by rebeccaswirsky

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know – to paraphrase a man I suspect knew more than all of us put together, Socrates.

This saying has hovered as I’ve questioned that addictive, obstinate task we set ourselves.

What, I’ve wondered, might writerly ‘knowing’ look like? It could be the place in a writer’s head where nouns and adverbs co-exist perfectly. It might be the sweet spot where meaning and content and craft combine to form a harmonious whole. Perhaps it’s when surprise hits like a sledgehammer because truth has unexpectedly formed on the page. In the end, I think writerly ‘knowing’, is a place rarely consciously found.

Yet instead of pessimism in Socrates words, I read deep encouragement. I’m hearing him say that anything worth striving for is hard. That only unless it’s hard, is it worth striving for.

And I’m lucky – unusually so – because Stella Duffy happens to be my mentor (wonderful sentence, that) through an apprenticeship with The Word Factory. Over the months, I’ve discovered that mentoring can take many forms. That it can be essentially as comforting as hearing someone say, ‘I’m with you. You’re not in the dark. You’re not alone.’

Like in medicine, there is a level of trust administered, and delivered, between mentor and mentee. Reading Stella’s thoughts about my collection is refreshing, offering new avenues of consideration. Meshing her ideas and mine as to how it might be shaped is a foretaste of having readers interpret my work through the filter of their experiences, and the opportunity to connect with Stella’s ‘life-wisdom’, to me, is one of the mentorship’s main bonuses. Writers in dialogue with other writers: step by step, word by word.

I aim to honor this apprenticeship with work that makes me proud, work that is tough for me to write, work that digs deep and (perhaps) pushes some buttons for readers and author both. That, as Stella put it over our meeting in Brixton, is motivated by “the truth of myself, not a market truth”, citing author Margaret Drabble as an example of a successful synthesis between content and style.

Perhaps all writers should have a mentor at least once in their lives, because as writers never stop writing (sorry, that’s retirement out, people), they also never stop learning. There’s no greater pleasure than studying what and how great writers do what they do. The exhilaration is muscular. It’s alive.

Last Saturday I shared a mic with Stella Duffy and David Almond at a Word Factory Salon in Waterstones, Piccadilly. Reading beside these wonderful writers in a location visited for browsing (and buying) favorite authors was a delight. From Stella’s generous introduction of her ‘mentee’ to an extended question and answer session with David Almond, in which he discussed ‘beating the words out’ and ‘writing loveliness on the page,’ the inclusivity in the room was clear. Literature is for everyone – in that way it’s deeply political. At the evening’s end, David Almond said something that I will never forget. ‘It was lovely to work with you.’ Inspiring words to a writer.

I recently commented on Edith Pearlman’s collection, Binocular Vision, ‘how does she do it?’ The writer Tania Hershman picked up the twitter baton, and, after agreeing on the quality of Pearlman’s writing, responded, ‘…all we can really do is tell our own stories, eh?’

I whole-heartedly agree. Telling stories, sharing our voices. Exciting stuff.

Wishing you much inspiration for 2014.

Rebecca Swirsky