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Who's your dead mentor?

Five reasons why an author from the past may do more to energize your writing than any of today's hip young marvels.

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4. Dead mentors help you to become a better reader
In her book, "The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art," Joyce Carol Oates writes, “[I]f you read, you need not become a writer, but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.” Translation: in addition to daily writing, working a day job, cooking dinner, and sustaining real-life relationships, writers are expected to read voraciously if they hope to succeed.

Living mentorship often takes place in the form of phone calls, emails, coffee dates, and time-consuming writing classes. Save your time and kill two birds with one stone. Looking to your dead mentor for advice means that, nine times out of ten, you’ll be reading. Whether it’s your dead mentor’s novels, poems, letters, diaries, or biographies, “interacting” with literary ghosts accomplishes two goals: you get your advice while honing your close reading skills – which, according to Oates, will make you a better writer.

5. Because the “prose” say so
Accomplished writers agree that leaning on the words of authors past is essential. “I have a zillion dead mentors,” says Helen Schulman, American novelist and recipient of numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize. “That’s what a lifetime of reading does.” Francine Prose also makes the case for dead mentors in the first few pages of her book, "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Like Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them." “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eyes, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors,” she writes. “They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?”

Jessica Rosevear blogs at JessicaRosevear.com where she focuses on the intersection of teaching and writing.

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