Who are Mentors, If Not Gatekeepers of the Mind?

I recently read George Saunders’ "My Writing Education: A Timeline," a personal narrative published in The New Yorker where the esteemed author of Tenth of December praises his friend and mentor, Tobias Wolff, for reintroducing him to the “magic” of his early writing.

Saunders recounts that the magic that granted him acceptance to the MFA program in Syracuse was lost to the normal, everyday curveballs that life likes to tickle us with. He met, fell in love, and married fellow classmate and writer, Paula Redick, experienced his first test as a husband whiile his new wife lay ill with early labor complications, welcomed the first of two daughters, and wrote a book-length thesis all in the span of the program’s three years. Throughout this eventful time, the affectionately nicknamed, Toby, kept popping up like an all-knowing apparition, always lending a calm ear and wise word to his mentee. It was clear to me after reading the first few paragraphs that this wasn’t simply an essay relaying some of the more private details of a writer’s life; this was an ode to the mentor that helped shape a former engineering student into one of the greatest contemporary writers today.

Instructors and workshop facilitators in writing programs are abundant. They are fine, respectable teachers who introduce us to the basis of craft and literature. Mentors, however, are far more complex beings. Mentors are the select few that render their relationship with the student as an opportunity to influence a life; they instill in us a kernel of curiosity for viewing the world through a far more variegated lens. Mentors help give our writing an identity, they help shape our work from adequate to alluring, and through these acts of selflessness, or perhaps in an attempt to pay forward the gifts they received from mentors of their own, they influence the course of their pupils’ lives for the better.

If Melissa Pritchard has taught me anything, it is to stay humble and to stay very still so that one may hear what others have to say.

Melissa Pritchard, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Arizona State University, is by this rather simplified definition, a mentor on many levels. As a student of hers, I can give testament to the notion that Pritchard goes beyond the role of instructor, that she is one of those rare humans who gives generously, yet quietly, with no thought or mention of reward. She opens her home—a quaint, vintage cottage in the artistic quarter of downtown Phoenix—to students at the end of each semester for a light dinner and book exchange. Outside of academia, Pritchard travels to locations that rarely make the cover of travel magazines. These are dangerous places; these are remote, complicated spaces where the voices of innocents have been shrouded by the smoke clouds of war. Here is where Pritchard devotes her energy. Though many of us find inspiration through the comfort of books and everyday people, Pritchard finds inspiration in the courage of Afghan women, the resilience of Sudanese child slaves, the memory of Air Force Senior Airman, Ashton Goodman.

Through her travels, Pritchard is able to soothe some of these worldly aches in the only way an individual can: by carrying these aches back home with her so that we, as her immediate audience, may attempt to understand a small fraction of these tragedies. I say “attempt to understand” because though we are a department of scholars, though we are hungry for complex, unflinching things to read, we are not in any way prepared for the difficult truths attached to these stories. This is where Pritchard’s influence as a mentor takes precedence; this is where she tightens the seam between her work abroad and her work in the community. Her involvement with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an initiative showcasing the poetic talent of Afghan women writers while aiding them in developing their language and literacy skills and strengthening their job-marketability, is one such example. In the Fall of 2013 and again in 2015, Pritchard facilitated a reading where graduate students read from the collected poems of Afghan women titled, Washing the Dust from Our Hearts. Through this powerful, audience-wielding reading, Pritchard and her student readers were able to quite literally hold a microphone to the voices of these heavyhearted yet enormously talented Afghan women writers.

Out of Silence: Readings from the Afghan Women's Writing Project from ASU English on Vimeo.

How easy is it to say that we give generously to our community. How easy is it to jot our goals of giving back on a mental bucket list, allow the media-filtered images of war overseas to wash over us from the comfort of our televisions and portable computers. But to travel beyond the borders of safety and comfort and immerse ourselves in the pockets of the world too fragile to withstand the volume of our everyday voices, to gain the trust of those who have no trust left to give, this is a task only one of us can say she has achieved. However, if Melissa Pritchard has taught me anything, it is to stay humble and to stay very still so that one may hear what others have to say.

Of Tobias Wolff, Saunders states his mentor is “…a generous reader and a Zen-like teacher. The virtues I feel being modeled—in his in-class comments and demeanor, in his notes, and during our after-workshop meetings—are subtle and profound.” The way I feel about my workshop experience with Pritchard mirrors this sentiment, and though it is with selfish purpose that I wish she wait only one more year to retire so long as I complete my MFA degree with her at the finish line, I know I speak for the entire Department of English when I say she has been an enormous asset to both the university and the community. I wish her the best of luck on her new ventures, as from what I have gathered (and what I can only assume based on her previous accomplishments) she has already accrued a number of projects, which she’s neatly stacked on her desk. Pritchard retires from ASU with a wealth of accolades, a plethora of published works, and an even greater number of friendships.

George Saunders had Tobias Wolff. I have Melissa Pritchard.

María Isabel Alvarez

Photo of Melissa Pritchard by Bruce Matsunaga.