What do mentors and protégés owe each other?

As a writing professor, it’s complicated when students find wild success

By Susan Shapiro
Published July 3, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)
Broken Pencil (Getty Images/Maciej Toporowicz)
Broken Pencil (Getty Images/Maciej Toporowicz)

As a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novels and her TED Talk "We Should All Be Feminists," I've been fascinated by the feud between the 43-year-old luminary and the 34-year-old bestselling author Akwaeke Emezi, who once studied with her. As a teacher helping younger writers publish, I was taken aback to see a literary falling-out like this unfold so publicly. It started when Emezi denounced Adichie over her comments on transgender rights, which Adichie found especially offensive since her name had been heralded in the publicity for Emezi's debut book. I was even more stunned by the older author's recent angry response on her website, "It Is Obscene," in which she trashed Twitter and cancel culture, angrily taking unnamed younger writers — one read widely to be Emezi — to task, calling out the opportunism of "social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion." 

The writers have denied they were ever mentor/protégé, where the more experienced colleague served as a trusted advisor and ally. But Adichie's description of hosting students in her home and championing their early work reminded me of my own teacher-student links. I flashed to the time my ambitious student Elena told me, "I got $500,000 for my book and sold movie rights!" 

"Wow, congratulations," I'd said, pleased that sharing my contacts led to her debut. I'd wanted her to land a great deal — though was surprised it was ten times the amount of my last advance. In her early thirties, Elena seemed young to sell her first book; mine came out a year earlier, when I was 43. After decades of struggle, it felt miraculous to become an author. I didn't want to resent her success. Yet I suddenly felt like a lesser version of last year's It Girl, with her slated for stardom. 

As Elena's novel instantly landed on bestseller lists, I bought several copies, pretending I wasn't hurt when she ignored me at her book party, busy mingling with famous guests. A long-time writing professor, it never occurred to me that my students might use me to open doors, then surpass or diss me. Demoted from useful to usurped, I flashed to "The Tempest" and aging magician Prospero who felt betrayed when his powers and position were stolen. But this wasn't a Shakespearean tragedy. Recalling my therapist's warning that "feelings misinform," I realized nothing was taken from me that I hadn't freely given away. 

Like Adichie, I'd left home young to get my MFA. Unlike her, I didn't find major success in my twenties. After my graduate degree at NYU, I was broke and struggling. While exalting the books of my professors, they never mentioning publication, making it seem impossible. Then a teacher referred me to a job at a prestigious magazine. My awesome female boss let me write when it was quiet, proofreading my pages. After four years, I left to be "freelance everything," as my Midwest parents called it. 

Teaching wasn't my Plan B, C, or D. Still, a few evening classes paid bills and fit my night-owl nature. I invented a method weaving my bookish background with hard-won publishing knowledge, revealing everything I'd done wrong and how to break into print faster, teaching the class I'd needed to take. Fellow academics questioned why I shared my agent and editors, pushing students to get paid for their pages. "Always err on the side of generosity," advised Mom, who grew up an orphan. "Everything good you do comes back to you. But that can't be the reason you do it."

When I began, my Rolodex was filled with editors' contact info. Decades later I was I posting Twitter calls for pitches in my secret Facebook group, attempting TikTok and Clubhouse to stay relevant. I'd felt useful guiding a new generation toward internships, clips, jobs and agents. Yet when so many landed book deals ahead of me, I felt like the wedding planner who couldn't get married. I wanted to be generous, not envious or competitive. 

Not that I could compete. Talented undergrads and MFA candidates in my classes were younger, more adventurous and provocative than their straight white married monogamous middle-aged teacher. I'd already over-chronicled my stories: abusing substances, donning a black dress to wed a tall handsome scriptwriter at 35, battling infertility. Giving up on parenthood, I became a workaholic, moonlighting as a professor (like my spouse.) Exhausted from years of editing and promoting student work, I found myself resentful of the role of literary caretaker, nurturing other people's children.  

I was sure my envy would ease once I sold my own books in my forties, mining my struggles with childlessness, sobriety and psychotherapy for a series of splashy hardcovers. But I was thrown off when a talented pupil tried to co-opt my gynecologist, shrink, and my Jungian astrologer.  "Want my husband and apartment too?" I'd joked. When she trashed me to mutual acquaintances, I felt hurt — and exploited. I assumed someone benefitting from my reputation would be more respectful of it. I needed an emergency phone shrink session to deconstruct my dejection.  

"Mentor-protégé relationships are complex, fraught with unrealistic expectations. You can't always be the one in control and they won't always applaud you," explained my longtime therapist, Dr. Winters. "You're a parental figure they idolize, then need to rebel against." He added, "And you're better off with lower advances." 

"What? Why?"

"Because half a million dollars could alter your world dramatically and throw off your equilibrium,"  he said. "Seventy percent of lottery winners lose all their money. Sudden windfalls can lead to infamy and craziness. A normal paycheck is less extreme. You'll be forced to keep teaching, which is stabilizing. Your goal isn't to be the most famous or rich." 

"It isn't?" I asked. "What's my goal again?" 

"You aspire to be healthy, balancing work and love in a long career doing good in the world."

Sigmund Freud was the one who claimed love and work were the two life forces. Yet he never forgave his protégé Carl Jung, who was 20 years his junior. They'd met in Vienna in 1907 and had a six-year close collaboration, penning 360 letters to each other. Freud hoped Jung would succeed him as the leader of the psychoanalytic movement. Then a disagreement over scientific theories about sexuality and the unconscious tore them apart. It was a sad ending for two fellow travelers who, upon first meeting, talked nonstop for thirteen hours straight. I recognized that spark. 

Often a student's triumphant debut gave me a vicarious blast of joy. I loved when a woman in my class made $2000 on her first essay, tweeting about my "magic publishing karma."  

"Walking into my reading, she reached out to touch me, like the TV audience does to Oprah," I told Dr. Winters, an addiction specialist who became my mentor. 

"If she thinks you're Oprah, no problem. If you think you're Oprah, big problem," he warned.   

Oprah also had an infamous protégé fight. She hosted spiritual coach Iyanla Vanzant on her TV show 20 times until the two fell out over the direction and timing of Vanzant's career. They were estranged for 11 years, until their 2011 televised reconciliation. An even earlier TV mentorship gone wrong involved "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers. For two decades she was his popular guest, becoming his substitute host in 1983. When she took an offer to host a TV show from another network in 1986 without asking Carson's permission, he felt deceived. They never spoke again. 

It's easy to feel usurped when someone you helped surpasses you. Truman Capote befriended Harper Lee — who was two years younger — when they were growing up in Alabama. In 1959, as he researched an investigative story for The New Yorker, he hired Lee as his assistant, paying her a fee plus expenses. They travelled to Kansas and worked well together for months, with Lee doing interviews herself, contributing 150 typed pages of notes. Then Lee's novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" came out in 1960, became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer Prize and netted an Academy Award for the film adaptation. His jealousy led to a falling out. "I was his oldest friend, and I did something Truman could not forgive: I wrote a novel that sold," Lee wrote. When Capote's article "In Cold Blood" was published as a book to great acclaim, she felt slighted to not be officially thanked in the acknowledgements. When he died in 1984, they'd never reconciled.

With those ugly endings in mind, I recently held my breath reading a student's argument with me over identity politics on Facebook. Her opinion seemed inflammatory, so I unfollowed her to avoid fighting. Cara, another woman who'd studied with me, earned half a million from a top publisher for her substance abuse memoir. Though my mate had joked, "soon our students will be the only ones returning our calls," Cara didn't respond to several emails or acknowledge me in her book.  

Despite what I knew intellectually, I couldn't fake how I felt inside. I confided to my Jungian astrologist how frustrated I felt by my lack of comparable stardom. He said I was a "behind-the-scenes type gal" with planets in low places. "With your chart, it's amazing you've been in the spotlight at all. Helping others soar is your superpower. Keep doing it for good karma." 

I recalled my low hanging planetal plains when Elena phoned for help plugging her second novel. After several nonfiction books, I happened to be launching my fiction debut with the same publisher. She offered a blurb. I hoped praise from a hot young hipster would make me hipper. Maybe she was belatedly thanking me for lending her an early hand.       

"I'm jealous you have so many books," she confessed. "After my high first advance, it took me six years to get a second deal." 

"Wasn't yours a big bestseller?" I asked, stunned that my pangs of green might be mutual.    

"Not enough to earn royalties," Elena said. "It's been rough." 

I suggested a walk-and-talk office hour, speed walking around my local park. Elena felt like a failure when the movie of her book wasn't greenlit, she said. Not living up to the acclaim made it worse. I shared editors she could pitch pieces about her book, slipping in an admission that therapy saved me. I recommended a head doctor she saw before moving away. I added hearts to photos she posted with her new boyfriend, hoping she'd find peace. 

I finally found mine in my fifties, gratified by better reviews, crowded book launches and thoughtful interviews. Slowly, I saw the downside of instant, superficial glitz and glory, sad when two former students with big deals struggled with severe depression. Another relapsed, needing rehab. A colleague with a major advance and press was "cancelled" after controversial stories from his past arose. In the age of social media, nothing invited scrutiny and backlash as much as big payouts and press. Like many mentors, I was a bit less progressive than my acolytes. Supposedly older and wiser, I tried to sidestep disagreements and downplay estrangements. 

"Of the thousands of people who've taken your classes, 98 percent appreciate you," my shrink reminded me. "Focus on that." 

By the time Sophie, a student three decades younger, nailed an impressive contract for her debut memoir at 21, I advised she keep her day job and threw her a book party. "You accomplished what it took me twice as long to do," I said.

"That's because I had you," Sophie replied, melting me. 

Since her parents (like mine) hated her confessional tone, she dedicated her book to me and "all the girls told they can't be the heroes of their own stories," calling me her hero.  

Over the years, being a part-time teacher morphed from a paying-the-bills gig into a calling. Without children, I wondered if it would be my legacy. Ultimately, I was thankful to balance love and a dual career where using my past mistakes to inspire those who came after me enhanced my life too, mostly out of the limelight.


Susan Shapiro

Susan Shapiro, a writing teacher, is the bestselling author of memoirs her family hates like "Five Men Who Broke My Heart," "Lighting Up" and "The Forgiveness Tour." You can follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or Instagram @profsue123.

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