- Writing Memoir
- Taking Risks
Early in the school year, my Grade 12 classes are traditionally neck deep in memoir. Each student is reading one, and we are writing a variety of memoir based pieces. I get excited about this, because my writers can’t really stand to firmly on I Don’t Know Anything About This Subject Rock. They know the topic, and can sift through ideas and inspirations easily, focusing, hopefully, more strongly on craft.
Also, I love reading memoir myself, so their writing coupled with all the “research” I need to do for our memoir study, and to build our memoir library gives me great material to dig through.
I just finished reading Nathan Rabin’s great memoir You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Subtitled, Phish, Insane Clown Possee, and My Misadventures With Two Of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, it is a neat bit of memoir, mixed with rock history. Rabin details a couple of years spent immersing himself in the fandom of these two artists, discovering much about the stereotypes attached to each group, and some things about himself as well.
Rabin is a great writer, and this will not be his sole appearance in this column. Two passages wound up bearing flags in my copy of his book as I read, potential mentor text material.
Like all teenagers, I was a follower, a cultist in need of strong leaders to tell me what to do and listen to and read and how to lead my life. Only I swore allegiance to the gods of my particular tribe, highbrow likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert and the Cahiers du Cinema gang told me to see and listened to the critically sanctioned Rebel Music favored by the Greil Marcuses of the world and read the books every young burgeoning intellectual is required to read lest he look foolish or unrefined in the eyes of fetching young coeds he hopes to impress/bed.
The second, I’ll warn you now has one of those pesky f-words in it.
In every group of friends, there is one buddy who is a little wilder and crazier and a little more out there than everybody else but also freer and more fun. The kind of friend you worry about and secretly envy. He or she is the rock star in the group, the wild card, the manic imp.
That was clearly Jared in his group of friends. A row or two behind me Jared and a fresh-faced kid from Milwaukee who looked unnervingly like the character actor Kevin Corrigan passed around a bottle of Seagram’s Seven Crown and told strangers stories about some kids they knew who were “fucking stupid´ in a way that made you really, really, really want to know what “stupid” meant in that context.
How We Might Use These Texts:
Writing Memoir – The first passage is kind of a gift. There are few things that seem to drive a young person as hard as a need to belong. Regardless of our views on Taylor Swift, we all have squad goals. I love how in a paragraph, Rabin breaks down who he was. He was a movie geek, a film snob even, and his other cultural tastes ran toward the highbrow. The beauty of this paragraph is that we “get” who he was. We’ve likely met someone much like him.
The second passage has Rabin describing people from his group of friends. Like the first passage, he uses the comfort of common experiences, as well as steretotypes, to communicate character.
I believe all our teaching isn’t just about the task we have students doing, but also, inherently about bigger truths. There’s a level of introspection in this paragraph that could be a powerful exercise for our students as young people as well as writers. We’re asking them to identify the tribes they belong to, and to break down who’s who in that tribe. (I also love the idea of a chat breaking down the tribes and stereotypical friends we have in our world. The notes from that would be a great asset to many writers!)
As writers however, these passages show our students how to introduce themselves, or their friends succinctly. There is a bit of dry humour, which comes with the open nature of how Rabin is writing. He’s explaining who he is, people he knows by connecting them to people we know. Often, our writers, when writing memoir, churn out long overwrought histories of their groups when we ask them to write about them. Rabin gives us a great model to show how that can be shorthanded. This is good as a piece on its own, but also beneficial when we consider including these kinds of details in a longer piece.
Taking Risks – As a proud member of the Moving Writers community, I read what gets shared here. As I was typing you a copy of the passages this week, I realized they’d be great to share with Hattie. I loved her post about breaking the rules.
See, there are a lot of rules for our writers. And they’re often made to feel as if breaking them automatically makes them a bad writer, makes them look stupid.
Rabin’s writing is a wonderful mentor text for this. I’ve read a fair amount of his work. Rabin is a smart dude, way smarter than me. He writes well, and he uses words that I have to look up in a manner that seems so damned casual, as if it’s no big deal. In short, if you look at these passages, I think he basically shows us that if you can write well, then you can subvert the rules as you see fit. If one follows a run on sentence with a phrase like “burgeoning intellectual” in a natural manner, then it’s okay, the reader, likely a teacher, will forgive you your transgression.
And if I’m honest about subversion here, isn’t it worthwhile for us to encourage our writers to mess with the rules by telling them that strong use of language will make it okay? They’ll learn new words, and how to use them well, just so they can write a run on sentence. Feels like a win to me.
Humour – Now, I’m aware that I’m reading more humour in these passages because I’m aware of the context. That being said, I feel the first passage drips with sarcasm, and lets us know what a pretentious young man Rabin felt himself to be. Amazing use of tone.
In the second passage, Rabin’s reference to Kevin Corrigan makes me laugh because I know who that is, and can picture him. As this is an excerpt, it loses some of the context. Throughout the events that follow, Rabin only refers to this character by that name, or “Kevin Corrigan’s doppleganger.” It’s an unconventional way to describe someone, and the repeated use is funny.
Though I wouldn’t use this as a mentor text for the writing of humour specifically, I’d use it to point out the role that tone plays in humour. It doesn’t need to beat the reader over the head, and scream joke to be funny. It can simply be snide and sarcastic. Rabin is self-deprecating without being overly disrespectful. A valuable lesson.
As with any book, there are other moments in Rabin’s book that have mentor text value. His writing about the music of Phish and Insane Clown Possee, particularly his defense of their audience is strong writing. On the memoir side of things, Rabin writes well, a smart man making some dumb choices. I think young writers could relate.
What mentor texts do you use for mentor writing? How do you encourage your writers to take risks as writers?
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