Writing with an Open Heart: A Mentoring Love Story / Photo Essay
Dear writing sisters,
Last week was my birthday—I turned 52 : ). On the day after my birthday I received a gift that will stay with me for the long haul: I got to hug Lydia McGranahan, one of my mentoring clients, in person for the first time after years of connecting via email, text, and phone calls. (She traveled from Oregon to the East Coast for her daughter’s track-and-field event, which was two hours from my house.)
I have met mentoring clients in person before, and I always treasure the connection—the way we hug and then look at each other shyly (at least I always feel shy at first!) and then hug and laugh and fake pinch each other as if to say, Is it really you?
These in-person meetings usually take place at writing conferences and retreats. I’ve even roomed with former mentees—and former mentors!—who have become lifelong writing friends. But Lydia came to my house—my house!—and because it was the day after my birthday, her visit felt very much like a birthday present.
Her ETA was 10:00 a.m. While I waited on my front stoop for her arrival, a woman named Joanne whom I’d met at the park a couple of years ago approached on her morning walk. We’d connected on a deep level about how recent surgeries we’d both had had impacted our sense of self as women. But we hadn’t seen each other since then. Now, we hugged and she started to cry. Which made me cry. “It’s love,” she said. “Love does this to me.”
Love. That struck me because I associate Lydia with love. Lydia is a “heart” person. Indeed, she has an eye for spotting hearts in nature—heart-
shaped stones, a knotty heart in a tree trunk, heart-shaped shells, hearts in butterfly wings. And she has taught me by her example what it means to choose an open heart—and it is a choice—even when that heart has been betrayed and one’s impulse is to close it off from the inevitable pain that comes with writing past an old silence.
Joanne and I took a selfie, and then Lydia pulled up to the curb in a silver rental car, her daughter waving from the passenger seat.
I felt joyful and (of course!) shy as we hugged and laughed and fake pinched each other:
I put the birthday flowers she brought me into a vase, and we sat at my dining room table and talked over tea and berries and Camembert and dark chocolate truffles.
She told me stories about her life’s adventures—ones that are not part of her current memoir in progress—and I showed her my writing space. I’d resisted the urge to clean it up beforehand because I did not want to pretend to have my shit more together than I do—I, too, am I writer in process, always growing in my writing and in my life. It was a great exercise for me in trusting that I am enough, messes and all, and to keep my heart open to being seen “as is.”
After tea we made our way downtown for a photo-op at—where else!—our local life-sized LOVE sculpture.
We walked the trail behind the LOVE sculpture, where an old railroad trestle spans the James River. Sure enough, from an overlook Lydia spied a “river grass” heart in the middle of the James:
Love. An open heart. It sounds so damn simple, doesn’t it?
But anyone who has committed herself to writing a hard truth—and to making sense of that truth—knows that it is anything but simple to sustain the kind of love—and here I’m talking about self-love—that writing a memoir demands. It takes time and craft and commitment. But more than everything else put together it takes the gumption to love yourself past the self-doubt and fear and shame and rage that will challenge even the most determined heart.
But here’s the thing: A closed heart becomes a silenced voice. What’s that saying, The only way out is through? The only way I know to write one’s way out of silence is through an open heart, and that takes courage and faith and a steely resolve to write beyond that place where your heart wants to close and you want to say oh fuck it all to hell. (Well, that’s what I bump up against, anyway.)
Hearts, I have learned—both as a mentor and as a writer of personal truth—are not fragile. They are, perhaps, the fiercest muscle we have, the one that will go the distance and lead us truth by truth, page by page, to that ultimate “aha,” to the final period at the end of the story. And what does the heart ask of us in return? That we keep it open—open to feeling our way through the ick as well as the joy that makes us human. An open heart, it turns out, is a prerequisite to writing truth.
Because of Lydia, I now see hearts everywhere. Here’s one from a tree on Rivermont:
I see that heart every day on my walk to the park—the same park where I met Joanne—and I see this one, too, on the sidewalk just beyond the park:
Does noticing these external hearts help me to keep my internal heart open, both on the page and off the page? Yes, I think so, because every time I see a heart “out there,” I pause and turn my attention to my own heart, and I make the decision to choose love and courage over fear and shame. It’s become a “heart” practice for me—an exercise in consciously opening my heart—a practice that I would not have if not for Lydia’s willingness to show up as a mentee and risk sharing her perspective—the wisdom she’s culled from her heart’s experiences—with me.
And that is the deeper truth about a mentoring relationship: It is a reciprocal relationship in every sense of what it means to give and to receive. As mentor I hold space for women to fully realize their voice and vision both on the page and off the page but, oh, the gift I receive in return is tenfold. As we work together on their writing, I receive the gift of my mentees’ perspectives; the way they see things expands the way I experience the world.
I’ve heard said that a miracle is a shift in perspective; well, it follows, then, that perspective is a divine gift.
It’s true I fall in love with my clients. How could I not? How can you not fall in love with someone whose perspective expands your own way of seeing and being in the world, and makes you a more conscious and open-hearted person as a result?
Lydia has taught me to keep my heart—and eyes—wide open to the possibilities of my own larger truth. And for this I am eternally grateful.
How about you? How has teaching or mentoring someone grown you into a better version of yourself? What surprises and gifts of perspective have you received from the relationships in which you were the supposed “guide”? Let us know in the comments if you care to share.
Me, I now see hearts where I did not see them before.
Love & Love & Love,
P.S. Want to hang out with a warm and supportive group of writing sisters? Writing Women’s Lives Academy hosts a free private Facebook Group called the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood. Come join us here!