Mentor Texts: Jon Recommends: “Head Rolls Off” by Frightened Rabbit By Jon Johnson
Sean Recommends: “Ocean Drive” by Lighthouse Family By Sean Cunningham
- Using music as inspiration for memoir writing
- Connecting elements in writing
Background – This is the first of two Mentor Text Wednesdays that finally allow me to fulfill a vision I’ve had for this space for a long time.
I love the idea of having music inform and inspire what my writers are writing. I have a number of books that I’ve yet to pull out the best mentor texts from. However, I recently discovered, via, of course Twitter, that there is a wonderful online lit journal called Memoir Mixtapes. My affinity for this publication should be pretty obvious from their Twitter bio: “The ultimate mashup of the two things we all love to talk about: ourselves and music.” I love reading memoir and listening to music. I love bringing both of these things into the classroom, and I think Memoir Mixtapes will be a good source of mentor texts to do this.
Though I saw some wonderful pieces as I scanned through the journals, this week, I’d like to focus on a pair of pieces that were shared via Twitter, and aren’t included in the journals. As I start writing this, I haven’t actually listened to the songs that are featured, which in some ways, may have helped me focus on the pieces themselves.
Though I had followed Memoir Mixtapes and flagged a few of their posts for later perusal a while ago, it wasn’t until recently that I actually took the time to read one. The first one I read was the piece by Sean Cunnigham, about “Ocean Drive” by Lighthouse Family. The opening line reminded me why this is a particular stream of writing I want to explore with my writers:
“The past is but a song away; songs have the power to unlock memories, some long forgotten — memories, sometimes, best left forgotten.”
This line actually highlights what I’ve needed to really make this idea of music inspired writing happen – a focus. I have books in which songs inspire stories, or poems, as well as books where music is the basis for memoir. The pieces featured on Memoir Mixtapes, however, are short pieces by a variety of contributors, and therefore don’t have the narrative thread running through them, making them easier to “excerpt” for use as mentor texts.
Cunningham’s piece beautifully demonstrates the connection between song and memory, and that a song can transport us to a place in the past. I adore it so much because, unlike so many pieces about music, this isn’t about The Most Important Song in his life, but rather one that is very much of a time and place. I think this might be easier for students to write about, if they can find the song.
Jon Johnson’s piece is a bit different. It connects two instances of loss via a song. In doing so, it actually highlights that not only songs make an impact on us, but the events around a song, or an artist impact us as well. Sometimes, those events actually connect to moments in our lives.
How We Might Use These Texts:
Using music as inspiration for memoir writing – In both of these pieces, the songs chosen allow the writers to recall a moment from the past. In Cunningham’s piece, the song is of that moment. Having young writers rolling through playlists past, sifting through the memories evoked by the songs would be a good exercise in finding inspiration. Since this piece is about a song that captures a moment, it might alleviate the pressure of choosing. If there were a few starts, a few instances of notebook time in which they tried to capture the moments of a few different songs, then they’d have options to explore. They could look at the pieces started, and see which has a resonant moment, or thread they’d like to explore.
Johnson’s piece is different. It still uses a song, but the song isn’t directly “of the moment.” It would be neat to have writers explore songs that remind them of moments in their lives, not because the song was present, but because of what the song says. It is the lyric that Johnson highlights that acts as a connection to the loss of his father, as well as the loss of Scott Hutchison.
Mood – My students frequently complain that I give them so much bleak and depressing stuff to read and work with. Guilty as charged, I guess. That being said, the mood is so strong in both of these pieces that it’s hard to ignore them as mentor texts for establishing mood.
Cunningham uses imagery to establish the moment he’s remembering. There’s a brief, but vivid description of the Toyota. The fact that this is a clear reminiscence heightens the mood, as this is obviously a melancholy remembering. It is about a loss, but that loss is not stated at the outset. In fact, it’s almost as if the car is the thing that is missed, not the person.
Conversely, Johnson’s piece begins with a line that sets the mood, “I got punched in the gut again today.” and then tells the story that is the first gut punch. It’s a more overt story of loss than Cunningham’s. Perhaps it’s the fact that that first line is followed by establishing a scene of joy that is disrupted by the loss that makes this story hurt.
The frantic nature of loss is communicated in this run on sentence: “My vision blurred and my phone was in my hand but now it was in my pocket but the keys weren’t in my pocket where are the keys to the damn car there is no car my sister has the car but I have to get there who will watch the kids I don’t care I have to get there why is my face wet I need to go.” Johnson just hammers us with the thoughts that you know raced through his mind in that moment.
Symbolism – Cunningham’s piece is about loss, but as I said above, it’s not fully clear who was lost. What is clear is that the Toyota is symbolic of that loss. The car represents the person associated with it. Cunningham actually speaks more openly about missing the car, loading it with symbolism. This would be ideal for discussing the creation of symbols in student writing. It is not obvious, which is a thing that many young writers do in their writing. I would totally use this particular piece for this purpose alone in a unit about writing memoir.
Connecting elements in writing – A wonderful thing about both of these pieces, but Johnson’s in particular, is the way that seemingly disparate elements are connected. Cunningham’s piece connects a song, a car, a former happy memory and a great sense of loss. These things are almost inextricably linked in the piece.
Johnson’s piece does this in a different way, connecting a personal loss he faced, with the loss of a musician he respected. Each loss is unexpected, and resonates with him. Though these two losses are quite different, Johnson, through the lyric from a Frightened Rabbits song, finds a commonality. He focuses on what matters, identified in the lyric. In doing so, he actually makes this piece end optimistically, and quite personally, as we assume that he will move forward, making “tiny changes” as he saw the two men he lost do.
Brevity – Although it doesn’t always have its place, I’m a fan of brevity. These pieces are wonderful examples of how we can succinctly tell a story, with imagery and impact. I think it would be interesting to give these pieces to writers after they’ve written a first draft of a similar piece. Especially if there are some long winded reminiscences in there. Ask students what makes these pieces work so well at their length, and if they can apply that to their own drafts.
These two pieces are just the tip of the iceberg of what Memoir Mixtapes has to offer. As I write this, there are four volumes published, each featuring a couple dozen pieces. I can’t wait to dig in further, though my initial skimming, and reading of a handful of pieces has shown me that this is a goldmine of mentor texts.
Are there things you haven’t yet found the right mentor texts to do yet? Have you ever used music as an avenue into memoir writing? Do you have a song that you would choose to write a memoir piece alongside?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!