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The Invisible Mentor

Last night, I went to Shark Tank, a play that is a part of the International Youth Arts Festival and currently playing at the Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston-upon-Thames.  It's a farcical look at the world of contemporary art and was written by a former student of mine, Nik Way.

This isn't so much a review of the production, because I'm obviously quite biased. It's more that it got me thinking about what it means for a teacher to see a student succeeding. I love teaching. I love seeing students learn and grow and become better writers. I like it even more when they suddenly realise they've gotten better and the leap in confidence that they have. You would think, then, that seeing a student write a play that is chosen to be performed at a festival. Watching that production which he has co-directed and in which he is acting would be the culmination of everything a teacher could want.

In some ways it was. I'm very proud of Nik. It's a good play. But, really, it has very little to do with me.

Promotional image from Nuclear Jam

Nik is a talented young man and, more to the point, he is a hard worker and committed writer. Where many writers struggle to put words on a page, Nik always seems to be working on at least two projects, is always prepared for class and keeps up with his own writing on the side.

It's Nik who has created this success. He sat down at his desk every day and churned out the words. He conceived of the characters and the situation. If his teachers taught him anything, he is the writer who put that into practice.

At the beginning of July, The Telegraph published an article suggesting that established writers ought to mentor new writers, much like the icons of hip hop have brought in and developed new talent. I think this is a brilliant idea - and not just because I'm one of those new writers. As artists, we need to think about building communities of art. I've said it in the past, that the writing community sometimes tends toward tearing one another down instead of encouraging success, so I'll leave that alone for now. But what does it mean to mentor?

I was extraordinarily lucky in my mentors during my MFA. I worked very closely with writers Scott Bradfield and Jonathan Barnes, both of whom were what I consider to be ideal mentor-models. My realist fiction is very different to Jonathan's work in science fiction, and I'm not nearly as funny as Scott, but neither of them tried to make me write like they do. They identified my strengths and helped me to develop my own voice and my own skills

I hope that I do the same thing when I teach. I hope that I encourage my students to reach past what I have to say into what they need to say. When I saw Nik's play last night, I saw none of myself in it. I saw none of any of his teachers in it, but I could hear his voice in every line - especially the really funny ones. I could see his subversive streak, his wry humour and his passion in his characters.

I hope that's what it means to be a good mentor or teacher. I hope it means giving a writer the tools to make them shine so that when they put their art out into the world it stands on their own.

Shark Tank  closes tonight at the Stanley Picker Gallery. Tickets are £8/£5 concessions and include a free drink (wine, beer, juice or water).