“Holding On to What You Got…”

Even though it was mid-week, I was already tired.  The wife had just left for an out-of-town conference, and playing single dad had already gotten me tired.  But sitting on the couch for a moment before starting in on some grading, I flipped on the TV, and discovered that the DVR was already approaching 86%.  With Amber’s big recording night coming the next day, Thursday, I decided I needed to watch something I had recorded the previous weekend in order to guarantee that her shows weren’t deleted:

As a unapologetic U2 fan, the premiere of this film on Showtime last month was something of an anticipated event for me since I heard of its imminent arrival at some point over the summer.

Full disclosure:  I could launch into an unadulterated homage to the band, but that’s not necessarily the point of where I want to go.  Honestly, I’ve become convinced there are any number of music critics out there, who need to prove their bon mots by attacking the band itself for their own personal agendas.  I, myself, tend to view the specific choice of one’s musical favorites as entirely a personal matter, that defies any sort of detailed reasoning.  U2 happens to be my band that matters to me.

But that misses the point about what this post is really about.  As someone who is charged with teaching writing to his students, the idea of mentor texts figures in instruction.  Essentially, the idea is to use the text written by a “mentor” author as a way to inform and improve your own writing.  If a student enjoys the writing of Christopher Paul Curtis, Jack Gantos, Cynthia Kadohata, etc., among others, they can use their work as a way to inspire their own piece of original writer.  The manner in which U2 figures in all of this was that, suddenly, in the midst of what I had anticipated to be a mental health break, I was watching my favorite songwriter, Bono, give me a mentor lesson in how he wrote a song.

The documentary paints a picture of Bono’s songwriting that was totally antithetical to how I think and thought songs get written.  I had this idea in my mind of how lyrics get written, followed by the creation and/or matching of a melody with which to match the rhythm or repetition of the lyrics themselves.  Instead, “Sky Down” showed a more disengaged Bono, literally grabbing lyric batches out of his head, writing them down in a manner so haphazard–without words, but gibberish, that it defied those things I would normally tell my students NOT to do when they working on their own writing.  Eventually, the gibberish becomes starting points for what eventually transforms into song lyrics.  Still, for those who’ve thought of the Irish songwriter as being just a bit beyond leftfield, seeing his particular writing process simply confirmed that suspicion.  It was almost amazing:  25 years of following this band, and I get this revelation about their writing process.  That wasn’t all, though…

Most moving about the film, was the manner in which they revisited their sessions at Berlin’s Hansa Studios where their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, was written.  In a memorable sequence from the documentary, Edge pulls out digital audio tapes of the sessions in which you can hear the preliminary development of their song “Mysterious Ways” (then called, in its working form, “Sick Puppy”), but then, in the midst of that songs distinctive tracks, comes the snippet of melody that slowly and methodically begins to morph, both musically and lyrically, into the song “One”.  In the clip below, you can slowly begin to hear the bass line of the original song and how this little bit starts the transition to a new song that becomes Achtung Baby’s anthem:

The movie cuts back to Edge, who notes how a rejected bridge to “Sick Puppy” starts to form the basis for One.  Bono’s reaction to hearing the tape for the first time in years is, in my view, priceless:

As I prepared to delete “Sky Down” from the DVR (since I will eventually buy the DVD at some future point), I was left with the impression that as a writing teacher, we often default back to those techniques that we know, or that we’re afraid to move away from, because of misconceptions designed to produce “safe” writing over writing that has “voice”.  (fallacy about the Five Paragraph Essay, anyone?)  Here I had just watched a band whose lyrics inspire me, produce a composition using methods that flew in the face in the conventional manner in which we expect things to happen as a writer.  I was amazed, thrilled, and, quite honestly, stunned.  I have long tried to ensure that my kids wrote in a manner that sounded like them, and not in some way that they wound up sounding like something pirated out of “Step Up to Writing” in terms of the formulaic way their writing begins to sound like after they’ve worked in that program, or something similar, for a time.  But in terms of thinking of how to move them out of their comfort zone, I had to be more comfortable moving out of my own comfort zone, instruction-wise, and here it was, my “mentor text” showing me that some basic assumptions I had about writing was basically wrong.

I haven’t quite figured out a way in which I might apply that night’s televised “in-service” could be directly applied to my own instruction, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  Sometimes a mental health break in front of the television turns out to be anything but.  And sometimes that teaching tip can come from an odd place that you just discovered did do delivery after all.

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