Using Mentor Texts to Generate Prompts

The following is a guest post by Suzanne Farrell Smith, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I often get BPS (Blank Page Syndrome), for which I’ve sought prompt treatment: sentence starters, random objects, storytelling cards, dream journaling, and more. Sometimes they work and crack me open. Sometimes they don’t, and after a paragraph I abandon the idea.

Recently, I’ve started teaching Read Like a Writer workshops, one in memoir and the other in personal essay. I want my students to be genre insiders and understand what characterizes creative nonfiction, where memoir and personal essay fit in, and the signs of a successful piece. We read one or two exemplar essays each week, organized by theme, and discuss them in depth.

At first, I collected prompts that matched the weekly theme: Where do you like to go in nature? Describe a significant experience you’ve had in nature. When I tried them myself, I kept abandoning them. The prompts, quite simply, bored me. 

At some point, it hit me—the prompts should grow from the reading. The text should be a mentor text for more than just reading and discussion. The essayist should say to my students, through me, See what I did here? This technique, this transition, this turn of phrase? Now you try.

For our week on nature and science, we read, among others, Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.” The essay begins, “A weasel is wild.” Dillard follows with evidence to show the weasel’s wildness (e.g., “He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose.”). She reveals how the weasel is “obedient to instinct.” She positions the weasel, right there in the suburbs, as a wild and enviable thing. 

From Dillard’s essay, I created a layered prompt:

  1. List wild things you can observe closely. An animal that frequents your yard? A bug you regularly find in your home? A virus sneaking down your throat? Your imagination? Anxiety? An untamed garden or lawn? Poison ivy? Weeds? A child?
  2. Choose one and, as Dillard does, list what makes it wild. Think of Dillard’s verbs: drag, bite, split, crunch, stalk, kill, eat.
  3. Now consider Dillard’s attention to instinct. In what ways does your wild thing follow instinct rather than rationale?
  4. How does this wild thing bump against the made world? Say, an overgrown lawn submitted to the mower or vaccine-induced antibodies on the attack.
  5. Dillard shares insights about what we can learn from a wild animal like a weasel, how we might clear our minds and act out of need alone. You may not find such insights yet. But you can start to mine for them. For example, what about this wild thing makes you envious? Do you wish to coil around an oak until you, unfettered ivy, have smothered the tree to reach the sky?


General prompts are easy to find. Mentor-text prompts require more effort: select a piece; read close; choose resonant ideas; layer them as cues. Having done this for fifteen essays so far, I can say that the work is worth it. 

Last week, alongside Annie Dillard, one student investigated a deer tick, another pondered her child’s thick hair, and I examined the horsefly that bit my son, drew blood and tears, and transformed me, for a moment, into a wild thing.

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Suzanne Farrell Smith lives in Connecticut with her husband and three sons. She has authored two books, The Memory Sessions and The Writing Shop. She is widely published, has been named Notable in Best American, and won a Pushcart for “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap,” published in Brevity and soon to be republished in The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Suzanne teaches creative nonfiction at Westport Writers’ Workshopsuzannefarrellsmith.com

  

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