Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig are mother and daughter and have both been Girls Write Now mentors. Robin is a freelance science writer and New York Times Magazine contributor, Samantha Henig is the online editor for the New York Times Magazine. Together, they co-authored “Twentysomething,” a book on the culture and science of being young. We asked them a few questions to learn what it is like to be a Girls Write Now mentor and how to find your voice.
Robin and Samantha, you have both been mentors at Girls Write Now. Mentoring is powerful, and magical in many ways (one staffer calls it the ‘secret sauce’ to GWN). Can you decode its power and explain what mentoring does for our girls, and also for you as the mentor?
Robin: I’ve had two GWN mentees, Yolandri and Corrine, and this is a big year for both of them — Corrine is about to graduate from high school, and Yolandri is about to graduate from college. Just as with my own daughters (Samantha and her older sister, Jess, who’s also a writer), when I watch my mentees’ accomplishments I feel a strange mixture of pride and awe — more awe than pride, really, because pride suggests that I did something, and the accomplishments are theirs alone; all I did was encourage them, possibly at some critical moments, along the way. As their mentor, I do feel like I get back as much as I give — I get back a sense of connection to the future, and insight into the incredible potential of the human mind.
Samantha: I went into my mentor experience with Tammy thinking that my role would be to encourage her with her writing. As it turned out, Tammy was so incredibly driven and focused — not only did she excel at all the Girls Write Now assignments and in school, but she also played music competitively and held down two jobs — that I ended up finding myself playing a very different role: trying to get her to relax and slow down a little! She was a senior, and very focused on college applications. She knew that she wanted to go to a specific journalism program and become a broadcast journalist. But she didn’t get into that top-choice school. Since I’m a practicing journalist, I think she took me seriously when I told her how much she had going for her already, and how little she’d lose by going to her second-choice school. It was an emotional time for her, and I’m glad that I was able to offer a bit of calming perspective.
Not everyone has had a mentor in their life. Have you? If so, who and can you detail the effect the mentor had on you.
S: Throughout my career, I’ve had many people who have taught and guided me. Many of the editors I’ve worked with, from internships (Don Troop at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Lovelady, now deceased, at Columbia Journalism Review) to early jobs (Devin Gordon, then at Newsweek) to more high-profile positions (Hugo Lindgren, Joel Lovell and Lauren Kern, then at The New York Times Magazine), have been incredibly supportive and taken time not only to help me succeed in my role at the time but to help me figure out what I should do next. (If you’re noticing how heavily that list skews male, yeah, so am I!) One thing that’s frustrating for people of my generation, though, is that the rise of smartphones and social media and all the rest have completely changed the rules of the game in the last decade or two, so the people I might normally turn to for wisdom and advice are often just as flummoxed as I am, if not more so.
R: I didn’t really have professional mentors in my own life, mostly because the bulk of my career has been as a freelance writer with no steady editor or boss. But I do remember, in my twenties, looking for women who were doing the jobs I hoped to do eventually and asking them out for coffee, just to talk. This is something I tell young writers to do even today. The ones I remember being the kindest to me, early in my career, were two established journalists I admired, Barbara Culliton of Science magazine and Maya Pines of The New York Times.
You have worked closely together as mother–daughter on writing a book and some essays and blog posts. Was there a mentor relationship in that and any surprises throughout the process?
R: Less than I would have expected, actually! I think Samantha and I have spent so many years working together, with Sam editing my articles and me editing hers (or her term papers), that it didn’t feel like either one of us was clearly the mentor when we worked together on “Twentysomething.” I spent more time on the writing because that was my full-time job (Sam had ANOTHER full-time job, at The New York Times, and crammed her work on the book into weekends and evenings), but I don’t think we felt like I was clearly the one in charge and Sam was the one learning the ropes.
S: Well, that’s a very generous take on our relationship, but I would definitely say my mother played a mentor role! I had never written a book, and probably never would have tried to do so on my own. She might not have been aware of it, but my mother’s experience (that was, what, her ninth book?) guided me through the process. She knew how detailed we should get in our proposal, she knew when it was okay or even helpful to skip around (working on chapter seven before chapter four, say), and when it was more productive to chip away at something from beginning to end. She also suggested — much to my annoyance — that we read the entire manuscript out loud at the end, grueling as that was, so that we would be able to spot awkward phrasings that were less evident in print. Maybe it’s a sign of what a good mentor my mother is that she didn’t even realize she was mentoring when she did all that.
Voice is the theme this year and it’s a concept very much infused in the Girls Write Now mission. The hope is to empower our girls to find their voices and share their stories with the world. How did you find your voice?
R: We fussed a lot about voice during the time we were co-writing Twentysomething. Our original plan had been for me to write a draft in a “we” voice, and put it in our shared Dropbox for Sam to edit and youthify. But it soon became clear that the “we” didn’t sound like either one of us, so we shifted gears. In the end, I wrote the book in my own voice, and Sam wrote inserts — which we set off in a different typeface — in which she commented on my narrative and added her own perspective. The exception was the chapter on dating, which was written in Sam’s voice with my comments in a different typeface. Turns out Sam knew a lot more about dating in her twenties than I did, because I got married at age 19!
S: I tried to keep a casual, conversational voice in my inserts. If I stopped and thought too much about My Voice as a concept, I would get stuck. So I used a trick that I learned from my mother (see, there’s that mentoring again!) and pretended I was writing an email to a friend. I hope that approach made me seem more relatable to young readers.
Robin, how did you help Corrine find her voice?
R: Corrine was literate, articulate, and self-confident from the day we met three years ago, so I’m not sure she really needed help finding her voice. Sometimes she’d need a reminder to slow down in her writing or to add some specific details to make a section stronger, but all it took was for me to say that, and she’d go back to the piece she was writing and, voila, it was suddenly a charming, detailed-rich narrative that sounded just like the smart and funny girl she is. We’re now working on the speech she’s going to give at high school graduation (she’s the class saluditorian), where “voice” is especially crucial, and I’m watching that process happen all over again. I can’t wait for her to deliver that speech in June!