My First Writing Mentor

Katherine Longshore 5 Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Mentors.  People who have affected our lives.  Our work.  The way we operate and look at the world.  I find them everywhere.  In the books that I read (Ann Lamott, John Green, Jennifer Donnelly) the conferences we attend (Kirby Larson, Sydney Salter, Sara Pennypacker), and our everyday lives (I would love to be as kind and generous as my friend Brenda, as scientifically brilliant as my friend Eva, as kid-savvy and expertly communicative as my kids’ teacher, Wendy).

And then there are the people who really take the time and the effort – paid or unpaid – to help us on our path.  To focus our attention and talents.  To be more than we think we can be.

I’ve already blogged about Susan Hart Lindquist, who taught me structure, character arc, and AIR in the SCBWI Nevada Mentorship Program.  I just have to mention her again, here, because my book wouldn’t be what it is today without the experience and knowledge I gained under her tutelage.

But I’d also like to mention another writing teacher.  One who possibly never knew how much he meant to me. 

I created my own major in college.  I knew I wanted to be a travel writer, so I cobbled together a collection of sociology, geography, anthropology and journalism courses into a BA in Cross Cultural Studies and Communications.

And my best teacher taught me Journalism 101.  And served as faculty advisor to the university newspaper, The Lumberjack.
Howard Seemann walked into class on the first day and wrote his name on the board. 

“Seemann,” he said. “S-E-E-M-A-N-N.  Not Seaman.  Not Siemen.  Definitely not Semen.  Get it right or you’ll fail my class.”

Howard Seemann taught me how to get my facts straight.  He taught me that names are important, and the spelling of them equally so.  He taught me how to write a good lead sentence, how to cover the most compelling elements in a story in the first three paragraphs, how to write clear details and powerful description.

He didn’t mince words in editorial meetings.  He didn’t pull any punches.

“What the hell is a local transient?” he bellowed at the beginning of one meeting. “The very meaning of the word transient indicates impermanence.  Not local!”

The poor author of the article cringed and explained that he’d been writing about a homeless man well-known in Arcata.

“No excuse for sloppy word choice,” Howard barked.  But winked, too. 

After I left Humboldt I traveled the world, and attempted to break into freelance journalism (the high point of which was a 200-word filler article in Conde Nast Traveler magazine with no by-line and no credit, but a check imbalancedly heavy for so few words).  The years passed and I quit my nomadic lifestyle, married and had kids in England.  Howard continued to ask my parents about me.

See, Howard used to play poker with my dad, a geology professor at Humboldt State.  They knew each other socially but didn’t run in the same social circles.  But in Arcata and at Humboldt, you run into people all the time.

“How’s Katy?” Howard would ask my dad up on campus.  Or my mom at the Farmer’s Market. “Is she still writing?”

And every time, he would reiterate to them that he thought I had talent.  That he asked because he thought I should be writing.  Non-fiction.  Fiction.  Anything.

I carried his praise with me everywhere I went.  Howard didn’t give it lightly.  But he gave it justly.  I respected his opinion and felt eternal gratitude for his high opinion of me.  I strive to write well and accurately because of him.  I always check my spellings of people’s names.  And I try my best to avoid sloppy word choices.

Howard died a few years ago, from a heart attack.  This is what was said in his obituary in the Times-Standard:

Howard was a Humphrey Democrat, a defender of the First Amendment and an old-school newspaperman. He held his students to exacting standards on grammar, punctuation and spelling and was notorious for his hard line on factual errors. His tough love was intended to prepare students for the world outside the classroom and challenge them to discover their full potential. He always tried to balance criticism with encouragement in Howard’s Homilies, his weekly critique of The Lumberjack. Students prized his hard-earned words of praise, and he was proud of them, many of whom went on to thrive in the newsroom.

I never took the opportunity to call him, or even e-mail, to let him know what he meant to me, to my writing, to my career.  I wish I had. 

Who are your mentors?  Have you let them know?  


Oh, I'm so sorry, Katy. I know that must feel like a huge regret. BUt what you're doing right now---paying him homage in public blog so other writers and readers can learn about him--is beautiful. I'm sure he'd be honored with your lovely memory. Sounds like an awesome person!

He was, Pk. And thank you!

I have a poetry mentor who is famous for her red-ink-returns. She is nothing but honest and I can honestly say I appreciate her critiques, even if I have to swim through all that red ink to find my poem. She has helped me grow tremendously by not holding back. It's because of her input that my awareness about poetry and my own poetry changed/grew. Thank you, Katy! I am going to give her a call.

Not that you can tell I've had any mentoring in my life by my abysmal sentence structuring in previous email (or now), but I swear my poetry has improved. Sigh.

Thank you so much for sharing, PB! I'm sure she'll be delighted to hear from you. And the luscious, poetic prose I had the privilege to read is certainly testament to your ability and continued commitment to finding the right words and meaning.

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