1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher;
2.an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
The definition gives me four essential qualifying relationships: counselor, teacher, sponsor, or supporter. That covers a whole lot of territory. Half the science fiction/fantasy community would go on my list, either as mentors or mentees. I need a narrower definition.
Its seems to me that mentoring, as the term is currently used, goes beyond "support" and instruction. It involves advising a younger writer and shaping that writer's career. This function was once served by editors and agents; in some cases, it still is. But most aspiring writers find themselves adrift in unknown territory, where the rules are nebulous and constantly changing, and every writing blog shrieks out advice.
We human beings need, if not security itself, then the illusion of it. Someone's got to know how it works, right? In terms of the writing itself, there are people who've figured out a thing or two. Some of them teach classes; others will critique specific manuscripts. But publishing is changing so rapidly and in so many unanticipated directions that anyone who says they know the secret is selling you something. A newbie with good market instincts (c.f., Amanda Hocking) is as likely to meet with spectacular success as someone with forty hardcover novels in print. In other words, all bets are off when it comes to publishing "guidance."
What about mentoring, then? I think we need to soften -- or broaden -- the definition. The old model of wise-old-counselor-authority must give way to mutual sharing of experience and opinion in an environment of respect and encouragement. Which brings me back to Marion. One of the most satisfying (if occasionally terrifying) aspects of our relationship was that from very early on, she treated me like a peer. Certainly, she had things to say about my writing when it was clumsy and ill-though-out. Rather emphatic things. But she never advised me about where to submit what or what I should be writing next, how to publicize my work, what conventions to go to or who to introduce myself to. She always talked to me as if I were a competent person, a writer with my own dreams and artistic vision who just happened to have fewer years of publishing than she did.
Over the years, I've had the privilege of extending the same respect to writers with less experience, just as Marion did to me. This weekend, I met a friend, an immensely talented writer near the beginning of her career. I loved hearing about her current project and being able to vent about the frustrations in mine. Am I her mentor? Is she mine? Or are we each sharing our different strengths, our fears, our enthusiasm?
Marion was my friend, my editor, and my colleague. She encouraged me. She loved my work. I admired her tremendously and will always be grateful and honored by her confidence in me. Was she my mentor?
Does it matter?