I expected to tuck myself into my hotel room and get some sleep. I’d been on two flights that day and was planning on attending a full-day of conference panels the next. When the room phone in my hotel rang, I considered not picking it up. I wasn’t expecting a call so I figured someone had misdialed my room, but when I answered, the strong, clear voice at the other end required no introduction. “Hill! You made it! Welcome to the Big Easy! Meet me downstairs in twenty minutes … we are going to a drum battle!”
“You can catch up on sleep later, Hill, but you’ll never have another opportunity like this!”
A drum battle? The voice on the phone was my mentor and writing teacher, Randy Albers. This is the man who made sure that the students in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago not only received the very best instruction while learning the craft of creative writing, but that we also regularly submitted our work for publication and began to connect with and benefit from professional organizations like the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) through conferences like the one we were attending in New Orleans. A few days earlier, Randy had been coaching me through rewrites of a story draft I was working on, and now, as I sat in the midst of the purple velvet and gold tassels of my gaudy hotel room with the sounds of trumpets wafting two stories up from the French Quarter with the warm Louisiana breeze, he was telling me that he was taking me to a drum battle.
I didn’t even know what a drum battle was.
“And that is exactly why you can’t go to bed now!” Randy was not going to take no for an answer. “You can catch up on sleep later, Hill, but you’ll never have another opportunity like this!”
And like everything Randy has ever advised me on, he was exactly right.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a mentor – specifically a mentor in the arts – then you may already be aware that successful mentoring relationships often extend further and include more than just the discipline, subject, or artistic pursuit around which the mentoring relationship forms. Many, if not most, of these relationships begin in classrooms and workshops, often between teachers and students, and grow from there. In the best circumstances, these relationships flourish for life and, as the mentee or protégé learns and develops their own professional or artistic confidence and standing, begin to inform and influence the practice and process of the mentor. In the end, it’s safe to say, the most successful relationships between mentor and protégé are sustained, in part, because they become mutually beneficial.
Moore and his mentor Vidacovich squared off on facing drumsets and dueled for hours.
To the casual observer, these relationships may be difficult to distinguish from friendships. Indeed many of the qualities of interaction between mentor and protégé are commonly associated with friendship. But there is also a crucial difference in what I refer to as intentionality – in the awareness and intentions of both parties. Like friendship, most mentoring relationships are built upon trust and respect and a deep sense of caring and, like the best of teacher-student dynamics, mentoring also includes elements of guidance, advice, instruction, and encouragement with a steady and tolerable amount of pressure to learn, grow, and improve whatever artistic or professional practice the two have in common. For Randy and me, this dynamic began around writing, teaching and leadership. For Johnny Vidacovich and Stanton Moore, it is drumming and music.
That night, across the mighty Mississippi from downtown NOLA, we joined a small crowd assembled at the Old Point Bar in Algiers to witness two of the most exciting jazz and rock drummers in the world engage in a friendly but heart-pounding faceoff. Moore (of the band Galactic) and his mentor Vidacovich squared off on facing drumsets and dueled for hours. Mentor and protégé played together as equals, each egging the other on, taking turns leading and following, clearly enjoying the collaboration and competition as they found their way without a setlist or score. And though it was called a “battle,” there was no single victor that night, and no need for one. We – those of us fortunate enough to be assembled there (or to be called out of our hotel rooms) – were all winners. And if Stanton and Johnny hadn’t told the audience that they had once been teacher and student, we would likely not have known by the quality of their collaboration.
Mentoring relationships develop and last because they are organic and unbound.
Mentoring relationships are as diverse and unique as the individual mentors and mentees themselves, and that’s exactly what makes them difficult to definitively define. Some of the qualities of the best mentoring dynamics include guidance, advising, modeling, support, confidence, honesty, inspiration, sharing, investment, tough questions, experience, a general belief in the other, the assumption of positive intent, the passing of knowledge that can’t be conveyed without first-hand experience, witnessing, and the non-threatening but constant push to go further, deeper, and become better. Mentoring relationships develop and last because they are organic and unbound and they are often not restricted to the disciplines and practices around which they form. Because my interactions with Randy are informed by all of these possibilities, I’ve learned much more from him than I ever expected. Yes, I’ve become a better writer, a more informed and confident teacher, and a thoughtful leader, but, I've also learned to pick my battles, and because of Randy, I’ve become an more well-rounded and better human. That, in a nutshell, is how I’d articulate the importance of true mentors in the arts. Because our mentors make us better humans.
And as mentoring relationships like Vidacovich and Moore's, and Randy’s and mine evolve into something collaborative and as protégés learn and develop our own professional and artistic practice, we’re able to, perhaps, give back to our mentors some of what they have given us, and, just as importantly, we learn to become mentors ourselves, hopefully transferring the knowledge and compassion we’ve received in ways that will also benefit others.
Photo of Randall Albers by Shane Welch
Founding Producer of Story Week, Randall Albers is professor and chair emeritus in the Fiction Writing Program of the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in TriQuarterly, Writer's Digest, Writing in Education, F magazine, Brevity, and elsewhere. A chapter from his novel-in-progress, All the World Before Them, was nominated for a Pushcart prize. For Story Week, he has interviewed Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ray Bradbury, Jane Hamilton, Junot Diaz, Hubert Selby Jr., Richard Price, John Sayles, Irvine Welsh, John McNally, Bharati Mukherjee, and others. Featured in the Story Workshop® creative writing videotape, The Living Voice Moves, he has presented at AWP, NAWE, NonfictioNow, AAWP, and other conferences on writing and the teaching of writing. With a BA from Tulane University and an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago, he is a Certified Story Workshop Master Teacher and former recipient of the Columbia College Chicago Teaching Excellence Award.
Lott Hill is a poet, fiction writer, teacher, photographer, and a strong believer in engaged citizenship. He received his MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago, where he now serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence. Lott’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Hair Trigger, Columbia Poetry Review, Fish Stories, B-City, Metropolitan Universities, The Spoon River Poetry Review, AdBusters, Peer Review and Briefly Knocked Unconscious By A Low Flying Duck. He is also a regular featured reader at 2nd Story.