Everything You’ve Ever Wondered about the Mentor Series Program: An Interview with Jerod Santek, Former Program Director at the Loft

Posted on Wed, Apr 30 2014 9:00 am by Rebecca Schultz

When Jerod Santek first interviewed for a position as Events Coordinator at the Loft almost 19 years ago, the entire staff was made up of three people—Mary Cummings, Juliet Patterson, and Deidre Pope. When Jerod announced last summer that he’d be leaving to head up a new program, Write on, Door County!, he had to say goodbye to a team of nearly 6 times the size.

During his tenure with the Loft, Jerod played a dynamic role in maintaining and shaping the Mentor Series, and there probably isn’t anyone out there who understands the uniqueness of the program more than he does. I got to catch up with Jerod and ask him about what it is that makes the series so special, and he opened up about everything from the community it builds, getting to see writers grow and thrive, and he even offered some tips about the application process.

Jerod also mentioned the importance of the end-of-series reading, both for the mentors and the participants. On Friday, May 2, the Target Performance Hall at Open Book will house 2013-14 fiction mentor Mary Rockcastle and program participants Maureen Fischer (fiction) and Ember Johnson (nonfiction). For more information and bios about the readers, please visit loft.org.

RS: What is it about the Mentor Series that makes it unique from other mentorships, fellowships, or residency programs?

JS: The Mentor Series creates a sense of community that is unlike any other I have seen. While residency programs create a community, it is short-lived and people are from all over the country. With the Mentor Series, you have 12 people in the same geographical area working closely with each other for 10 months. Though there was competition to get into the program, there is no competition within the program, which can happen in many MFA programs. It is a very supportive and nurturing environment. One participant’s success is enjoyed and celebrated by everyone else in the group. The frequency and intensity of the workshop meetings, along with the more conversational meetings to discuss mentors’ books and residencies, creates a type of intimacy I don’t think you find elsewhere. Participants learn a lot about each other as writers and as people. This can lead to tension, but that happens far fewer times that one might expect. On the whole, each year’s group has been very respectful of varying points of view, very helpful in their criticism, and very supportive of each other in both writing and other life events that may occur. It is almost a year-long program and we have had any number of major life events happen during that time among participants: weddings, divorces, births, deaths, loss of jobs, home purchases. There have been many life-long friendships that have resulted from the Mentor Series, friendships that support each other through the writing struggles and joys and through the rest of life as well.

Can you each tell us a little bit about the mentor selection process? Do the mentors have a role in selecting the participants?

The program director or manager selects the mentors based on input from both past participants and mentors, as well as other members of the communities, such as faculty at area MFA programs. Mentors are selected to represent a diversity of aesthetics and experiences. I always hoped to have at least one mentor who came to writing through another route than an MFA program and at least one mentor who didn’t currently teach in an MFA program. I felt it was important to show all the different options available to being a writer in the world. A variety of styles of writing was also critical. What a dull program it would be if everyone wrote and thought like everyone else. A participant might have felt validated but would certainly never have felt challenged, and that is a big part of the program: to challenge yourself as a writer; to write something you never imagined ever writing before. It may not be good, but that kind of challenge and that freedom of allowing yourself to write something different—to write something bad—actually helps improve what you are already writing well.

The mentors most definitely have a role in selecting the participants. That wasn’t always the case, however. In the early years of the programs, mentors would come to work with writers who had been selected by screening judges. Sometimes this worked fine, but there were awkward cases of a mentor simply not liking a participant’s work and having nothing to offer in the way of constructive feedback. Recent program participants now act as a screening panel, narrowing down the applications to 20 in each genre. Those 20 manuscripts then go on to the mentors in each genre and they decide together the four writers for that particular genre.

What should participants expect of the end-of-program reading? How does the series wrap up at the end?

There are six public readings throughout the year. Two program participants read with each mentor. The readings are really a highlight of the program, not just for those reading but for the entire group. Even the writers most nervous about reading in public have found the experience to be a major turning point in their writing career. I think largely that is because the audiences are so attentive and supportive. They have come to hear this reading, these people—it’s not like a series in a coffee shop or bar where half the audience is likely there for reasons other than the reading. Reading your work out loud to that kind of audience changes how you, as a writer, think about what you have written—which words or phrases sound awkward, where is more needed, where can you edit down even more than you have done already? The question and answer period following the reading is also important to how the writers think about their work. I know that a lot of participants dreaded the Q&A more than anything else, but almost everyone said after how much they gained from thinking about their work in response to audience questions. It creates a different way of viewing your work—not as you wrote, not as your peers or mentors read it, but as it is interpreted by the general public.

The series usually wraps up with a party at the home of one of the participants. But I like to think, and I stressed this to participants, that the series is only over as much as they want it to be over. The current year’s group are invited to events with the next year’s group and mentors—private craft talks and lunches. I know last year’s group was forming a reading group to discuss the work of this year’s mentors. Many groups stay closely connected even years after the series wraps up.

How have you witnessed the growth and achievements of writers in the program?

There have been a lot of wonderful achievements by writers in the group. There are successes of many kinds, all of which are equally celebrated by members of the group. A book contract and a piece accepted for publication in a journal are cheered equally by the members of the group. I continue to get emails from a group distribution list for particular year’s informing others of such triumphs. There is no promise, of course, that being the Mentor Series will lead to publication or other awards, nor is there any expectation of publication. The Mentor Series only guarantees that you will learn more about your own writing and about yourself as a writer. Gaining that insight is a wonderful achievement, whether or not there is a publication or an award to attach to it.

Would you encourage them to apply? What tips would you give for the application process?

I most certainly think any writer—whether or not they have taken part in an MFA program—should apply to the Mentor Series. Almost every year in the past several years, about half of the group has earned an MFA and half have not. Of that half, some are considering applying to an MFA program and some have no interest in that course of education. We’ve had people accepted into the program with a wide diversity of backgrounds that may have nothing to do with writing: social workers, engineers, investment bankers, scientists, lawyers.

During the selection process, none of the screeners or the mentors have any idea whether or not the writer of the work sample has been in an MFA program and working on a novel for several years, or whether they just started writing through a Loft class in the past year. And, they don’t care. They simply want to see good writing—a story well told, an evocative poem. They want evidence of a level of seriousness to craft. They want to see a piece well written, but not so well crafted that the mentor feels they have nothing to offer.

As far as tips for the application process: submit what you think is your strongest work—work that perhaps has gotten good comments from your writer’s group or other students in your class. Your goal statement will be seen by the mentors if your work advances as a finalist and this statement is really important in letting the mentor know how she or he can help you. You have a very strong piece but you know that your dialogue sounds stilted or that you struggle with the endings of poems. Be honest about this in your goal statement. Tell the mentor what you know you do well and where you know you want to improve.

What do you miss the most?

The short answer: everything. The longer, more complicated answer: For me, the Mentor Series was much more than part of my job description. It was a community that I loved being part of. One of the great joys of the job, each summer, was calling the writers to tell them they were selected for the program. That pleasure was always greatest when I called a writer I knew had been a finalist for several previous years. It was always wonderful to let someone who had been trying and trying, that their patience and perseverance, not to mention their talent, had finally paid off. That was the case with several of the members of this year’s group, and I miss sharing in their growth as writers, seeing how they changed over the course of the year. I miss the readings—that public marking of a writer’s career for each of the participants. I miss seeing former participants at those events and catching up with what is happening in their lives. I miss the a-ha moments in a workshop when something the mentor has said really hits a participant and causes a change in view towards writing. There is a very special camaraderie to the Mentor Series that I will always miss. So I guess the short answer was the most accurate: I miss everything, with the possible exception of setting up and taking down that stubborn stage for the readings.

Rebecca Schultz, a Minneapolis transplant by way of Chicago, is a reader, writer, eater, and tweeter. She blogs at rebecca-schulz.com.