Susan Dominus introduces Alan Burdick:
Alan Burdick is the very model of quiet leadership. Over the past thirty years, working behind the scenes as an editor at prominent magazines, Alan has helped hundreds of aspiring journalists and writers find their voices and bring their knowledge to the public in the best form possible.
A good editor is as much a coach as a craftsman; patience is essential, as is the ability to give critical feedback while simultaneously providing encouragement. Throughout his career Alan has gained the trust of even the most sensitive of writers, and he has gained a reputation as an editor who can listen and draw strong, expressive work from contributors of all talents. He is creative, exacting, and compassionate, and his love of good writing is infectious.
And he’s a terrific writer himself, one of the best. (His awards include finalist for the National Book Award, and the Overseas Press Club award for environmental reporting.) Beginning with his early reports and essays for The New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, through to his book-length projects, Alan has developed a writing style that is very much his own, combining rigorous reporting and analysis with a vivid and rich sense of language. On the page he is an exemplary tour guide, warmly sharing what he knows and drawing the reader along on his explorations.
As a kid, Alan thought of himself as shy. But one year, at summer camp, a friend—no less than Lindsay Fass Graham, the founder of Mentor Engine—helped him out by writing a short, funny manual for him called “How to Overcome Shyness.” Thanks to her, he learned how to overcome that obstacle and turn it into a strength. (He also learned the value of good mentoring!) Alan brings a can-do equanimity to all his mentoring projects: as the father of twin eleven-year-old boys; as the coach of a youth soccer team; and as an instructor at Yale, where he has begun teaching a class on writing and the environment. Alan still won’t talk your ear off at the dinner table, but who needs that, really? He radiates thoughtfulness and enthusiasm, inspiring confidence and creativity in those lucky enough to sit next to him or to come across him in life.
Susan Dominus is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine at The New York Times.
Alan Burdick Discusses Mentors and Mentorship
How are mentors important to an individual’s success?
In a number of ways. Certainly when you’re young, you don’t always know what your options are in the world, and mentors can help widen the world for you and introduce you to ideas and show you paths that you weren’t aware of. And mentors are models of inquiry. Some of my early mentors were teachers; they got me interested in subjects because I was interested in them as individuals, and their engagement and their passion for their material drew me to it. I had the same math teacher all through high school, he was a great guy, fun, smart; we’re still in touch. I loved math in part because I loved being in his class. You improve by doing something over and over again—and to do that, you have to have a passion about it or absorb somebody else’s passion about it.
How would someone who thinks highly of you describe you as a child or a young adult?
I was inquisitive as a kid. I loved to read. I was probably an easy kid to be a mentor to—I was eager to please, and was pretty focused and a hard worker.
What made you choose Stanford as an undergrad?
I actually spent my first two years at the University of Chicago, but it just wasn’t for me. After my sophomore year I took a year off from school, moved to New York, and did an internship at Harper’s and another magazine. That was a formative year. I fell in love with journalism; it felt like something I could do and something that I wanted to do. I liked the mode of inquiry. I went back to college with a renewed sense of what I was doing. I didn’t end up studying journalism, but I did now have a vision of what might come after college. As for why Stanford: it was sunny! I grew up in Syracuse, New York, where the winters are miserable, and the winters in Chicago were terrible too. I applied to Stanford without knowing much about it except that it was in California, where I’d never been. I went sight unseen.
Who did you consider a mentor when you were growing up, and how did you establish that relationship?
One was Jerry Bisson, my high-school math teacher. And during my year off from college, I met a couple of editors at Harper’s, Michael Pollan and Mark Danner, from whom I learned a lot. Also, and although I wouldn’t have said so at the time, my high-school track coach, George Constantino, was a mentor. He was tough, a former Marine, I think. His work ethic stayed with me. He died years ago, but there isn’t a day when I go for a run that I don’t think about him.
How do you think your life would be different if you hadn’t come into contact with these people?
I might have found journalism through some other route, but I’m not sure that I would have had the same vision for it, or the same vision of me in it, if not for Michael Pollan and Mark Danner. Their enthusiasm made that year a formative time for me. As for Jerry Bisson, my math teacher—math isn’t a big part of my life anymore, but he was very much a solid presence through my high school years; it was very reassuring at the time.
Who would you say calls you a mentor?
Maybe my current editorial assistant and my former one, who has gone on to be an editor elsewhere. I’ve spent a lot of time with them trying to download what I know about editing and how to handle the difficult decisions that you sometimes have to make. I’ve had a couple of research assistants, students in Columbia’s writing program; in exchange for several hours a week of their time doing research for my book project, I’d spend a couple of hours a week reading their work and giving feedback. We’ve stayed in touch, and I continue to offer career advice and help them chart a path. Mentoring, in one way or another, is a larger part of my life than it used to be, in a good way.
If you had to choose someone to be a mentor for your kids, other than a parent, who would it be?
It’d be hard to pick one for them. In many ways, I think, you choose your own mentor, and I see that happening for them already. I have twin boys, in third grade. One really loves to draw. He takes an illustration class, and the young woman who teaches it is enthusiastic, positive, and knows how to engage the kids. He’s good at drawing, but I can tell that he loves to do it in part because he loves the energy that she gives off. It’s great to see him have that experience. My other son has a music teacher that he really likes. I don’t really have to ask him to practice—he wants to, he pushes himself. To a large degree, that’s a function of his instructor, who knows how to challenge him and keep it lighthearted.
How do your sons mentor others?
Their elementary school has a program that pairs third-graders with kindergarteners. They’re “reading buddies” to the younger kids. When our boys were kindergarteners they’d tell us about their reading buddies, who were three years older; it’s nice to see that relationship come full circle. But also I think they enjoy it. As a twin, you don’t get to have the experience of being an older sibling. So they probably find a little pleasure in having a younger kid who looks up to them. But it’s more than that. When they interact with younger kids, I can see that they’re good at it and that it’s something they enjoy being good at.