How We Build Friendships: Parallel Mentorship

Reading up on one of my favorite writers (Sheila Heti) this week, I stumbled upon this interview with her that is an excerpt from the book Should I Go to Grad School?: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question.

The interview is replete with thought provoking advice, but one line of thinking in particular that stood out to me considered the idea of “parallel” mentorship. In describing why she valued the idea of graduate school, the interviewer explains that she thought it might be a good place to meet “parallel” rather than “hierarchical”  mentors – people to learn from who are peers, rather than established and successful.

I love Sheila Heti’s description of how she found collaborators and formed relationships with them–not by going to grad school–but by following her grandmother’s advice and throwing regular parties:

“My then-boyfriend (later husband, later ex-husband) Carl Wilson and I began having parties every two weeks. And with my then-new friend Misha Glouberman, I started Trampoline Hall (a monthly barroom lecture series), and Carl had a music show called Tin Tin Tin, and for a few years we were just building this world of people around us. Anytime I met anyone I liked, I would invite them to our parties or to lecture at Trampoline Hall.

We did it because we were bored. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I remember telling my grandmother about our isolation, and she said, “Have regular parties at your house.” I think that’s how she and her mostly Jewish, communist, artist friends socialized back in Budapest. She told me what to do, and we did it, and she was right. God, I owe a lot to my grandmother.

It was the regularity of contact that was important—she was right. We threw four events a month, not to mention the times we’d see people at other events. So after a few years, we had gathered a pretty solid group of friends. It took a lot of time, and you often ended up socializing when you don’t want to. But it taught me how to have conversations, how to find people, how to work with people who are your friends, and how to turn friendships into working things. I’m just realizing for the first time what an education it was. I think making friends you can work with is a skill like any other; developing those particular kinds of intimacies. They’re intimacies like any other, but they grow in a definite direction, not just willy-nilly, like normal friendships. I can’t imagine school as having been a satisfying substitute for me. You’d only meet people in your program, and the nice thing about our world was that everyone was doing different things.”

I also love her description of her parallel mentors as people she wants to share her brain with. When asked whether her parties were akin to networking, Heti responds:

“Oh god, not networking. I mean something closer to love. Like, who are the people who I art-love? That means admire and want to share my brain with and make part of my brain. It’s not like there are a thousand people I can have this ongoing sort of relationship with, as with networking. There are a dozen? Maybe dozens? It’s like having boyfriends, except instead of things lasting six months or a year and then you break up, it lasts indefinitely and it’s not exclusive and it’s less concentrated. I’m in a serious monogamous relationship, and I don’t want to keep having different boyfriends, and I have this instead— with men and women. It’s better. Instead of having sex, we have art.”

Just as I was mulling all this over, Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day posted on instagram that she was hosting a stranger party.


My interest is piqued.

What about you? How did you find your parallel mentors? Who do you want to be part of your brain? And, would you throw a stranger party?

Feature photo: Marina Abramović and Ulay in Relation in Time © VBK, Wien, 2011

9 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on bears, goats, and strawberries and commented:
    Stranger party that didn’t copy is everyone brings someone others don’t know. Instead of your spouse as your date. Fuck, I live with him. Why exactly do I want to drag him everywhere and talk to him all night at a party or wedding. I hardly speak to him at any social event. That is reality. I am confident in my relationships vs. acting like a jealous two year old.

    No, I don’t go to events he likes and I don’t. Sometimes he takes neighbors, sometimes one of my or his work girlfriends. So, they like it. I do not. He always asks me first if I want to go; once in a blue moon I say yes.

  2. I just stubmled upon your site tonight and I love this post! Friendship as an adult is such a tricky thing. I find that I have to be so mindefull of growing these relationships when everyone is so busy with grad-school/kids/work! Stranger party sounds interesting, I think I might have to give it a go!

Join the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s