by Jennifer Gaites
I once wrote an essay for a college creative writing class titled “Learn to Cook: Eat Out.” At the time, I was not a good cook nor could I afford to eat out, but I come from a long line of skilled home cooks and my premise was simple: in order to know what works in the kitchen, you need to know your tastes, familiarize yourself with flavor combinations, and learn the basic techniques. Once you’ve established that knowledge, you can experiment.
Twenty-ahem-something years later, I know my way around the kitchen, but now I find I apply the same premise to my writing and teaching, which is simply “Learn to Write: Read.”
One of the great joys of working at Project Write Now (there are many) has been all of the reading I get to do, and my reading is enhanced by the discussion of craft with writers. At PWN, we not only encourage students to establish a writing practice and to share their work, but we also regularly use mentor texts in our classes. What is a mentor text? It is any work that can be read, explored, and discussed to study the craft of writing.
Each week in my memoir classes, time is devoted to discuss a work of memoir (an essay, a chapter, or an entire book in some classes) that will deepen our understanding of the choices the writer made. We dive into a piece and look closely at craft elements such as character, setting, tension, conflict, voice, structure, pacing, tone, and narrative arc. What does each paragraph do for the piece? How does a piece pivot and shift? How is the writer moving the story forward? Where are the surprises?
In our exploration, we consider the relationship between writer and reader. My students often comment that discussing works as a class deepens their reading more so than reading alone, and we all gain a greater appreciation for the writers’ works. There are so many powerful examples of memoir writing, both in print and online. Here are just a few examples of mentor texts we use in our memoir classes:
- The Color of Water, Chapter 2, by James McBride
This chapter, titled “The Bicycle,” is an amazing example of characterization—of McBride’s mother, his stepfather, his siblings, and the neighborhood of his youth. The voice is conversational, filled with both bravado and vulnerability. As a mentor text, this is a perfect piece for so many writers who are telling childhood stories but want to incorporate the greater perspective that comes with adulthood.
- The Glass Castle, Chapter 1, by Jeanette Walls
This opening chapter does a lot of heavy lifting. In three short pages, Walls introduces her major characters, their relationships, their values, and their desires. Her use of sensory details to establish the setting is amazing, and I love how she uses the narrator’s apartment and her possessions as a means of characterization.
- “The Crane Wife,” by CJ Hauser
This braided essay is a phenomenal example of how a writer can play with structure to introduce different threads of information and have them all be critical to the story. Hauser’s use of the objective correlative—the study of the crane and what it needs to survive—is both simple and powerful.
- “A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read,” by Ocean Vuong
Pick almost any element of writing to discuss, and this essay has it. Vuong’s poetic prose packs meaning into every line. This is a great study in character, structure, backstory, tension, voice, reflection … the discussion around this piece is always complex and compelling.
- “L’Epee de Damocles (Vehicular Manslaughter),” by Roxane Gay
You will need to catch your breath after reading this piece, and that is always part of the class discussion around it. Look at Gay’s stream of conciousness, how she builds tension, what details she includes and—just as important—what details she does not.
- “Alone at the Movies,” by Jonathan Lethem
This essay is a master class in and of itself. The voice is strong, the characters well developed, there are snippets of dialogue, and the setting is deeply rooted in time and place. One key aspect of memoir is reflection and the reflection at the end of this piece takes my breath away.
Look at each of these pieces as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, notice what works for you, what excites you, what draws you in, or where you feel lost. As a writer, take what you’ve learned—about the craft and about yourself—and apply it to your own work. If you know the basic techniques and your own tastes, then you’re ready to experiment on the page!