Narrating Comics

Probably the best job I ever had was teaching writing — and I still keep an eye out for interesting methods of rethinking the teaching of composition. In the waning hours of NaNoWriMo last night I found a decent one. Desperate to make it over the finish line by typing anything (anything!) resembling novel prose, I grabbed a copy of my new favorite comic, G. Willow Wilson’s Air, and began to novelize it, purely as a writing exercise.

Here’s the great thing — with the plot points and dialogue hammered out (and in this case presenting the superb material — AIr is a masterpiece), I was really free to explore the psychological elements and descriptive aspects of the plot. I would say that only 10% or less of the words came directly from the page of the comic — but the other 90% was much better written than the slop I had been churning out, especially given the mad pace I was typing at. It’s a refreshing way to focus for a bit more firmly on style and psychology…G. Willow Wilson, for example, creates a wonderful character — a stewardess who fears not crashing, but endless falling. It’s her genius that she can sketch that out in just a few lines of dialogue. But it’s exactly that spareness in the comic that makes the idea so fun to play with in prose:

As she stocked the meal and drink cart in the serving area, she realized that the falling sensation had gone, at least temporarily. It had taken longer this time certainly, but it had gone in the end. It always did. Up here at cruising altitude she felt right, and as the plane leveled off she reassembled herself, smoothing her skirt and splashing a bit of the ice water on her face.

There was an old joke, one that her passengers had told one too many times in one too many languages for her to fake a laugh at anymore. It was simple, people said — they had no fear of flying — it was the crashing they were worried about. It was a folksy saying that had always cut her more than any of her passengers could imagine.

For Blythe wasn’t afraid of crashing. Far from it. She was afraid of not-crashing. She was afraid of the falling that would never stop.

It was as a kid she had first felt it. Lying awake in bed, as she let go into sleep, a moment before drifting off, there it was, the sensation of rushing downward, endlessly backward, with no landing in sight. She’d panic and startle awake, heart racing. A hypnagogic startle her doctor had called it — but to her it was always a last desperate flail, a grab at the last bit of cliff wall rushing past as she fell and fell and fell, a startle behind which was the belief that if she did not wake up, right now, right this second, she would slip into a death not of endless sleep, but of endless acceleration.

Anyway, for those still struggling in the trenches of Freshman Comp and Creative Writing, you could do worse than to have your students pick up something like Air and novelize it. As with so many things in life, the constraints of such an exercise give you more freedom than you can imagine.

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