Insider view of the Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program – part 1

In September, we will begin taking applications for the Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program, with the deadline being November 30, 2020. We will need applications for both Mentors and Apprentices. If you are interested in being considered for either position, please refer to the Guidelines under the Mentorship Program tab of the website.

Normally in June, we have a SOMP wind-up at McNally Robinson Booksellers, where the apprentice reads from the work with which the Mentor helped during their mentorship and answered audience questions. This year, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, we were unable to provide an in-person experience to meet our most recent graduate of the program. Instead, here is an interview so you will get to know our most recent graduate of the program, Joy MacLean.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspires you to write.

My background includes careers as a lawyer, mediator, and environmental policy advisor. Related to my love of the outdoors and interest in the environment, I have written on topics such as sacred land, stewardship and local knowledge. As one of the founding directors of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, I also enjoyed my role as editor of and contributor to the foundation’s newsletter, The Watershed Observer.

One of the greatest sources of inspiration for me is the work of other writers. Among my favourites are the modernists—I just can’t seem to read Dubliners and To The Lighthouse enough times! But there are also many other writers, both past and present, whose work also inspires me, stirring my imagination and boosting my creative energy.

A common thread throughout my writing is my interest in getting beyond superficial appearances and learned responses in order to discover the true essence of things. This quest inspires me to understand how people experience personal change and growth in a way that can lead them to have an epiphany.

I also find inspiration in everyday things and small details as simple as an image, a gesture, or a statement. In fact, it was someone’s passing mention of a detail about harvest time in the Dirty Thirties that became the jumping-off point for the novel I am writing.

Born and raised in Neepawa, Manitoba, I am a prairie person through and through and have a deep connection to the prairie landscape. My home is in Sans Souci on the shore of Lake Winnipeg where I live with my partner, Cam. Surrounded by the area’s wonderful natural amenities, I enjoy kayaking, sailing, cycling, and cross-country skiing.

Why did you decide to apply for the Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program?

At the time that I applied to the mentorship program, I had completed a number of short stories, but my main focus was on a story that I had developed to novella length. At some point, as the novella continued to grow, I realized there was much more to it and that I wanted to expand it into a novel. While I really enjoy the writing process and find it to be inherently engaging and rewarding, it also tends to be a very solitary pursuit. I felt that my writing would really benefit from the fresh perspective, expertise, and objective criticism of a knowledgeable mentor.

How was the submission process for you?

I had a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish through the mentorship program, and the submission process was very straightforward. In the process of deciding what to include as a writing sample for the submission, I enjoyed the challenge of going through the fourteen or so chapters of my novella and selecting a handful of excerpts that, taken together, would give a representative slice of my work and also convey something of the story as a whole.

How did you feel to meet your Mentor for the first time?

I felt happy and relieved to have an experienced mentor to help to me with my project. And I was keen to make the most of the opportunity.

What were the main focus points of your mentorship?

The main focus, and a big learning curve for me, involved character development. Over the months I worked with the mentor, I learned about how to flesh out and create more depth in my characters. I am also more mindful now of where and how various scenes and passages can reveal the characters, as well as how these choices will affect the overall shape and emotional impact of the finished piece.

Another focus was to take sections of exposition and develop them into detailed scenes. This was very productive work. Not only I did I enjoy it, but it also generated a lot of new material—detailed scenes with dialogue—that gave me further insights into the characters and created points from which the story could spread out in new directions.

How did the pandemic change the way you and your mentor communicated?

Although we had a few meetings before the pandemic’s onset, we decided it would be advisable to meet by phone for the remainder of the mentorship. Personally, I think face-to-face meetings are the best way to communicate, but it simply wasn’t a good option in the circumstances.

How has the program helped you approach your writing now?

There are two answers to this question. At the micro level, I have gained greater knowledge of and facility with a number of writing tools. At the macro level, I learned firsthand that writing a novel is a bit of a marathon, and I have a whole new appreciation for the amount of time and effort it requires. Because a novel can take a long time to complete, it can become an organizational feat to keep track of all the connecting details, logistical considerations, research, and other aspects. For this reason, it is essential to keep tabs on everything and to stay well-acquainted with it on a regular basis. At my mentor’s suggestion, I put together a visual aid to help me with that goal; I now have my story’s settings, timelines, and various other information and intersections all mapped out on a poster-size sheet of paper.

What do you consider the most significant impact on your writing from participation in this program?

While I gained knowledge and skills in a number of key areas such as character development and creating conflict, I think the most significant impact is that I am more aware of how to go about building a story’s theme. I now appreciate how every aspect of the novel needs to work together to generate resonant and cohesive themes.

What advice do you have for others who want to apply for mentorship?

I like to be organized as much as possible and had a clear idea about what I wanted to accomplish so that I would stay focused and on track with my goals. Having said that, I think it’s also very important to maintain flexibility, to keep an open mind and adjust plans and ideas based on feedback from the mentor. It is a balancing act.

Would you recommend this program to other aspiring writers?

Yes, in a heartbeat!

Thank you, Joy, for your participation and comments on the program as you see it. We wish you every success with your future writing endeavours.

Please stay tuned, in the next few days, for some insights from Joy’s Mentor, Keith Cadieux.