04 August 2015

The Importance of Mentors

Photo by Robin Templeton
by Barb Goffman

I'm so pleased to be joining the SleuthSayers blog. As I contemplated what to write in my first post here, I remembered another time when I was the new kid. It was the summer of 1993, and I was interning as a reporter at Newsday on Long Island. Newsday is a big newspaper now, but back then it was even bigger--its circulation placed it in the top ten of US daily newspapers. Getting that summer job was a huge deal, and I arrived on my first day excited and eager and more than a little nervous. And then I met my editor for the summer, Dennis Bell.

Dennis Bell
I've had my share of good and bad bosses over the years. Dennis was one of the best. He had a smile that even now, twenty plus years later, makes me break out into a smile of my own. Dennis believed in his reporters. He backed them up. He helped them improve. He came to a barbecue I threw and hung out with everyone, just one of the gang, kind and cool, a great mentor.

But Dennis was more than that. He was a guy who started out at Newsday as a janitor, and he worked his way up and became a reporter. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize as part of a reporting team sent to cover famine in Ethiopia. And then he became an editor and tried to help young people succeed, just as he had. Dennis was a role model, someone I hoped to emulate in my career, and someone I hoped to keep in touch with forever.

Forever came to a screeching halt two years later when Dennis died. To this day, I'm still a bit heartbroken.

Yet Dennis lives on, not only in my memory, but surely in the memories of all the reporters who worked for him on the Suffolk County desk, as well as his family and friends. He lives on as reminder to work your hardest--you never know how far you can go--but to also have a little fun along the way. I hope to do that here at SleuthSayers: a good job talking about writing, and having a little fun while I'm at it.

My dog, Jingle. More on him later.
Which reminds me, I've told you about Dennis, but not much about me. After working as a reporter for a few years, I went to law school. And after working as an attorney for nearly a dozen years, I became a freelance fiction editor. In my spare time, I'm a voracious reader, and I've been writing crime short stories for more than a decade.

I've had the good fortune to win the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for my short stories, and I've been named a finalist for other awards (eight times for the Agatha, and three times each for the Macavity and Anthony awards). Two years ago, Wildside Press published my first collection of short stories, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, which won the Silver Falchion for best collection of 2013. Being a short-story writer has been a ton of fun, and with hard work, tenacity, and a bit of luck, I've succeeded far beyond what I'd imagined the first day I put fingers to keyboard. I'd like to think that somewhere, Dennis Bell is grinning at me.

He may also be thinking of the advice he gave me before I left his employ: don't sweat the first six months of any job as a reporter. That's the time to get your feet wet and to get to know your beat. But after the end of your second six months, if you haven't gotten someone arrested, you're not doing your job right. So let's consider this my settling-in period here at SleuthSayers. I hope it turns out all right. Will anyone be arrested by this time next summer? Well, maybe in my short stories. Keep a look out for a character named Dennis. If you see him, you'll know he's one of the good guys.

Do you have a mentor who's made a big difference in your life? I'd love to hear about him or her.

45 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

That’s an amazing tribute to Dennis Bell, a beautiful article, Barb.

In a very real way, the gangs at Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers have been my mentors, kind of on-the-job training thanks to James Lincoln Warren. I keep learning… all the time.

janice law said...

Welcome to Sleuthsayers.
I'm looking forward to reading more of your work!

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Leigh and Janice. I'm looking forward to learning from everyone here, as well. It's nice to be joining a blog whose prior incarnation was started by James Lincoln Warren. I've known him through writing conventions, particularly Malice Domestic. He's always been sweet and kind to me.

Kim Kash said...

Thanks for this post, Barb, and for taking on a big writing commitment like this. It'll be wonderful to hear from you on such a regular basis.

The timing of this is spot on. Today, I'm going to lunch with Joe Taylor, my high school teacher for English, speech, drama, yearbook, and probably a few other arts-related courses that I'm not recalling. I took every class he offered. He taught me some foundational stuff, of course, but more importantly, he told me that I could write. No, more than that: he told me that I am a writer. I haven't seen him in decades, but we'll be reconnecting today!

Eve Fisher said...

Welcome, Barb! We're glad to have you join us.
One of my mentors was Wood Smethurst, the director of the Reading Center at Emory University back when I was a 21 year old secretary. He encouraged me, talked to me about my work, and even arranged for me to go to a writer's retreat for a month. He was the first person to really make me feel that I was a "real" writer, even though I hadn't gotten much written, and nothing published. Thanks to him, that really changed. He died in July of this year at 82. God bless you, Wood!

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Barb, Welcome to Sleuthsayers. And if Dennis can warrant a tribute like that he must have been a great guy all around.

sherryharrisauthor@gmail.com said...

I could list a lot of teachers who helped me on the way but no one wants to read a list. So I'll just say I've been lucky to have a number of people willing to help me out. Great post.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Good to see you here at SleuthSayers, Barb. This is one of my favorite blogs. As for mentors, I've had some wonderful high school and college English teachers who pushed me to write, friends who are terribly supportive and online colleagues who are so helpful. Now I find myself mentoring several young people and am surprised to see them mentoring me back. :-)

Judy Alter said...

Nice post. I look forward to reading more on Sleuthsayers.

I do have a mentor--the man who hand-carried me through graduate school. He reads everything I write before I do anything else with it. His critique helps me enormously. We meet for lunch and "writing talk" every two or three weeks. I feel fortunate to have had him as a good friend for forty years or more.

Terri Parsons said...

Wonderful Tribute Barb!

John Floyd said...

Great column, Barb! And--as I'm sure you know--I'm extremely pleased to have you here at SleuthSayers.

Like Leigh, I feel that many of the Criminal Brief/SleuthSayers crew are my mentors, and I certainly owe a great deal to James Lincoln Warren, who invited me to climb aboard the CB train back in 2007.

B.K. Stevens said...

Welcome to SleuthSayers, Barb! I started blogging here just last month, on second Saturdays. (That's right--August 8 is coming up. I'd better finish editing that post!) Our paths have crossed many times during the last seven or eight years--it's nice to have them cross again here.

I've been fortunate to have a number of mentors--professors in college and graduate school, colleagues when I was a professor myself. The late Cathleen Jordan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine when I started having stories published there, was a wise and generous mentor; Linda Landrigan, the current editor, is a wonderful mentor, too. I also have to mention John Floyd, who's mentored me on everything from writing mini-mysteries for Woman's World to exploring the mysteries of Blogger for SleuthSayers. Where would any of us be without our mentors?

Robert Lopresti said...

Welcome, Barb. You are off to a great start. My favorite mentor was a library director named Robert L. Goldberg. Favorite bit of advice: A goood manager shares credit and hoards blame.

Anonymous said...

After an initial rocky start asking for mentoring, I've found most folks are helpful. I expected most authors to be cutthroat as portrayed in all the shows, but it's not like that at all.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

WOnderful, Barb! ANd welcome to blog world--this is a fabulous one!

Victoria Weisfeld said...

What an interesting debut post. It's a characteristic of your generous spirit that you start off talking not about yourself but giving credit to others. Dennis sounds ideal. I had such a mentor in Frank Karel. Frank's spirit lives on in a program at the University of Florida in the College of Journalism and Communications to do public interest work, or "communications that matters." About Frank and the conferences that bear his name

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for commenting, everyone!

Paul, Sherrie, and Terri, I'm so glad you liked the post. I'm sorry Dennis couldn't be here to read it. Of course if he were, I would have written about something else. (I'd rather have been able to write about something else. Sigh.)

Kim, that's so cool that you get to see your mentor today! Everyone needs that one person who makes them believe they can achieve their dreams. I've had a few of those. In the past year, I've been fortunate to reconnect with one of them, my high-school newspaper adviser (as well as junior-year English teacher), over Facebook. I learned a lot from him back then, not just about writing, but about life, and I'm grateful. (Frank Scoblete, this means you!)

Eve, thanks for sharing about Wood Smethurst. It's a person's early mentors who can really do so much good. When you're young, or merely inexperienced, in your desired field, and someone in that field encourages you and makes you feel like you can do it, that you can achieve your dreams, no matter how fanciful they may seem to you or to naysayers around you, that can make all the difference in your life.

Bobbi, I love how you are mentoring people but are learning from them, too. It's such an important point: everyone has something to share, something to teach. And no matter how accomplished you are in your art, there's always something to learn.

Judy, I'm in awe that you've kept in such regular in-person contact for so many years with your mentor. How enriched your life must be because of this relationship.

John, you may not know this, but you were the first editor who accepted my work outside of the anthologies put together in conjunction with my Sisters in Crime chapter. When I learned that you had accepted a story I wrote, I danced around the room. I'm so glad to be joining a blog that you're a member of.

Bonnie, our paths have been crossing so much in the past few years. You have to wonder if it's a sign of ... something. I'm so glad to be a blog partner with you here at SleuthSayers.

Robert, thanks for the invitation to join this blog! And I agree with your mentor's advice. A good leader lifts people up by sharing credit, not blame.


Nancy Eady said...

I was 16. We had just moved to a new city as part of my dad's Navy job, when on the 3rd day of school and the 3rd day of my mother's new job, my life changed - my parents ended up splitting up and ultimately getting divorced. The first day was especially traumatic, for reasons I won't go into here. I had an English teacher who had gone to the Superintendent of Schools in our city and gotten permission to teach English HER way with HER books - we had a full semester of just writing, and then a second semester where we covered English literature and still wrote. An early assignments the first semester was a short story, and I wrote about what was happening in my life. This teacher took the time to call me up to her after class to see if this was something really happening in my life and ended up being a very bright light at a very difficult time in my life. I was fortunate enough to get her my senior year as well, with the same format. I had been writing stories my whole life, but I think the road to learning to write well began with Mrs. Rogers. I stayed in touch with her years after I graduated high school, and I will always be grateful.

Nancy E.
www.workingmomadventures.com

Dru said...

My mentor was my 8th grade teacher. When he took me aside and said I can be or do anything that I want and all I have to do is work for it, my life will be more than just living in the projects getting by. I took that to heart and did what I needed to do. I never forgot him even after high school. I ran into him while I was in college and he told me he knew I would be one of his success stories.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Well written tribute to someone who made a difference

Maryann Corrigan said...

Congratulations on joining the blog and on an inspiring first post! I learned more about writing from my first editor, Jac Tharpe, than I ever did in a classroom. I never met him in person, but his many, many red-pencil marks on my submission to an anthology about Tennessee Williams' plays taught me how to write concisely, not like an academic.

Susan O'Brien said...

Touching post, Barb. Looking forward to your future posts. So glad you're blogging.

Melodie Campbell said...

So damned thrilled to have you on here, Barb! Great first post, too. I had a mentor who I lost track of, and when I finally found him, it was through his obituary. I've been sad about that ever since. As a tribute to him, I pay it forward: I volunteer as a creative writing workshop leader at my city library, just as he did for me, way back in the late 80s. Your post is good reminder for us to thank our mentors *now*.

Barb Goffman said...

Anonyomous: Cutthroat authors on TV shows? Which ones? Clearly I'm missing out on all the fun!

Vicki, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad that your mentor's name lives on. So many mentors live on silently, in the art they encourage. It's nice when their contributions can be remembered directly, too.

Nancy, I didn't know this bit of your history. I'm glad you had that teacher to help you though what must have been a rough time and that she helped you become the writer you are today.

Dru, I love your story. It really can be one person, one comment, that makes all the difference.

Maryann, I think the Internet teaches us what you learned personally: you can learn from someone over the miles, without ever meeting them in person. The red pencil isn't always bad!

Debra and Susan, thanks for reading and stopping by. Good friends mean the world.

Barb Goffman said...

Oh, Melodie. That's a heartbreaking story, but I'm glad you're making the best of it, giving back. And yes, tell the people who matter to you that they matter now. As with Dennis, you never know when they will suddenly be gone.

Barb Goffman said...

Hank, I just realized I didn't mention you above. That's just wrong, especially since you mentor so many people these days -- the epitome of a person who gives back. Thank you for stopping by.

KM Rockwood said...

What an inspiring blog! It shows us how important a mentor can be, and pays tribute to a great one in your life.

In addition, I see it as a reminder that we all need to be sensitive to fellow writers, especially beginning ones, who can benefit enormously from a helping hand.

Shari Randall said...

Barb, loved your post. What a wonderful mentor you had in Dennis. I am sure he's looking down with pride from the newsroom in the sky. I've been fortunate that I've had many people through the years who have believed in me. I especially love Phyllis Donovan, who was my editor at my first job at my hometown newspaper. Phyllis showed me it was possible to be tough enough to survive as the only women in the newsroom, plus look good in pearls.

Ellen Byerrum said...

Great post, Barb. I'm looking forward to your posts.

I love the ideas of honoring mentors because they are so rare (in my experience) and so valuable. I remember one of my professors in college. He was the only one who told me I had what it took to write novels. He also said I shouldn't be in journalism because it would ruin me. He also called journalism the world's second oldest profession. Well, I stuck with journalism, but I also eventually wrote those books.

Diana Belchase said...

Nice tribute, Barb. Looking forward to reading more.

Grace Topping said...

Congratulations, Barb, on joining the blog group. They are fortunate to have you. I look forward to reading your posts.

Joanna Slan said...

Barb, you are my mentor--and a mentor to so many of us by your deeds and your good examples. I've learned a lot from you. (And today when I looked up the difference between "beside" and "besides," I thought of you yet again!

Joanna Slan said...

Oops. And I lost an end parenthesis mark!
))))))))) Bad Author

Larry W. Chavis said...

Glad to see you've joined the crew at one of my favorite blogs. Looking forward to all your posts.

Mo Walsh said...

Thanks for steering me to Sleuthsayers, Barb, and wonderful first post. I had several terrific teachers who encouraged me and helped me develop my writing, but it was a high school speech & drama teacher, Terry Ohlms, who taught me one of my most valuable lessons. When it was my turn to give an extemporaneous speech, I gave my prepared opening sentence, froze, and dissolved in tears. Mrs. Ohlms let me sit down, but asked me to stay after class. She asked me to join the speech team, based on the way I delivered that one sentence! If I knew my material beforehand, she believed I would do well. For the next three years I wrote and delivered 8-10 minute speeches, won competitions, and learned to look for the strengths, not the errors, in myself and others and foster them.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, KM. Dennis himself benefited from a helping hand. His story is so inspiring. A man who started as a janitor and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. And he didn't have a big head about him either. He was just a great guy.

Shari, it must have been tough back in those early newsroom days. I'm glad you had a female mentor to help you find your way. And to look good while you did it!

Ellen, I've known you for a number of years. I don't think journalism ruined you. You came out smart and sharp and with a hell of a lot of great stories. Journalism probably fueled your fire for writing mysteries. Good guys. Bad guys. People you'd want to kill ...

Joanna, wow, that is so nice of you to say. I'm ... speechless. Grateful. Thank you.

Diana, Grace, and Larry, thanks so much for stopping by. I'm looking forward to lots of fun posts. I've already started working on the one that will post on August 25th. There will be funny pictures ...

Barb Goffman said...

Mo, that's a great story. Your teacher took a bad moment and found the good in it. That's what teaching should be about. Not just giving facts and teaching people how to think critically, but also helping people to find their strengths and to learn from their disappointments, to provide the encouragement through which people can chase their dreams and, maybe, achieve them. You're very fortunate.

Robert Lopresti said...

I am sure we are all delighted that so many of Barb's fans have followed her here I hope you will try some of the other SleuthSayers as well. We have a lot of fun!

Susan Sundwall said...

Barb, Would that we all had a mentor like Dennis. Thank you for introducing him. Your debut post was informative, relatable, and essentially you. Plus, I love the Jingle tease. You'll do swell, Kid.

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, Susan. And thanks for stopping by. (P.S. Jingle says woof.)

Earl Staggs said...


Hi, Barb. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Geyer, encouraged me by telling me I had a knack for writing. She even convinced me to enter an essay contest. I did, I won, and that's when I decided I would someday be a writer. Best wishes in your new venture as a blogger here. I know you'll do well.

Anonymous said...

I have to ask if Jingle is a border collie, as s/he seems to be. Yeah, that's me: skip the adult talk and go straight to the dog. :-)

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Earl. Thanks for stopping by. It's interesting how one person can have such a profound affect on another's life just be giving a little encouragement. I'm glad you had Mrs. Geyer in your life.

Anonymous, Jingle is probably a beagle/dachshund mix. But he's a shelter rescue, so that's simply a guess. He says woof!

B.K. Stevens said...

Jingle reminds me of our late dog, Alex, who was a beagle/sheltie mix (also from a shelter). But since you think Jingle might be part dachshund, he's probably smaller than Alex was.

Barb Goffman said...

He's about 25 pounds, Bonnie, but really close to the ground.