Mentor Text – The Unique Sadness of Mourning the Musicians Who Helped us Grieve by Hanif Abdurraqib
- Personal Essay
Background – In the last few years, the work and words of Hanif Abdurraqib have come to mean a lot to me. He’s a writer who writes from a place where he belongs, but writes as if he never quite feels like he does. There’s an openness and honesty in his writing that makes his work feel as if it matters the most.
In the strange place we find ourselves in in the spring of 2020, using phrases like social distancing and self-isolation, his words just seem to resonate.
Part of the reason that I love Hanif’s work is the clear importance that music holds in his life. While we may not share the exact same tastes, the areas where our tastes overlap make me feel as if we’re kindred spirits. When he writes about something that’s not in my wheelhouse, he makes me want to expand my horizons.
So, obviously, when he wrote this piece in the wake of John Prine’s death last week, I was in.
How we might use this text:
Personal Essay – The openness and honesty in Hanif’s writing, as I mentioned, is one of the most resonant aspects of his work. If he’s writing a poem, or a book about a hip hop group, it all has a tone that almost seems confessional. He’s open about the way that everything is filtered through his sense of identity. This is actually true of most writing, but Hanif somehow makes this a core element of his work.
This essay about not just Prine, but the loss of many musicians, resonates with me, and I think, will with our young writers. Even before this pandemic pushed us to more insular pursuits like spending time with our headphones on, we’ve had a tough few years as music fans. There have been numerous tributes to artists who’ve left us abruptly.
Hanif’s feels different to me, and I think it’s an excellent mentor text for personal essay writing. Let’s look at what he does.
He starts by making it clear that this is a personal essay. He starts with himself, and establishes his connection to music. I really appreciate this, because a lot of personal essays, especially of this type, start by establishing a context first – clarifying what it is that the essay is going to be a reaction to. The way he talks about his feelings, and the length of his connection to music establishes a tone so damn well.
“None of this helps me much in the large scheme of what is happening around me, around many of us. It feels especially foolish to look toward music as a source of healing in this moment, when so much actual, physical healing is needed. And so it has been useful for me to separate healing from comfort, even if the comforts are brief, or simply a needed noise to propel me from one fear to the next.” The openness of this passage is striking. I think for our writers, the permission that this infers is powerful. It’s an admission that the trivial things that matter, our music or entertainment, actually do matter. There’s also an admission that the writing itself may not serve some grand purpose, and doesn’t “capital M” matter. I read in here an admission that he’s writing this as an exercise in expression, an attempt to work through his feelings. To me, this matters right now, because we find ourselves looking at the work we do, and have students do, differently. Writing, at this moment, might not be about the academic end goal, but about working through what’s in our heads.
The paragraph in which he discusses his pandemic routine is important as well. It establishes context. This, however, isn’t context in the sense of informing the reader of what he’s reacting to yet, but establishing the context in which he finds himself writing. I think of this, because in the classroom, I often find myself encouraging students not to do something like this. Granted, what they are usually doing in this vein is more like, “My teacher told me I had to write a personal essay…” but what he does here has relevancy to what, and how he says, what he’s saying. That’s an important takeaway for us when we work with our writers.
He follows this by emphasizing that music, though something that matters to him personally, is a community experience. This is another thing that I want to take into my classroom when I get back there, because I find myself, often, trying to get writers to explain why something matters. Often, their reasons are selfish. I love that this passage shows how to look past the selfish nature of something we cherish.
The openness, the display of how personal a personal essay can be, in the passage when he discusses our modern, social media patterns of grieving is important for our students to consider. It’s a challenge to consider the way we do things in our world, and the things that have become the norm. I love this model of openly sharing the self-questioning that can be part of a personal essay.
I think it’s a valuable mentor text moment here when the context I’ve spoken of above, the event that prompted this essay comes into play. It’s the third from last paragraph. And really, it’s only a paragraph. Sadly, as we’ve lost so many voices these past few years, I feel like I’ve read a lot of tributes to an artist in the wake of their passing. (I’m amazed that I haven’t written them up for MTW, but I guess I was waiting for the best one.) Frankly, many of them read like our students might have written them – a chronological trip through the artist’s career with some sentiment added throughout. This is not the bad thing I make it out to be, but the ones that resonate do more than that. They’re personal, and reflect the writer. Hanif does that here, but with such efficiency and economy.
I love the concluding paragraphs here. Again, Hanif makes this about his feelings. In a personal essay, he ends, not by looking to persuade his audience to agree with him, but by firmly stating how he feels. This is what he leaves us with, his feelings and questions about how we grieve. The fact that he ends this personal essay with a note of doubt is perhaps the most confident thing about this piece, and a valuable writing move for our writers – that it’s okay to not have the answers, to admit uncertainty, and to express that openly. I feel as if we spend a lot of time encouraging our writers to express themselves with confidence, but perhaps forget that confidence isn’t about certainty. It’s about expressing the things that, in the moment we write, we feel.
I feel like this Mentor Text Wednesday is a bit of a departure from what I normally do here. Perhaps that is, like Hanif, I’m writing it in a very different context. I’m prepping lessons to be delivered remotely, and I’m not elbow to elbow with my students or my colleagues. That is doing something to my teacher’s heart, and I think that’s why Hanif’s piece resonated not just with me as a person, but me as a teacher. It finds me at an unprecedented place in my career. I’m mourning the disruption to this current school year, but this piece gives me a glimpse into what promise lies in the future, when we gather again in classrooms.
How are you doing? What writers have been important to you lately? What’s your “silver lining” in this different classroom context?
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-With love and hope,