Mentor Text: Pants: A Note by Brian Doyle
- Playing with conventions
- Expressing a single idea
- Using footnotes
Background – This spring, I found myself really reflecting on the fact that I use a lot of heavy pieces in the classroom. I think we all do – they do the heavy lifting for us. They’re rich with meaning for us to discuss. And often, it feels like the nice things don’t do much except, well, be nice. As one does, I sent out a Twitter plea, seeking things that we might be lighter and substantial.
Joel Garza suggested the work of Brian Doyle. The first piece that he sent me, straight into our class the next week. I immediately ordered myself a copy of One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, a collection of Doyle’s essays. For a few months now, I’ve been reading an essay a day from this book, a beautiful moment of zen, flagging so many for classroom use.
This will not be the last time a Doyle piece makes an appearance here. Though that first piece Joel shared with me is worth sharing, it’s the very busy last week of a hard school year, so I’m sharing the last piece that we looked at in Lit class.
How we might use this text:
Playing with Conventions- Doyle’s essays are so beautifully written. Everyday, I’m cursing under my breath at the beauty. Each piece of his we’ve used in class has gotten effusive praise from students.
But he doesn’t always follow the rules. As he points out in the footnote, (more on this below) the first paragraph of this piece is a 379 word run-on sentence. This is likely one of the first things that we try to drill out of young writers isn’t it? Doyle’s masterful, almost poetic, prose works because it defies conventions.
Having just had students write their own pieces inspired by ‘Pants: A Note,” I can tell you for sure that they enjoyed this challenge. That they liked focusing on the thoughts pouring onto the page instead of pondering over where breaks should be, where new sentences should start. They also, I think, got an early lesson in craft that is very important: that conventions exist, knowledge of them is important, and intentionally defying them can be creatively fruitful.
Expressing a Single Idea – Many of Doyle’s pieces dive into an appreciation of the magical minutiae of life and the world. Perhaps that’s what’s so refreshing as you read his work, his appreciation of things, your inclination to nod along, because you appreciate those same things.
‘Pants: A Note” is a short essay, but it packs a lot in. There are elements of memoir in this piece, but the piece doesn’t diverge into a pure memoir, doesn’t chase down every reflection. It is simply a piece created to express appreciation.
When I had my Lit class write their pieces inspired by this, we discussed, and brainstormed a single thing to focus on. What helped was that they were not really given any guidelines related to length. They weren’t trying to fill pages, or hit a word count, but rather focus on a single idea – their appreciation for a single thing. As a result, they dug deep on that single topic, and didn’t write me a bunch of single paragraphs about a bunch of things they liked because we were focused on quality over quantity.
Footnotes– The teenage brain seems to love asides, doesn’t it? How many pieces of student writing did you read this past year that ventured outside the scope of the assignment, or wandered away from the thesis of the paper for a while? How many writers shoehorned in a joke?
I love how the footnote here does this. In other places in One Long River of Song Doyle is pretty self-aware as a writer, and steps outside of the piece to comment on it. It’s not him doing that here, it’s the editor of the collection, but it is such a wonderful aside, so funny, and adds character to the piece. I loved encouraging my writes to tack something on to their pieces, to comment on their craft or their content.
I think, also, this might be a great tool for us to use when students are editing and revising. If they were tasked with adding a footnote or two to a completed piece, would they look at their work differently, and perhaps be inspired to edit or revise as well as adding the footnotes?
Joel’s recommendation of Doyle’s work paid huge dividends in my Lit class in the last couple months of the school year. These beautiful pieces are inspiring, both as a human and a writer. I know one student definitely clarified his voice through exposure to Doyle’s work. As I said, my book is full of flags, pieces to ponder and provoke, and pieces to inspire. As I wrap up this year, I know that there are gifts coming next year because of this collection.
What writers or texts have brought joy and inspiration to your classroom this year? Which writers that play loose with conventions do you share with your writers?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!
I used “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda the same way. He wrote a collection of odes to ordinary objects. I ask my students to choose their own original objects and elevate them in an ode.