ability to turn it into a compelling read was universally understood and respected. You didn't rush greatness. You just went out and got the job done in an unobtrusive manner. The results always spoke for themselves.

I write what I write today largely because of the influence of greats like him. I'd like to think that every word I publish has a piece of him and every other mentor in my life embedded within it. I'd be violating their collective memory if I didn't write about how much I owe them for all they've given me.

I know I'm not alone in this regard. We all have mentors who first helped us see beyond what we originally envisioned for ourselves, then showed us how to actually move into that new territory. My biggest regret is my consistent inability to let them know just how deeply they impacted my life and my career. I always seem to reflect in this manner only after one has passed away. I wish I knew a way to let more of my mentors know how deeply influential they have been, and how strongly I carry their gift each and every day.


James Stewart - Veteran Montreal Gazette columnist

By The Canadian Press MONTREAL - James Stewart, a veteran journalist and Montreal Gazette seniors columnist, died of cancer Monday at age 75.

Stewart wrote about politics and public affairs for nearly half a century for newspapers in Montreal and elsewhere. He also taught editorial and opinion writing at Concordia University.

Source: Canadian Press, via, May 2, 2004.


twenty something said...

Sorry about the loss Carmi. But you wrote very beautifully about him.

Mark said...

Part of him will always live on in you and others he inspired.

Photominer said...

Carmi, I'm sorry too for your loss. You shouldn't worry about letting a mentor know that you made it because of them, they will know, just by reading your work. I'm sure he followed your stories and felt proud that he'd done such a good job bringing out the best in you.