Syracuse University Magazine

Words on Mentoring

Recalling his first days as an M.F.A. student in SU’s Creative Writing Program, Jeff Parker G’99 says of himself, “I was 22 years old and dumber than a stump, also less worldly than a stump…. While I burned to write, I didn’t have the slightest notion what it meant to be a writer or how one did it or really what the hell a writer was.” Enter literary pros Arthur Flowers and George Saunders G’88, two of his teachers and mentors in the program, whom he credits with coming into his life at one of his most impressionable times and serving as important guides in the development of his work—and identity—as a writer. “Many years later, after I had managed to publish some stuff and had become a teacher of creative writing myself, I started to think about what kind of a mentor I would wish to be to young writers,” says Parker, an author and English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “And I reflected on my own experience and how important my teachers at Syracuse had been for me—not only as a writer, but in becoming the sort of person I like to think of myself as.”

Manner of Being coverThose reflections led Parker to begin asking other writers about their mentoring experiences, including his teachers at Syracuse and others whose work he admires, and, later, to share their responses in book form. The result is A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), a collection of nearly 70 short essays by contemporary writers from around the world. Co-edited with another Syracuse creative writing alum, Annie Liontas G’13, the anthology features personal and informal remembrances that pay homage to the mentoring relationship and offer a wealth of advice and guidance on writing and life. “What impressed me was the variety of different types of relationships people described, but also the commonality among them, which was sort of loosely categorizable as a manner of being—or, how to be,” Parker says. “That was an aspect of my own mentorship that I had always thought was important, but I didn’t know how to articulate it before people like Doug Unger and George Saunders and the other contributors to the book put it very eloquently in their writing.”

For Liontas, the book is a reminder that in the midst of the solitary nature of the writing life, a “mob” can be called on. “As a writer, you work in isolation—weird hours, kind of talking to yourself most of the time—and it can be hard to remember you’re part of a greater community,” says Liontas, whose first novel, Let Me Explain You (Scribner, 2015), was recently published. “The writers in A Manner of Being confirm how we are all constantly cutting our way through unmappable terrain, and most of the time you go it alone. But every now and then you might find comfort and encouragement from those who have gone before you. This book, for me, reveals all the variations of the path that one could take, in sincere but unsentimental ways.”

According to Parker, the book also positions the mentoring relationship as an important aspect of literary culture—one that happens everywhere, and flourishes at Syracuse. “The book includes a lot of Syracuse folks, from past faculty and past students to current faculty. So in a lot of ways, it’s a love letter to Syracuse,” he says. “But more broadly, it’s a love letter to the ethos that’s exemplified there. That ethos is in action all over the world.”          —Amy Speach


"What impressed me was the variety of different types of relationships people described, but also the commonality among them.” —Jeff Parker G’99


Annie Liontas G’13

Photo of Annie Liontas by Sara Nordstrom