Roger and Me: Why every freelancer needs a mentor

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

“You can’t always get what you want but you get what you need” – The Rolling Stones

The recent death of Canadian comedy legend Roger Abbott saddened me greatly. I didn’t know Roger all that well personally, but over the years he had been like a mentor to me.

When I was a kid back at school I wrote to Air Farce. It was Roger who wrote back and arranged for me to interview them for my school newspaper and radio station. It was Roger who was encouraging and supportive and who listened to my dreams of “getting into the business” while all around him was ample evidence of its crumbling structure. It was Roger who kindly critiqued my interviews and showed me how I could improve them in the future.

Over the next few years I tried selling Air Farce a script or two. I never succeeded but Roger always sent back an encouraging note. It was “almost…” and “not quite…” but “keep trying” and “good work.” I will now admit I found even his kind words frustrating at this point. But I soon turned my feelings around and used them as positive motivation. I eventually proceeded to leave the country and sold my first professional freelance comedy scripts elsewhere. I’m sure Roger would’ve approved.

After I returned home (as can happen only in Canada) a few doors were now open to me that had been previously closed. One of my favourite projects was writing for a kids show on a national TV network that used some of the Air Farce cast as voice actors. I was now writing words for Roger to perform! He was as positive and supportive of my work as ever. And he remembered me from my school days. Once I overheard a recording session during which he really “talked up” my humble script to the rest of the cast. Afterwards, he would quietly take me aside sometimes and make a few constructive comments to improve future scripts. We were now fellow professional freelancers, although I was never in his league.

Around this time I joined ACTRA. Somehow I got involved in a number of its activities. First it was a committee. Again, Roger (in his capacity as former president) was there, offering us young ‘uns advice and counsel. He took a few of us out on his own dime for lunch once to see how things were going when we were particularly frustrated by some impasse or another. He suggested realistic and doable solutions to the problems we were facing.

Roger was, you see, a committed union man, and thanks in part to his influence I began to see the wisdom of being a member of a larger team while still pursuing a freelance career. After I joined in more actively and took on a specific ongoing task for the union it was Roger (who had been responsible for it previously) who I turned to for advice. He was more than generous in offering his thoughts and expertise to help guide me in the assigned task and continue to get it done well.

And still I tried selling Air Farce some scripts. It never happened, but by now I didn’t mind. I had gone on to sell a lot of scripts to a lot of other shows in a lot of countries. Among other things I guess I had learned from Roger was the art of perseverance. But Roger always managed to send a quick letter to let me down gently and to offer his ongoing encouragement for whatever else I was up to professionally.

When he passed away recently I realized it had been many years since I had had any contact with Roger or had even watched Air Farce. He and the team were always going to be around, weren’t they? And so it was a shock to learn he had been sick for so long. But how like the true gentleman he was that he never burdened his friends and colleagues and always kept going until he could no longer.

I wrote above that Roger was “like” a mentor to me. His death got me thinking: What exactly is a mentor? My dictionary defines it as “a wise loyal advisor” and “a teacher or a coach.” Mentors come in all metaphoric shapes and sizes at different times.

Perhaps I’ve been luckier than most in that I’ve usually had someone who has acted as a mentor in almost every separate career “thread” of my many freelancing lives. However, they have never been exactly what I expected in a mentor. Some were gruff and remote. Others overly opinionated and overly bearing. One I couldn’t even manage to sell a sketch to in all the years I tried. Yes, Roger was definitely a mentor to me in my freelance career. In truth, I didn’t even actually realize it until his death. Of course he probably acted the same with practically everyone he had contact with over the years. I’m sure he never gave our correspondence, phone calls, and meetings at the CBC or ACTRA a second thought. Roger was just doing what Roger did. And Roger was among the very best.

If you’re very good or just plain lucky, you might get a mentor in your career thread. If you’re very lucky maybe you will get more than one. You may not realize it at the time, and they may even be a bit horrified at the thought themselves! (For the record, I’m not referencing official “mentorship programs” but more informal uncharted situations that freelancers are far more likely to encounter.) Should you look around right now and feel cheated because you don’t see any mentor to look up to, try looking in the mirror. Maybe it’s time you were a mentor to someone you know. Someone starting off in the business. Somebody who is too young or too bloody-minded to know to give up. Perhaps you can’t possibly buy any work from them. So, okay, all you can offer (on occasion) is loyal, wise advice in the years to come, which they may or may not act upon. They should be so lucky. I know because I was.

Thank you Roger. I never got to call you a friend but I feel privileged to think that I can now call you a mentor.

Posted on June 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

Leave a Reply