Mentor Text: Jesse Newton’s Facebook post about his Roomba and dog poop
- Anecdotal writing
- Descriptive writing
I’m originally from Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. That means that there are a few things hardwired into my soul. One of these things is an appreciation for a good story.
I often tell my students that everybody should have at least one good, practiced story to tell. Most of us spend our lives collecting them, whether we do it consciously or not. And we edit and revise them, crafting the narrative for maximum impact. We’ve all seen this play out in social situations haven’t we? We can tell when someone is telling their “story” – the pacing, the emphasis.
We need to remind our writers sometimes that the written pieces we treasure came after the oral traditions of storytelling. We’ve evolved them over time. Viral pieces on social media have become the new avenue for many of these stories.
And that’s where this week’s mentor text was found. On a peaceful Saturday morning, I was up before my family, holding in laughter so as not to wake them while I read Jesse Newton’s Facebook post about his Roomba dragging dog poop throughout his house. This, in writing, was the kind of thing I had been telling my students they should be crafting.
How We Might Use Them:
Anecdotal Writing– When we study memoir, we write memoir. Often, what I have my writers doing in this study is essentially writing a collection of anecdotal pieces. Newton’s post is a strong piece of this, and does something that young writers often find challenging – it takes a single event, and expands upon it.
When my wife woke up, I told her she needed to read this piece. I was able to capture the core of the piece in a single sentence. “It’s a guy writing about how his Roomba dragged dog poop all through his house.”
We have a lot of writers who would like to end the story there. The whole story is told, all the facts are in a single line. But that’s not what they should do, and it’s not what they would do if they were telling the story orally. So, after looking at this mentor text, we need to talk about our oral storytelling traditions. Each student likely already has that “one good story” that they’ve crafted and refined to tell. And there’s a strong likelihood that we could have them boil that story they love to tell down into one good sentence without all the craft.
Newton has a progression of events in his post. He sets it up, he explodes moments. He starts with a hook, revealing the Roomba’s involvement in the third paragraph. You’re curious about the story, but when he drops the mention of the Roomba, you know you’re there for the rest of it.
And, as I scan through this piece while I write, I realize that Newton has done a thing that happens in many successful anecdotal stories. He includes the pieces that the reader can relate to. When he writes, “…because your wife loved that damn rug, and you know she’ll ask if you tried to clean it first.” I know what he’s talking about. I’ve taken an extra step I know is a complete and total waste of my time because I know that there will be a question from the much-adored mother of my children.
Descriptive Writing– A huge part of what makes this story work is the way that Newton writes. It is so richly and descriptive, and given to hyperbole that it pops off of the screen. You laugh out loud as you read, and part of that is because you can imagine it being told.
“And so begins the Pooptastrophe. The poohpocalypse. The pooppening.” I am a huge fan of creating new words, especially combining something that speaks of a large scale, like apocalypse, with something else. It gives it such a scale, don’t you think?
“It will be on your floorboards. It will be on your furniture legs. It will be on your carpets. It will be on your rugs. It will be on your kids’ toy boxes.” This simple statement of location, repeated and modified drily expands upon the scale of the mess. I think listicles have become so popular because somewhere, deep in our souls, we love lists. Using a list to describe something feels like a very rich tactic.
Allusion and analogy work well in Newton’s piece too. Imagining a “Jackson Pollock poop painting” pretty much communicates the chaos. However, only some of my students would catch that one, but they’d all get the mudding reference. A great mentor text moment if I ever I spotted one, layering in references to make sure you’re appealing to a varied audience.
A moment that I feel connects the oral and written storytelling aspects in this piece is the use of onomatopoeia. “Whirlllllllllllllllll-boop-hisssssssss” works on the page, mostly because we imagine what it sounds like in our head. The best anecdotes have that moment when the person telling the story makes a noise to communicate things, even if it’s just yelling “Bang!” They’re calculated for auditory and emotional effect, yet still work on the page. Our writers should look for the sound in their stories.
Humour– Many of the things that I pointed out in discussing descriptive writing are actually the things that work together to make this piece laugh out loud funny. However, I would study this piece with students specifically looking for what makes it funny – particularly if our goal was writing funny anecdotes.
Humour is a personal thing. Yes, there are things that most people find funny. Generational differences and societal norms alter that though. We know that mnay of our writers will be most familiar with comedy that comes from a more hurtful place, at the expense of others. We don’t want to encourage that.
Newton’s piece is a good mentor text on how we can tell a funny story that isn’t malicious, or overtly offensive. It deals with poop, so we can talk about safe taboos – things we shouldn’t talk about in nice society, but can actually get away with. He uses some familiar tropes of comedy, such as self deprecation and the disapproving spouse.
But much of the humour comes from the situation itself. Using description and hyperbole, Newton unfolds a narrative that is pretty darn funny. We can tell that it comes from a place of laughing at the frustration of the inciting incident, and we feel okay laughing at his misfortune because, you know what, we’ve had some bad stuff happen to us too, and were able to laugh at it in retrospect.
In our world of social media and constant content, we have no idea what will go viral. I’m sure Newton didn’t expect a teacher from the middle of Canada to write a column about the teachability of his post. But I did. (Thanks Hattie for catching my tweet, and suggesting I do so.) Though the medium may have changed somewhat, I still believe that as humans, we crave stories, and a text like this not only gives us one to enjoy, but can be used to show storytellers how to tell a story well.
How do you get students to write anecdotes? Do you have good mentor texts that you use to inspire them? How do you use viral content like this in your classroom?