Monday, March 23, 2015

Silas Hansen: On Teaching Comics in the Creative Nonfiction Classroom

Every creative writing teacher has their favorite thing to teach.  People who know me well might guess that mine is Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” or one of the essays in Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, or maybe the fraudulent artifact or hermit crab form.  And while it’s true that I love teaching these things—and that they are also some of my favorite things to read and/or write myself—they are, surprisingly, not my favorite thing to teach.

My favorite thing to teach is comics.  And this is about how and why I do it.


My favorite activity to do with my students, about four weeks into the semester, is to have each of them rethink one scene from their essay in comic form.  By this point in the semester, they will have written at least one draft of an essay—albeit a short one—and gotten feedback from at least one of their classmates in peer review, although this activity could easily work without that background.

I begin class by having them write about one specific scene from their essay—any scene they want.  They are welcome to write about it in any form that makes sense to them—traditional scene format, an unstructured free-write, even just a bulleted list—as long as they cover the important ground: who’s in the scene?  Where did it take place?  What happened?  What was said?  What does the reader need to understand by the end of it?

At this point, I have students set aside what they’ve written and we talk about the basic components of comics.

The various components of comics correspond to a similar component of narrative essays.  First, we have the panel or frame:

The panel/frame is like a section of the essay—a single scene, or a single moment.  It’s important on its own, but it will likely need other panels/frames in order to tell a complete story, or truly explore an idea.


Then, we have the drawing of the scene: the characters and the setting.

This, I tell my students, is the description: it’s what people look like, it’s the sensory details, it’s the setting.  It’s what helps us see things as they saw them, and it puts the reader into the scene with the characters.


Then, usually, the characters are talking—this is called a speech bubble (or balloon).  Sometimes, these bubbles don’t indicate speech, but instead are thought bubbles, indicating what’s going on in the character’s head.

This one is pretty self explanatory: it’s the spoken dialogue and the characters’ inner-dialogue.  It’s helpful to note here, though, that there’s generally not room in their panels to have the characters hash out things like, “Hey,” “Hi,” “How are you?” “I’m good, how are you?” “I’m also good.  Thanks for asking.”  Instead, they need to get to the point.  What important thing(s) were said during this scene?  What does the reader really need to know by the end of it?


Most panels will also have a narrative box—sometimes called a voice-over—at the top.

This is the exposition.  It’s what the reader needs to know that can’t be said elsewhere.  This is where they give us context and/or help us understand what happened right before the scene.


Finally, we might also talk about the space between panels, which is called the gutter.

This is like the transition between sections of the essay.  If you want to get really into it, Scott McCloud has a chapter on the gutter in Understanding Comics, which explains the six different panel-to-panel transitions writers use.  These transitions are easily applicable to any storytelling form, and I often use them to talk about structure, but I won’t re-hash it here.


Next, we talk about why each of these things is important: They might have a section in their essay that’s all exposition, if that’s what’s needed at that point in time—but they likely won’t have an essay that’s entirely exposition.  It probably needs something else to make it really work.  Similarly, a section in which we have only dialogue and we don’t know anything about what the characters look like, or what they’re doing, or where they are, is going to feel really unsettling for most readers—it makes us feel ungrounded, like in the example from above:

In this case, we don’t know anything about where these two characters are, what their body language can tell us about this interaction, what the context is, etc.  Maybe that’s what the writer is trying to do (in which case I say, “Go for it.  See if it works.”), but I don’t want them to accidentally do it because they didn’t think about adding those other components, or didn’t know how to effectively balance them.


Once we’re all clear on the components of comics—and how they relate to their essays—I have students look back over what they wrote at the beginning of class.  Then, I give them each a blank sheet of paper and some crayons (I have several boxes of 64-count Target-brand crayons in my office for exactly this purpose) and tell them, “Draw it.”

Virtually every student will eventually convert their comics into a more traditional, words-only scene for their essay—I’ve only had two or three students, in five years of teaching, turn in a comic for workshop—but they are almost always stronger, more developed, more interesting scenes as a result of this activity.  Rather than writing in a more stream-of-consciousness way, as many of us do when we are first trying to figure out what we’re writing about (which certainly has its benefits), this activity forces the writer to make conscious choices—about what details to convey through description, what information to provide in dialogue, and what the reader will need the narrator to come right out and tell us in the voice-over—based on what will best serve the essay they are trying to write.


The other reason that comics are my favorite thing to teach is that so many of the best contemporary essayists/creative nonfiction writers are using this form—and yet, virtually none of my students think to utilize the form themselves.  My stance on form is this: use whatever best serves the essay you are trying to write.  This is why I get so annoyed when I hear experimental writers talking as if traditional, narrative essays have no artistry, or when I hear more traditional writers talk as if experimental essays are all flash and no substance.  Both traditional narrative essays (I’m thinking here of essays like Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” or Meghan Daum’s “Music is My Bag”) and experimental essays (everything from “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss to Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay to Ander Monson’s “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline”) are excellent examples of the kind of work I want my students to write: they explore difficult, important questions in whatever form makes the most sense for that writer and that writer’s stories and ideas.
It’s the same thing with comics: they are exploring the same kinds of difficult, important questions as these other essays—and, just because they might look, to a casual observer, like the Sonic the Hedgehog comics my brother read when we were kids doesn’t mean that they are any less worthy of our attention.  They just approach writing differently—and, in some cases, maybe even more effectively for that particular subject.
If you haven’t read any since you were a kid, or even if you began and ended with critical favorites like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I encourage you to give comics a try.  Some other great examples:

  •  Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons
  •  Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half
  •  Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis
  •  David Small, Stitches
  •  Joe Sacco, War’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96
  •  Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza
  •  Craig Thompson, Blankets
  •  Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant
  •  David B., Epileptic
  •  Nicole J. Georges, Calling Dr. Laura

Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere, and have earned an AWP Intro Journals Project Award and a notable mention in the 2014 Best American Essays.  He is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.


  1. On a related note, I've always had luck using his in the classroom: It's a short comic by David Gessner that kind of makes fun of and kind of lays the ground rules for nature writing. I would have students use it to analyze another essay, like Gretel Ehrlich's "The Solace of Open Spaces" or Purpura's "Glaciology" - to see how they followed the pattern, and how they deviated...