Mentor Text Wednesday: Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy

Today’s guest post comes from Brian Kelley, co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. He teaches at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and produces the podcast “The Classroom,” where he confers with students about writing. you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or at

Mentor Text

Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Judd Apatow

Writing Techniques

  • Developing ideas
  • Identifying mentors


From books to blog posts, writing teachers recognize possibilities for mentor texts everywhere. My radar is up as I look at Instagram, Twitter, and roadside billboards. I listen to podcasts and watch videos not only for pure enjoyment and personalized learning, but also for crumbs to bring into the classroom.

I found a breadcrumb trail worth sharing–mentor texts drawing attention to the act of writers doing writerly things outside of the classroom–where the real prewriting happens.

When Donald Graves wrote about a child’s control of the writing process, a piece of his interest was in what children did away from the classroom. When and where were children in a constant states of composition? Graves knew, in this state of constant composition (thinking of ideas), writers can glow like jack-o-lanterns.

A text in my reading pile, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Lessons about Life and Comedy, filled my writer’s notebook with ideas for focused free writes on our lives outside of the classroom.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-7-08-11-am

Sometimes, students don’t know how to chase their curiosity when an activity, idea, or person absorbs them. Their life outside of the classroom does not always feel welcome or accessible inside the classroom. Our students need the mentor act as much as they need the mentor text. Often, a good first step is our sharing writing of writers doing writerly things outside of a classroom, on their own, because of a relentless curiosity.

Apatow tells comedian Marc Mahon that as a teenager he “used to transcribe Saturday Night Live. I would record it on an audio cassette…I think that I was in some way trying to figure out how to get into that world–how does it work? I wanted to break it down somehow (306).”

I wonder what our kids sink that much curiosity into? I also wonder…why I have never asked? You bet your ass I am asking now.

How we might use this text

I am offering several ideas for focused free writing to help students:

  1. identify ideas absorbing their attention.
  2. develop & write their thinking.
  3. reach out to mentors.

Could our students’ lives and thinking outside of school feel welcome in our classrooms? Could they write for themselves first and not for me? Could what I offer inside the classroom inspire action outside the classroom? Can I help students reach a constant state of composition about an element of joy and curiosity?

Each of the following ideas could be used as focused free writes in isolation or as a series.

Our mind

What is something that absorbs your attention so much that time spent with it is pure joy? Write about it so that you might share that joy with a reader.

When Apatow spoke with the team of Key and Peele, Jordan Peele said:

“…you can take all the classes you want and learn and practice and get all the advice from other people, but it’s really like learning an instrument that never existed until you were born. No one can tell you how to play that instrument. There’s a part of the journey that you have to figure out for yourself” (250).

What do you want in your life that would be worth the journey?

Our heart

What are the challenges of …? an older sister? being an only child? a dancer? being a perfectionist? living with a grandparent? caring for a sick pet? Perhaps Harold Ramis says as much about developing ideas as any mentor text:

“Maybe it would be better to do something you’re actually interested in, like an issue in your life…there’s got to be something going–what are the challenges of being a [fill in the blank] in the world? Start with something that’s important or of interest to you…” (125)

Write about the challenges of any truth you know. Share your truth until a reader owns it too.

Our belly

Seth Rogan began writing the script for Superbad when he was thirteen years old. When asked if he just kept rewriting it over and over again, Rogan said:

“Yeah, for around twelve years. If they made it when we were twelve–I mean it would be pathetic…What’s sad is that a fair amount of the jokes in the movie were in the draft we wrote when we were twelve years old…”(421).

What funny ideas do you have for a movie? What makes you laugh so hard that you feel it deep within? Don’t hold back–share ideas where laughter just pours from you and your friends like water from a jug. The odds are in your favor as a writer–if something makes you laugh, it may make your readers laugh.

Our feet

Apatow notes that mentoring comes from being in a place where you want to learn. As a teen, Apatow interviewed comedians. He went to comedy clubs. He made phone calls. And most often the George Carlins of the world were surprised to see a teenager when they finally met. But every comedian answered Apatow’s questions–and then they encouraged and mentored him.

I asked students to read this quote about Judd’s experiences and apply it to themselves:

“I needed to become one of them. The question was, how to do that? And the answer seemed clear: meet them. Talk to them. Get to know them. Learn their secrets (xii).”

Write about who the “them” is in our lives…who or what is it that we “need to become?” Framed another way, if you did not have to come to school for the next month, but you had to go someplace to learn something, where would you go?

Our soul

How can we create conditions so students feel as though they are in a place deep inside of themselves where they want to learn–bigger than the classroom–bigger than school–a mindset where they want to illuminate the page with writing that is like a grinning, toothy, jack-o-lantern inviting us closer to knock on the doors of their texts?

A good start is, of course, a teacher sharing what is deep inside himself; however, another move is finding other people in the real world (outside mentors) who feel so much love and curiosity for an idea that they share it through writing, sketching, digital mashups, music, and through multiple forms that transfer the glow of an idea to the eyes of a reader.

We can’t let this insight get away, can we? I so often see myself as the mentor, but Apatow pulls the rug out from underneath me. What about the push to bring more mentors into our students’ lives (inside and outside of the classroom) through local connections, writing letters, Google Hangouts, and social media?

Students can only be mentors themselves or get the most from a mentor if they care about what they are doing–if the writing is for them from the beginning–and if they are in a place (inside of themselves) where they want to learn. This is about a state of mind more than any physical space. Student writing does not begin or end by the light of a teacher’s dwindling candle.

Students must touch the flame to their own wicks. Yet teachers, as mentors, encourage that act.


Helping Students Find True Writing Mentors

What have you read that is like what you want to write?

I posed this question on an introductory survey to a group of creative writers. Most of them responded with a list of the genres in which they wanted to write — short stories, poems, blogs — but only a few of them named specific writers or titles. One student listed Whitman and Poe as writers whose work she admired. Another wrote about his contributions to an online Lord of the Rings fanfiction platform. But most of the answers were fairly generic — I want to write short stories. I want to write poems. I can’t think of anyone specific.

Their responses puzzled me. Kids who know what they want to be have seen others do the work they want to do. Kids who want to be doctors have had good experiences with doctors and seen inspiring doctors work magic in movies and books. Children who dream of teaching watch their own teachers and come home and play school. Kids who want to be vets have brought their cats and dogs to the vet and watched animal doctors treat their pets with love and respect. Here was a group of students who had signed up for creative writing, many of them hoping to pursue a career in writing, yet they were unable to name writers whose work they admired. They were unable to describe something they had read that is like what they want to write. Why was that?

I started to question the genre study I had lined up first — poetry. On one hand, while all creative writers should be exposed to poetry and poetry writing, I knew it wouldn’t satisfy the majority of the group. Based on their responses to the survey, I had a lot of short story writers, and a few students who were interested in sports writing. I had some seasoned writers and some not-so-experienced writers. How could I ignite a semester of writing, provide common writing experiences, and satisfy the diverse interests of all of these writers at once? And how could I introduce each of them to writers who would truly impact their own work?

The idea of backwards mentoring came to mind as I considered all of these questions. Instead of selecting a genre to study, finding mentor texts in that genre, and asking students to write something that is like the mentor texts, I decided to start with the writing on their hearts and minds and go in search of mentors that could help them write what they wanted to.

So, the first assignment of the semester went something like this: Write for a total of one hour. You can write in a notebook or type on a computer. You can write about whatever you want, whenever you want, in any genre you want. Bring this writing to class on Friday.

Here’s a sampling of what came in a few days later:

  • a lyrical story written from the point of view of a chair
  • an apostrophe poem, written to the state of Virginia
  • snippets of conversation between two characters
  • observational poetry written at an airport
  • a character sketch
  • the beginning of a short story
  • a journal entry written from the point of view of an Al-Qaeda pilot
  • a nonsensical short story about a man named Jacoby, the Mexican mafia, and a leprechaun
  • a definition of love
  • a series of poems and prose passages addressed to someone
  • a prose essay on evil

The following day, I asked students to fill out another survey. Through this survey I sought to understand the inspiration and decisions behind their writing. Some had specific inspiration — dreams, tv shows, airport characters — while others wrote without specific ideas in mind. Then it was my turn to do some work.

I read each student’s work several times and tried to assign it a genre. This was easier said than done. Many of the writing samples were unmistakably poetry or short stories, but some were hybrid genres that were more difficult to classify. For example, one student wrote an essay about evil that had a literary quality to it but also incorporated quotes from a book she is currently reading for pleasure. I did the best I could, fitting each writing sample into a loose category. Then I read their survey responses to learn more about the decisions behind their writing. Finally, I began to think about where I had seen similar writing.

My goal was to find 3-4 different mentor texts for each student writer. I chose mentor texts that fit one or more of the following criteria 1) resembles the genre in which the student has written 2) has a similar theme/topic 3) contains craft moves the student indicated he wants to learn about Here are some of the mentor text clusters I gave each student:

Maeve’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
In Blackwater Woods Mary Oliver Nature Writing; Poem
Oread H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) Nature Writing; Apostrophe Poem (in which poet addresses an absent person, thing, or idea)
I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen Short Story; Monologue Writing; Strong Ending
“Feared Drowned” Sharon Olds Poem;  Apostrophe Poem; Vivid Details; Strong Ending

Collette’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
The Last Night of the World Ray Bradbury Strong Dialogue; Short Story; Dystopian
Harrison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut Short Story; Dystopian
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice

Cassie’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
On Pain Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
On Death Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
Should Slut Be Retired Anna North Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about a text; incorporating quotes from a text
How Movies Can Change Our Minds John Guida Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about big themes

Taylor’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice; Revealing backstory
Montauck Sarah Kaye Spoken Word Poetry, Using repetition for effect
I Can’t Forget You Len Roberts Poem; Writing that is inspired by one’s environment

Bo’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin Fiction; Characterization; Limited Omniscient Narrator
Excerpt from Lord of the Rings Tolkien Characterization; Third Person Narration
Interview with John Gardner from The Paris Review The relationship between characterization and setting

Continuing with the theme of working backwards, the next day I gave each student her personalized cluster of texts, a cover sheet (containing the titles, authors, and rationales behind each mentor text) and instructions to read the mentor texts as readers first.

Over the next few days, students will:

  • do some informal research on these writers
  • learn more about the genre in which they set out to write from these genre examples
  • note craft moves in the mentor texts they want to try
  • learn how to exact craft moves from these mentor texts and bring them into their own work

As we move forward in this backwards study, I hope students will form stronger attachments to professional writers. I hope they will come to understand that they are descendants and contemporaries of other writers who are doing similar work. I hope they experience what it feels like to know another writer’s work intimately and to take part in a conversation and a pastime that is larger than themselves.

How do you help students find writers they admire? Please comment below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.