Mentorship without Friendship

The relationship between a mentor and a mentee need not be a friendly one.

During the discussion portion of Erin Dick’s IABC presentation on mentorship, I stood up and briefly described my own experience being mentored, as a writer and editor, by Jay Rosen and the late Paul Kurtz. Only after sitting down did I realize I had never spoken in public before about the aggressive and often unpleasantly challenging manner in which these two charismatic and relentless geniuses had addressed me back in the day. (Jay was my editor at SUNY/Buffalo’s student newspaper The Spectrum; Paul owned Prometheus Books Inc. and ran Free Inquiry magazine.) Neither passed out compliments – *ever*, to my memory; both passed along opportunities, though, to people who could put smart words on a page.

A mentor sees in her or his mentee a devotion that is shared – or that could be – to a craft, a topic, or to an art. (It is almost never a shared devotion to a person.)

Jay and Paul saw that I was devoted to the published page as much as they were, and that I could help put smart words there. That’s why they mentored me. They weren’t looking for friends.

I believe they saw I responded to antagonism by working harder, so hectoring and prodding – and pencil-throwing, from Paul – were what I got. And they received my best work. We had successful relationships, in other words, but not friendship.


I acknowledged to my IABC colleagues – who were, to a person, cheery and friendly – that the form of mentoring I had received was perhaps old-fashioned and also that it was not a form I have been able to, or even would want to, practice myself. I am much more low key than my mentors were, and I never hector or embarrass people. That said, my own students / mentees all know where my chief devotion as a teacher in a classroom and as an editor with a deadline lies: words on the page.

Friendship, if it happens, happens elsewhere, and later. I’m indifferent to that here and now.

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