By H. Ted Upgren Jr.
Many of us have mentored a first-year attendee at one of OWAA’s annual conferences. We hook up with them as a personal GPS for several days, directing them here and there, introducing them to OWAA members – some so near celebrity status that green ribbon jaws often drop in awe. We sit with the “green ribbon” attendees at sessions, accompany them to lunch, and to evening hospitality suites. But as nice as all of this is, and as appreciative as the green ribbons are that they have been welcomed into the OWAA family, it’s often a fleeting relationship.
Last November I became a different kind of mentor when a professor asked me if I’d be interested in mentoring a student at the University of Mary’s Emerging Leaders Academy. She’d found mentors for all but one student, an English major from Helena, Mont., He is a linebacker on the school’s football team, a hunter and fisherman and a guy who wanted to write. I said yes.
I first met Jake at the student union. Beneath a mop of bushy, blonde hair, his eager face set me at ease despite his linebacker swagger. This was an icebreaker meeting. Over a cup of coffee, we shared information about our personal lives: family, education and interests. He is a dedicated outdoorsman who spent the last couple summers as a commercial salmon fisherman in Alaska.
We talked a bit about what a mentee should expect and what a mentor might share. He had written for the school’s paper and shared excitement over possibly writing about his outdoor experiences in his beloved Montana. I sensed that Jake was serious about this required curriculum, and that in turn convinced me to commit time to mentoring him. We scheduled our next meeting
Now, that meant that perhaps I had better brush up on writing fundamentals about which he might quiz me. I reviewed approaches to leads, slants, voice, tone, rhythm, tight writing and making words and ideas show rather than tell. I soon found that I was reviewing my own craft, and, in fact, I reached back to this review as I worked to trim one of my own columns from 900 down to 650 words. Thanks, Jake!
At our next coffee meeting I brought a couple of my wife’s fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Jake shared more samples of his writing while we discussed some of his writing ambitions that pointed strongly towards outdoors communications. Nowadays, students carry laptops (I don’t think Jake had a pencil or paper in his backpack), so I asked him to fire up the darn thing so I could show him a Web site that might interest him. He didn’t know what OWAA meant, so he Googled it and up came the home page of the oldest and greatest outdoors communications organization on the continent. Since then, Jake has applied for OWAA membership.
Jake continued to share his writing with me and I finally asked him if he would mind if I edited some of it. Again, I found that effort as valuable to me as it turned out instructional for him. At our next meeting, where Jake bought coffee and I brought a handful of Kaye’s exquisite Christmas caramels, he was even more eager for my reviews to continue.
With my Christmas gift of venison sausage stowed in his pickup, Jake left for the holidays, eager to join his dad and elk camp cronies in the Beaverhead Mountains to fill his elk cow tag. Back at the university, I learned his hunting trip proved unsuccessful, but he said the experience was far from unsuccessful and he wanted to write about it. We talked about tying this effort to one of getting him published. That led to conversation about identifying a suitable publication and about constructing the all-important query letter. I suggested a goal of getting a piece of his work accepted for publication by the end of the school year.
Coffee was on the table when I arrived for our next meeting. I had two blueberry muffins in tow. Jake showed me a draft of the elk hunting article and another piece he was working on for a contest. Both needed work.
And then Jake’s progress improved.
My mentoring sessions with Jake continue. We enjoy each other’s company. I find it gratifying to work with a great young man with whom I share a lot of interests, not the least of which is framing words into tales. I am humbled that he looks to me for advice and some guidance despite my sometimes frank criticism. After one such session, Jake let out a long sigh as if needing a sabbatical and suggested we go fishing. I heartily agreed. When the water gets soft, I said, that we will do.
At times, I think this mentoring exercise is as much about improving my craft as it is helping to develop his. It’s already more than a fleeting relationship. It’s been good gig.
By H. Ted Upgren Jr.