The Craft of Mentorship

By Ben Peterson

What does it mean to own and embrace the life of a writer? Is there an aha! moment in which the possibilities of a writer’s life become clear? Or validation and guidance from a mentor? Mary Volmer experienced both.

As a sophomore biology major at Saint Mary’s in 1999, Volmer used Jan Term to explore an interest she’d mostly kept to herself. The class was "The Art of the Personal Essay," led by Rosemary Graham, Saint Mary’s professor of English and critically acclaimed author of novels for young adults. "Before that class, my writing had just been a form of private release," says Volmer. "Suddenly, I had the opportunity to write under the guidance of someone who had this skill, talent and experience." A gesture from Graham proved to be a pivotal moment for Volmer, leading her to switch her major from the sciences to English. "She wrote a comment on one of my essays," Volmer recalls. "It simply said 'I think you could do this if you wanted to.’ Nothing flowery. Just a quiet affirmation. I guess I knew I wanted to be a writer, but no one had given me the go-ahead. I needed someone to say, 'Yes, you can.’" Graham remembers Volmer as a standout student who demonstrated talent from the very beginning. "She had an engaging voice that continues to be a strength of her writing," says Graham. "She was able to make very distinct characters. I encouraged her because I felt she was a strong enough writer and a sensible enough person to pursue her art and see where it could take her."

Inspired and guided by Graham, Volmer went very far indeed — and then came home again. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, supported by a Rotary Scholarship, she traveled to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, for a master’s in writing. Then she returned to Saint Mary’s for an MFA in creative writing. During her second year in the program, she sold her first novel, "Crown of Dust," to HarperCollinsUK. She is quick to credit Graham’s suggestions on the book before it was submitted for publication. Now at work on her second novel, Volmer spends her days teaching the next generation of Saint Mary’s writing students and leading the Saint Mary’s College Honors Program. "She’s doing for our undergrads what we did for her," says Graham. "And she’s a great example, for both our undergraduate and MFA students, of the success of someone who started in the writing program here." Volmer continues to acknowledge Graham and other members of the MFA writing program faculty, including Naomi Schwartz and Carol Lashof, for strategies that supported her success. And Graham says she learned from Volmer, too.

"Seeing her drive and dedication was a good reminder for me," says Graham. She speculates that Volmer’s experience as a basketball player contributed to her disciplined approach. "And she’s not afraid to take risks, not afraid to start writing something that might not pan out." It’s no surprise that Graham and Volmer share views on teaching. Both stress the importance of developing strong fundamentals and maintaining focus in an age of constant interruptions and instant gratification. "I don’t give my students free rein," says Graham. "I give them constraint. Instead of a blank page, I give specific prompts. I believe in structure and the wonderful inspirational power of a deadline. "Distraction is always right there, since most of us are writing on computers," Graham adds. "I encourage my students to turn off their Internet access. For all that new media tools do to help writers, they also serve as an obstacle to the creative process." As for the student-turned-teacher, Volmer walks the fine line with her students, encouraging their strong voices while urging them to put in the work necessary to develop technique and structure. "It’s fantastic to see such talented students here on campus," she says. "Many don’t even know how talented they are. A goal of mine is to help these young writers say what they mean well. It’s about helping them develop control and learn how to shape a story. Any artist studies for years to get the rudiments of the craft, which then allows for the possibility of improvisation."

With Graham and Volmer powering a vibrant creative writing program, Saint Mary’s provides a nurturing environment for the next wave of promising authors. "Saint Mary’s fosters artistic expression by exposing students to the arts and thinkers of the past," says Volmer. "Because it’s a liberal arts college, even if you’re a business or science major, there’s an opportunity to explore so many different directions. There’s a creative spirit here I felt as a student and continue to feel today."