Earlier today I read a review of a book, Muses, Mentors and Monsters, by Elizabeth Benedict. The book features a collection of tributes from thirty writers to mentors who changed their lives. I immediately thought of the mentor who changed my writing life by kicking it off.
Lacking the opportunity to put this into a book, I'll pay tribute here to Larry Sparks, my main mentor while I was an off-campus grad student in the psych department at Central Washington U in the seventies. I doubt I would have made it through the mazes in that program if Larry's office hadn't been available as my centering spot. This gentle balding giant with the translucent cinammon buzzcut and droopy, pale blue eyes constantly urged and teased me to set aside my wild ideas of a counseling career and settle in to write. "You are the best writer I've ever had in any of my classes. That's what you excel at, what you do best. It's something you can do at home with your kids, and you can make (I think he said something like eight or ten cents per word) writing articles."
Larry told me lots of things — taught me lots of things — about life and especially about metaphysics, as he leaned back in his favorite desk chair pose — hands locked behind his head and one foot propped on a knee. He was the one who first introduced me to the "everything matters nothing matters" concept. I always listened, I always heeded, but I was sometimes slow to act and even slower to fully comprehend. I did start writing. I began with short stories. I still have a couple. They were truly pitiful, but I had no guidance. No classes. No books on how to write. No writers' group.. I wasn't about to show them to anyone! And it was hard to knock off the crust academic and case history writers develop that makes it second nature to weasel word and document everything. No original, definitive opinions allowed. Leave your self at the door and stick to the facts.
I did keep writing, scaling my ambitions back to local rather than national publications. I turned to reporting rather than fiction and served as a major contributor and Editor-in-Chief for a friend's regional advertising-supported women's newsletter. Getting positive feedback from people I hardly knew, I gradually built up a respectable portfolio and transitioned into business writing. I began to study the craft of writing and implement what I learned.
All this while I stayed in touch with Larry. Long after my last visit to campus, my move to Pennsylvania, and his retirement, I continued to find comfort in his teasing approbation. About the time I began seriously writing, life writing, and my heart kicked into the process, we gradually lost contact. It's been about ten years since our email exchange fizzled. But his warm, loving smile and gentle chuckle always lurk near the surface of awareness. In spite of the lack of active contact, I still feel connected. I'm sure that on some level he knows what I'm up to even now, and is still smiling and chuckling as he lounges in his recliner, gazing at the vast eternal reach of the Columbia River flowing through the desert wilderness of eastern Washington.
Would I have begun writing if I Larry Sparks had not entered my life? Quite possibly not. I do believe he made that difference in my life, steered me onto what I know is "my path." I'm enormously grateful for his presence, wish him well, and thank him from the bottom of my heart for believing in me, then, now and always.
Write now: a tribute to a mentor (writing or otherwise) or any person who changed your life for the better or exerted a significant influence. If it's possible, share a copy with that person.