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On coaching and mentoring

What is coaching?  What is mentoring? And which is right for writers – and for you?

At the recent NAWE conference, I attended a brief session on coaching for writers.  Session leaders Philippa Johnston, director of the Writers Compass, and Anne Caldwell introduced us to the idea of coaching, and how it differs from mentoring.  The two words and roles are often used interchangeably and draw from similar backgrounds and bodies of work.  The difference is on focus.

Coaching is for helping an individual go through a period of change that is self-directed but supported.  It is not about advising.  It is about helping someone to look at their own decision-making processes, so it is very goal oriented.  Mentoring is like a helicopter view, looking at the whole career of the writer, often done by another writer who is further along in their career, walking the path that you hope to walk.  A mentor is someone who has gone through what you are going through, and can guide you through the process.  While a mentor is work-specific, an effective coach can come from any field.  A coach helps you focus, asks the right questions, but supplies few answers.

A new course for coaches and writers, a pilot accredited course with Arvon, is being offered next year by NAWE.  “There is a need for writers to work with other writers in this developmental role”, said Anne, who also noted that the first course is already booked.   There is currently a waiting list for cancellations and future courses.

What is coaching for writers, then?  Coaching looks at a 4 step process for examining the structure of your creativity, writing, or work life, within a specific time frame:

  • GOAL
  • REALITY
  • OPTIONS/OBSTACLES
  • WILL

Opening these up a bit, the questions would be asked by the coach as follows:

  • What is your GOAL for the next 3 months or years?  (The writer and the coach set the time frame to look at) This question can also be asked as What do you want?
  • What is your REALITY right now?
  • What is the gap between your GOAL and REALITY?
  • What OPTIONS do you have in planning how to bridge this gap?  What OBSTACLES are in place to hinder your bridging this gap?  (Do you require training or education, for example?)

Following the brief introduction, we partnered up and had a go at coaching, asking our partners questions on the next 3 months.  And I’ll tell you, it was hard going.  A coach works as an active listener, prompting thought with the set of questions and reflecting answers back without leading or advising, much as a counselor would.  A coach is not a counselor, however.  A coach is looking at goals and realities and strategies; a coach is not looking at the past or seeking to heal it.  Partners shared their progress with the group, and the discussion opened up more questions for me.  You see, I have done some one-to-one sessions at writing events, and now I wasn’t sure if the work I had done there was “right” in that they were short meetings with specific questions asked and I was there to supply quick and efficient answers – wasn’t I?  Was I, then, acting as a coach or a mini-mentor or as – something else?

Eager to learn more, I booked a one-to-one for myself with Philippa, to see how coaching felt by being coached.  This was a real stretch for me.  It is my job to support and encourage other people’s writing.  When it is my writing on the coach, my instinct is to run, tutting, “I’m fine, I’m fine!”

Philippa sat me down in a quiet room off the lobby of our Cheltenham hotel.  Already, I was feeling nervous.  As with the coaching workshop, she asked me to define and prioritize my goals for the next 3 years by looking at where I was now, where I wanted to go, and the steps between to achieve them.  The task of the session was to set a realistic but ambitious plan of action, but to help me, the writer, to find my own solutions while the coach signposts resources available as choices are being made.

The first task is to define what I want to achieve in 3 years.  It won’t surprise you to hear that in 3 years I would hope that my first novel exists in paper-form somehow and that my second book is finished and ready to publish.  I also have a goal of moving my workshop leading on, to begin to work with other writers on the form as opposed to the more general creative learning workshops I run now.  My goal is to provide more rigour, both to my work and my workshops.

The next step, looking at where my writing life is right now, brought me up short.  The gap is wide, wide.  But the process stops you from wallowing in it and to focus on the gap itself and which steps can move you from reality to goal, as if it really is as simple as that.  An examination of the gap between is also meant to get you to focus on whether you need resources (time, money, training, education, contacts, a lucky break!) or if you need to change your mindset to move forward.

Philippa offered a number of handouts and practical workbooks to let me look at how I use my time and what training is on offer to me, to read at my leisure.  She took notes on my conclusions and decisions as I was increasingly unable to type through our meeting.  Of course, I found it quite emotional to talk about my work, to talk about how I feel about it, to talk about my own ambition.  I felt quite nude and it is to Philippa’s credit that she brought me back to the task at hand.  I now await a report of our session, a kind of contract between me and – me.   She believed that the gap was more influenced by mindset than reality, which is hard to hear.  But I am listening.  If you’d like to know more about NAWE, the Writers Compass, or how coaching might work for you, visit the NAWE website.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is really interesting. It’s made me decide to get the book Your Best Year Yet down off the shelf again. I normlly do a life audit in about September (January’s are bleak and it’s kind of a back-to-school thing to do it in autumn), but didn’t this year as was too busy, head down, wading through. What does that tell me?!
    Hope the feedback you get from your session is really, really helpful to you. Good luck in all your goals, large and small.

    November 18, 2010
  2. Your Best Year Yet – I think I’d better order that one! The feedback was really helpful, yes – I’m looking forward to receiving my report to find out what else I said I’d do! Thank you for your kind words, as ever…

    November 18, 2010

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