Q: What would a mentor give you that a critique group or writing classes do not?
A: A lightsaber and some cool Jedi moves. And validation: You are a Jedi; you are ready to win the tournament; you are on the right path; you are working with the Tao. Also, I could do a be-sequined back-to-back glam-rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "You Raise Me Up".
Seriously though, a mentor is historically a guide who prods, helps, and initiates so that the world is put into order. the original Mentor was the Goddess Athena disguised as an old man so she could jump-start the youth Telemachus out of the house to go and find his father, Odysseus, and thus prepare the court at Ithaca for Odysseus' return.
One difficulty with a critique group is that it can be a fragmented mirror reflecting one's work, or a torn map of the landscape of art, craft, and marketing. Part of the difficulty with a writing class is they can focus on a particular technique, but without strategies for applying the technique. I should add that neither a critique group, a class, nor a mentor is a silver bullet that will magically fix one's writing or turn it into a giant pile of cash.
When I imagine a mentor, I imagine Merlin pointing out a rock and saying, "Why don't you try that sword, over there?"
When I imagine a mentor, I imagine an Oxford don holding an informal symposium in his apartments, with tea and crumpets, and four or five other students discussing things like voice, image, plot and symbolic meaning.
I imagine someone saying, "I see you're experimenting with lyrical voice, you might want to read so-and-so." Or someone saying, "[Insert some inscrutable author] is exploring such-and-such, and they're bringing readers along by using [some inscrutable technique that's infuriatingly inscrutable]."
Or, "I'd like you to meet so-and-so, who is working on something similar to you." Or "I'm trying to do X-Y-Z; how would you do it?" Or, "Try this market."
I get frustrated with the whole mentor idea because, one of the roles of a mentor is initiator, and there are certain groups I cannot be initiated into because of [insert personal quality or circumstances beyond my ability to change].
I'm semi-pro writer who writes lyrically, mythologically, queerly, deistically, sensually, imaginatively, romantically, and visually. I would love to have William Blake be my mentor, except that there's two problems:
The first problem is, as much as I enjoy reading essays and literary critique, when I imagine a mentor, I imagine someone I can have a conversation with. It's hard to have a conversation with William Blake.
The second problem is that inherent in the paradigm of the mentor is the role of the mentee as The Chosen One. I don't want a mentor so I can feel like a chosen one. I don't want to be a chosen one.
As much as I want my writing to live forever in letters of fire and to be the bane of English Graduates everywhere, I'm satisfied when the images in my head get into the reader's head. It would be nice and would save time if I had a guide for those instances when it feels like I'm lost in the woods at night and babbling to myself.
However, no mentor has materialized, so in the meantime it's up to me to prod myself into action, to track authors I admire and try to follow their path, and to initiate myself into my own voice.