Be careful what you pay for ...

I'm in the middle of a sad and complicated email conversation with a writer who has recently had a rotten experience. He's been badly burned, and feels both embarrassed and angry, so he asked me if I would blog about his experience to help others avoid the same trap.

He has spent quite a lot of money, many hundreds of pounds in fact, working with a book 'guru', and after months of rewriting and so on, was dropped, unceremoniously by the guru for his 'unprofessional attitude'. Not only that, but once his support system was pulled out from under him, he found the guru had started to bad-mouth him to other writers with whom she was working.

This is appalling, unprofessional and abusive behaviour on the part of the 'guru' and it's one of the reasons that I am very clear with my coaching and mentoring clients about the extent of the relationship, how information I obtain about them will be used, and what they can expect from me in terms of confidentiality.

It reminded me of something that has influenced my life since I was a teenager, and I'll share that experience with you, to explain why I am deeply suspicious of many forms of creative support.

When I was fifteen, I became a glamour model. Yes, I took my clothes off for a living! It happened by accident, I was spotted by a photographer, who paid me for some shots, and then passed my name to another photographer and blah blah ... I was too young to sign contracts (but I did anyway) and it was highly exploitative. But I made lots of money, and found it hilarious that one could get paid for doing nothing. By sheer good fortune my mentors were other, older, models, who looked after me and gave me advice and support. I was a lucky, lucky girl and I don't regret a minute of it.

But I needed a part time job to explain my absences from home, and at least some of my ridiculously large income, so I worked for a dentist as a receptionist. He had a dental nurse who saved all her money to pay for tuition and courses ... to become a model. She wanted to do catwalk, of course, not glamour, and she'd spent a small fortune on photographs, deportment courses etc. She even had an 'agent'. I took her photograph to one of my clients. He told me she could never model 'in a thousand years'. I believed him - because his name was David Bailey. To be fair, he'd only used me as a stand-in for a girl who'd got flu, and he never hired me again, so he didn't think much of me either, but it taught me a lesson I've never forgotten. Not everybody can do what they want.

When you work with somebody, you should believe in yourself, not them. You should be clear about what you want. You should know how and when the relationship will end and on what terms - assuming everything works out, and you should also know how termination of the relationship will occur if everything doesn't work out. If you have a dream, rather than a career plan, you will find yourself picking up leeches and liars who want your money and don't care if you succeed. If you want to be cossetted and applauded, you will find you spend a fortune on empty promises. A true guru, or coach, or mentor, will tell you the truth as they see it (and they may be wrong, everybody's fallible) not what they think you want to hear. They will be honest about your talent, commitment and aims - and that may be painful to you. If you're not feeling any pain, they may very well be selling you a line, and a line won't deliver anything except empty pockets and a feeling of failure when the truth emerges.

So what should my writer have done? Reality checks. He should have measured what his guru said against his peer group's experience - were other writers at his level being told the kind of things he was hearing? He should have stepped back regularly and looked at how his work was progressing and assessed that progress in terms of independence rather than dependence. He should have set goals and asked his guru to work to them, not to some woolly future. Above all, he should have constantly, carefully and honestly asked this question - 'if my guru dies tomorrow, will I have gained anything from this relationship'?

We worked out that with the money he's spent on this guru, he could have completed a year and a half's tuition on a good writing degree that would have given him friends, a qualification, and confidence. What he has, right now, is an overdraft and a whispering campaign - and a novel, which, to be honest, was better in the first draft than it is now.

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