Music and Memory Part Two: Of Mix Tapes and Mentor Texts


Remember mix tapes? 

Duh. Of course you do.

I’m saddened that the mix tape is now antiquated.  I mean, yeah, I appreciate the fact that I can burn CDs and create an iTunes playlist is no time at all, but the process of crafting a mix tape for another person was like composing a handwritten letter: it took time and effort, and it was just so personal.  

Alas, mix tapes and handwritten letters seem to be relics of the past. No more personalized doodles scratched into the plastic of the cassette. No more handwritten track listings. No more sitting next to your Sony boombox, your fingers hovering over the pause button, ready to stop recording at exactly four Mississippis after the end of the cheesy ska song you just dubbed (Unwritten Mix Rule #17: allow four seconds of space between each track to allow appropriate transition time. Rule is nonnegotiable). Bummer, right?

Or maybe this is just the old man in me talking. Because the truth is that the LEGACY of mix tape lives on because the PROCESS is alive and well. My students convinced me of this.

Here’s what I mean: as the writers in my classroom share their playlists and memories (see Music and Memory Part One), I ask them to consider when and why they create mixes for another person. This gets them talking.

More importantly, I ask them about their process in crafting the perfect playlist. Now they’re really talking.

Because the perfect playlist is primarily dependent on two things: audience and purpose. Who is the playlist for, and what are your intentions? To woo a romantic interest? To expose new music to a friend that will change their idea of what music is? To unleash a flood of nostalgia?

After you’ve decided audience and purpose, everything else is a specific choice (the order of the songs, the blend of genres, etc.) that will shape your final product and determine the listener’s experience.

You see where I’m going with this, right? The process of the perfect playlist is the same as the writing process. Seriously! Consider:

  • The perfect playlist needs a strong opening song, one that’s exciting or interesting and sets the stage for what’s to come. It must engage. It must hook. Same thing with writing. Your first sentence or passage has to be enough to convince the reader to stick around. 
  • The playlist should “flow.” Transitions and structure MATTER. You might have great songs, but if they’re not structured in an order that takes the listener into consideration, the whole mix risks falling apart (you don’t want anyone to skip songs do you? No, of course not). Same thing with writing. Structure matters, and sometimes you have to “Kill your darlings.” 
  •  Don’t be repetitive. Vary the artists, vary the types of songs, all while keeping the “flow.”  Same thing with writing. It’s a good idea to vary your sentence structure, to move between scene, summary, and musings (in the case of the memoir, that is). 
  • Audience and purpose determine everything else.WHO is the mix for? What are you trying to achieve? Same thing with writing. Audience and purpose drive our writing choices. 

So we create THE PERFECT FIVE SONG PLAYLIST. The writers in my classroom must  be able to articulate and defend the songs their order. I need students thinking like writers, and plotting the perfect playlist helps achieve that.

Now we’re movin’ and grovin’ the way, you know, writers move and grove. We’ve a storehouse of ideas. We’re considering audience and purpose. We’re mucking around in the writing process, experiencing what Donald Murray calls “the other self.” Finally, we consider structure with the use of a mentor text.

I purchased a great collection of essays entitled Cassette From My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves(Confession: total impulse buy. Totally worth it). We read and discuss Vincent Chung’s “Snowballs Chance in Hell.” We consider the bridge music creates between past and present, between our relationships with people. My intentions, however, are to examine a basic structure so as to offer a possibility of how writers might structure their own writing. (You’ll find a link to both Chung’s story and his story with annotations at the conclusion of this post).

We write. We conference. We continue reading chapters from Barrington’s The Art of the Memoir  for guidance. We write some more, conference some more. We review concepts from our fiction unit (Show, don’t tell!). We write and revise and struggle and succeed and experience all the ups and downs of the writing process that I am, here, simply glossing over (excuse this injustice). Finally, after the heavy lifting is complete, we have pieces we’re proud of.

Frank, for example, took the cues from Chung’s structure and composed a piece that beautifully captures the quiet tragedy of the death of  his grandmother. He’s granted permission for me to share his piece, “Potato Soup and Bon Iver.”

Christian  takes a different approach to his structure, but still captures the essence of memoir. His piece, “Do I Wanna Know,” examines how music helped bring him out of isolation during the year he spent in Alaska.

Our time traveling is complete. We go from notebook to discussion. From discussion to research. From research to drafting and conferencing to final, polished pieces. This is our means of time travel, our wormhole.

This is our writing process.

Sources and Links: 

Mixtape image comes from 

Snowball’s Chance in Hell By Vincent Change (Music and Memoir)

Snowball’s Chance in Hell By Vincent Change (Music and Memoir) WITH ANNOTATIONS


Published by Mr. Belknap

Teacher. Reader. Husband. Father. Cat master. Writer. Lifelong learner.

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