My “Sympathetic Mentor”, Mr. Medlyn…

This typewriter is identical to the one we had at home...photo from 8pmdaily.com

I know that there is no other satisfaction which lights up one’s heart with as fierce a glow as that happiness of knowing one has written well. 

Arthur F. Medlyn

******

A couple of weeks ago while I was going through boxes searching for material to send to my friends Chase and Leanne for their new website, Stuff Kids Write, I stumbled on a forgotten file…it was my correspondence with the only bona fide writing teacher I ever had, Arthur F. Medlyn.

It was February, 1974, and I was 12-and-a-half.  I was reading an issue of Yankee magazine in which I found a small ad for a company called The Writing Well in Pittsfield, Massachusetts…the ad offered writing instruction, so I sent a letter inquiring about the service they provided.

The first response came within a week…I loved Mr. Medlyn from the time I read his first paragraph:

The straightforward character of your writing, its neat arrangement, especially the clean typewriting, and its modesty are becoming.  I’m sure you can write well!

Mr. Medlyn went on to explain that he had been a literary editor who had been writing for almost fifty years, and had first had poetry published while in his teens at Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a private high school founded by evangelist Dwight L. Moody.

My debt to him and to the school is great, and I’d like to repay it in part by providing for you, a young and talented person, the kind of training in writing well which would have done me good when I was young.  Together, we may apply the old school’s motto: “Learn as though your life on earth would endless be, Yet live as though tomorrow ushered in eternity!”

Mr. Medlyn’s standard fee for coaching was $50/month or $500/year in advance.  Knowing my tender age, he offered to give me a break:

Because you are young and full of heart, I’d like so much to help you that I’m willing to do it at less than cost (at least, at no cost for my time and effort); won’t you try my coaching service for $10.00 a month?

Mr. Medlyn asked me to send him a long detailed letter about myself and why I wanted to be a writer, two of my short pieces and $5.00 (the other $5.00 would be sent once we started working together).  He would discuss my background as related to a writing career, and offer his “One Man’s Opinion” (OMO) on the pieces I submitted.

Our main objective will be to create a body of meaningful literary work which the best publishers will be proud to publish.  They will do this because, through The Writing Well, your literary talent will have reached the kind of keen development which says, without another word, that you have written well.

Even at 12, I was my mother’s daughter…ever thrifty.  I sent Mr. Medlyn a letter expressing my interest in his offer, but asking if I was committed to studying with him for a certain amount of time.  I was worried about being locked into what I saw as a drain on my somewhat limited financial resources (my allowance was 15 cents a week, and my primary method of making extra money in the winter was babysitting for between 50 cents and $1 an hour).  His response was quick to dispel my fears:

My admiration for your sensible approach to the limited financial part of your writing efforts is boundless.  There is a danger here, however, in that you may very well find yourself so engrossed in the earning of money to support our pursuit together of your writing well that the pursuit may be lost in a flurry of dollars and cents.  If we are to write well, we must devote adequate, undisturbed time to the matter of writing…We mustn’t let financial considerations or other seemingly weighty obstructions stop us for a minute.

Mr. Medlyn’s new proposal suggested that I pay him $5.00 a month, and if I sold a piece during that month, that I would send him another $5.  Sold!

It was July (four days before my thirteenth birthday) before I got around to sending him the “long letter about myself” (I was a procrastinator even then).  I found my handwritten draft, which is the only letter of mine I have.  In it, I detailed my academic and family history (casually throwing in my distant relationship to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), and talked about my interest in being a writer:

I prefer writing as a possible career because I believe that I have always had a natural talent for it.  It appeals to me because I like expressing myself on paper, and because I have an imagination that often runs away with me.

In one of three postscripts, I told Mr. Medlyn about the summer jobs I had lined up (babysitting and picking berries), what they paid, and how much money I had already saved: $23.65.

In his next letter, Mr. Medlyn sent a poem he’d written just for me (I added the stars to separate the stanzas):

TERCETS FOR WENDY

by Arthur F. Medlyn

The wind is telling me stories again

About the what and the why and the when

And the where and the many who‘s of men.

*****

But now there’s no lad fetching the cows

Who wisely says nothing but only bows

As he passes by.  And the faint echoes

*****

Left by the wind are a long-kept thought

Of the pasture’s lesson I once was taught

About the might-be and what could be wrought

*****

By the study of what and when and where

To carry the why once you knew who was there.

But now there’s a girl with an earnest air

*****

Who certainly must have heard that breeze

As it whisked by me on the pasture’s leas

And tickled my mind with a lasting tease

*****

To know the who and the what and the why,

The when and the where, so that it would be I

Who could make them real for her noblest try

*****

To tell to the world what that windy sprite

Tells all young writers: “With all your might

You must learn all you can, and then write, write, WRITE!”

Mr. Medlyn was determined to turn me into a poet…I’m afraid that I disappointed him…I sent him what were probably some awful poems, a short story, and a fairly decent haiku from a picture of a volcano:

A majestic hill

Superior to all things

Stands in high splendour.

He critiqued my work and assigned me some tercets, which I didn’t do…I told him I “lacked inspiration”, “was lazy”, and “was finding the rhyming part difficult”.  Mr. Medlyn brushed off my excuses:

A writer is supposed to be able to acquit himself with reasonable facility on any given occasion…even if he has a bad headache and his Walden hut has just fallen down over his ears.  All of us intelligent people are lazy, by definition.  We try to make our brains save our backs, and our heads save our heels.  Anything worth doing is not easy, else its value is nil. 

My last letter from Mr. Medlyn was dated January 11, 1975.  He advised that his business no longer existed, and that he was now “just plain Mr. Medlyn.”  I never did the poetry assignment or revised my short story, and that was the last time I had any contact with him.

*****

I Googled Mr. Medlyn this morning, and learned that he had died on November 1, 1992 at the age of 78.  It’s a shame that he never seemed to have achieved any major notoriety from his writing.

I didn’t become a poet, but I am a writer…I think my “sympathetic mentor” had a lot to do with it…thank you, Mr. Medlyn!

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64 Comments

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64 responses to “My “Sympathetic Mentor”, Mr. Medlyn…

  1. How lovely to have a mentor like this. I had a couple of English teachers in high school that I very much appreciated, but none that I really felt nurtured my writing and so I stopped. Thank goodness for my blog and a couple of other creative writing outlets however, as I’m back at it. And loving it!

    Lovely poem too…I did enjoy your haiku as well. :)

  2. Aren’t those boxes of letters hidden a treasure trove? I may have to dig through some my own soon.

    I love Mr. Medlyn! Even the very idea of him. Ode to people who inspire others.

    Thanks for sharing this (and thanks for the linky love!)

    • I hadn’t thought of Mr. Medlyn for years, Leanne, and probably wouldn’t have had I not been going through those boxes…glad you guys indirectly brought back the memories for me! Wendy

  3. Do you think Mr. Medlyn knew how much you appreciated his inspiration or were you just to young at the time to realize it yourself back then? I remember my fourth grade teacher Miss Taylor who inspired me and was a good teacher but never was appreciated by her students. I can still see the “bullies” of the class giving her a rough time and ruining the learning for the rest of us.

    • I don’t know if he knew how much I appreciated it, Jeanne…I only had a draft of one of my letters to him, in which I thanked him “for everything” at the end…I wish I could remember! Wendy

  4. How wonderful to have a mentor like Mr. Medlyn!

  5. Great story–what a character! I wonder why we wound down his business?

  6. I love stories like this, Wendy! Thank you.

  7. I am trying to imagine what Mr. Medlyn would think of the internet world – more specifically the blogosphere. What a wonderful walk down memory lane. Glad you shared your story with us.
    ~ Lenore

    • I think he would have loved the idea of the Internet, Lenore, just because it allows us to get our work into the public eye without having the approval of an editor! Glad you enjoyed it! Wendy

  8. I’m so relieved you didn’t get scammed! I was on the edge of my seat the entire read! Great read!

  9. This entire piece, especially how Mr Medlyn expresses himself, is like a story from a bygone age. Utterly charming.

  10. One of the greatest joys we can know, after having a mentor like Mr. Medlyn…is, in turn, becoming a mentor to another…
    blessings, Wendy…
    lovely post!
    jane

  11. Jess Witkins

    What an endearing mentor. I love finding old letters or reading journals with memories like that. I’ve been re-reading books by Linda Godfrey and on the inside of her book, she dedicated it to all the teachers who inspired her and listed all their names. I’ve never seen such a wonderful inscription. Sounds like Mr. Medlyn made quite the impression on you too!

  12. thejaggedman

    Very nice Wendy. Thanks for sharing.

  13. What an interesting man! It’s little stories like his that make the best reading!

  14. What a wonderful story Wendy. He must have been delighted to have someone as young as you pursuing writing.

    It would have been fun to meet him in person. I love to watch and listen to older people telling others about their life’s work and passion.

  15. What a fascinating read! Don’t we all long for a “Mr Medlyn” in our lives?

    Wonderful post!
    Cheers, MJ

  16. jacquelincangro

    Aww, this was right up my alley. You know I’ve started my own writing classes just a few months ago. It’s still very small right now, but I hope it will grow and attract many different writers, including some Wendys. :) Someday I’d love to have my own space so I could host guest speakers and readings. I hope I’m providing encouragement for writers just as Mr. Medlyn did for you. That, in itself, is a lovely legacy to have.

    I wish I’d thought of the name The Writing Well. :)

  17. What a neat story, Wendy. I think it’s great you kept those letters, and I hope his children or grandchildren decide to Google him someday so they’ll know how much he influenced you.

    • I keep pretty much everything with any sentimental value, Todd…Mr. Medlyn’s son and daughter-in-law still live in Massachusetts according to the Internet…they’re in their 60′s. Glad you enjoyed the piece! Wendy

  18. How wonderful that you saved those letters and now have them to look back on. It must have been exciting for you at such a young age. Encouragement is so important especially when we are young.

    • I’m thankful for Mr. Medlyn and my teachers in elementary and middle school, Laura…without their encouragement, I might not have become a writer! Glad you enjoyed the post! Wendy

  19. Great story. I wish I’d had your ambition to seek out a writing mentor at such a young age.

  20. Ms. Wendy, this is Marantha Jenelle, from here on WordPress (http://1wordywoman.wordpress.com/) [And no, that is not a ploy to get you to visit my page, merely posted as a validation that i am indeed here on wordpress. i post as marantha jenelle].

    i got your link from a comment you left on http://stevevernonstoryteller.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/roses-and-riting/#comment-26. i only track down links of those who comment on posts i myself like, for it is a fairly good indication that they might share similar tastes.

    anyway, i really liked this story. you are a good writer.

    blessings

    marantha jenelle

  21. Great post! One of the best I’ve ever read! I love true stories like this one. Good work!

  22. I love Mr. Medlyn’s name…like melody, but sounds more masculine. I had a mentor in the 9th grade, Mary Ellen Galloway, who sponsored a Writer’s Guild. We met in each other’s homes once a month. We were honored and inspired by her presence. Our fall project was a book of 10 poems. I still have it next to a box of saved letters. Your piece is so well written. Your action and thoughts alternating with his. Thank you for writing this and sharing.

  23. Joey (formerly of Big Teeth & Clouds)

    What a sweet story! I always thought I had a natural ability for writing too. I had a 5th grade teacher that really inspired me. I guess that’s a great age to be encouraged. I’ll have to remember that in the future!

    • Glad you came by, Joey, and that you enjoyed the post…I’ll always be grateful to my Grade 4-6 teachers for the encouragement they gave me with my writing! Wendy

  24. hmmm…no reply button after your question…no pressure, just high expectations. We knew what we had to do. It baffles me that our country who led in space exploration, that is within a decade put man on the moon, cannot solve our energy crisis. Really now? The space community culture was focused, solved problems and went about the job matter-of-factly. I hate to speak in links, but I write about him in my post “Guess What?”, “Launching the New Year”, “The Clock” and “The Benefactor.” I write about my mother in “The Woman With a Mother”. They were an incomparable team. You better stop the questions or I may be giving you more reading. Thank you for asking tho’.

  25. What an amazing man, and what brilliant advice:
    ” All of us intelligent people are lazy, by definition. We try to make our brains save our backs, and our heads save our heels. Anything worth doing is not easy, else its value is nil.”
    I need to remember this!
    Kathy

  26. What a lovely post, Wendy. Brought a little tear to my eye this morning. ♥ Diane

    • Sorry, Diane…I did it again…replied to you via e-mail when I know it doesn’t work for you…

      I’m glad you enjoyed the piece…I’ll try to be more careful in the future when replying!

      Hugs,
      Wendy

  27. Wendy,
    Check out Jamie Drake on FP today regarding the Endeavor launch.

    • Thanks, Georgette…will pass it on to Jim and another friend of mine who’s really into space travel. I haven’t read your posts about your dad yet, but intend to shortly… Wendy

  28. Lovely and nostalgic post. Thanks, and God bless Mr. Medlyn. God bless you!

  29. Am I the only one who found this hilarious? I can’t believe you paid $5.oo + postage (that was a lot of allowance) to have that rapscallion take it from you. But he did have some wise words. I like the part about the Walden hut falling down around us. Did you even know what that meant at age 12? Without any Internet access? ;-)

    Love it!

    • I don’t think Mr. Medlyn was a “rapscallion”, Rene…if I recall correctly, I probably sent him less than $20 over the time of our correspondence (11 months)…I think he was genuinely interested in making sure I became a writer! And I did! Wendy

  30. Great story Wendy! I def missed this one while on vacation, but you’ve got a great memento in those letters for sure.

  31. What an exceptional man! And wise. And a poet! My kind of human :)
    This has to be my favorite Medlyn quote, “All of us intelligent people are lazy, by definition. We try to make our brains save our backs, and our heads save our heels!” Describes me to the T :P
    I enjoyed this walk down memory lane with you Wendy. Dad’s good patch is allowing me the time to read and I’m having a ball catching up on all your posts :)

    Hugs, H.

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