Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Of Maus and Memoirs, Part II

On Monday, our study of Art Spiegelman’s dialogue in Maus served as a starting point for exploring how writers render conversation. Today, as we continue to examine Maus and as you prepare to write your literacy narrative, we will shift our focus to conflict, scene, and summary.

Narrative Conflict or Tension

Notice how many panels in Maus convey conflict, either a character’s inner conflict or a character’s conflict with another character. Conflict, which is essential to narrative, appears on virtually every page of Maus.

The first half of Chapter 2, “The Honeymoon,” depicts six conflicts or problems:

  • Vladek combatting his medical condition (heart disease, diabetes)
  • the policemen’s pursuit of Anja
  • the interrogation of Anja’s aide, the seamstress,  Miss Stefanska
  • Art questioning his father’s storytelling
  • Anja’s struggles with postpartum depression, and
  • the train passengers facing the threat of the Nazi regime, signified by the flag in the center of the page (32).

Scene and Summary

As a comic, Maus consists primarily of scenes but it includes summary as well. In the panel below, which depicts Miss Stefanska’s interrogation by the Polish police, the scene is depicted with the panel’s drawing and its speech balloons. Spiegelman presents summary in the rectangles.

Panel from page 28 of Maus.
Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 28.

Scene and summary are the building blocks of narratives. Simply put, scenes show and summaries tell. Narratives can consist primarily of scenes, but ones that rely heavily on summary don’t capture our imagination. As you plan your literacy narrative, keep this in mind: Readers would rather be shown than told.

The paper-craft graphic below illustrates the organization of scene and summary in a narrative essay.

Look to the passage that follows as another model for your literacy narrative. Here, in her memoir, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recounts seeing an amoeba for the first time:

Finally late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.

Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them, bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime.

Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining-room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons.

Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I  began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.

I had essentially been handed my own life, in subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasm, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill. (148-49)

Those paragraphs from An American Childhood don’t include any direct quotations. In the second paragraph, Dillard recounts what her mother said, but she doesn’t present it as dialogue. If the exact words spoken aren’t crucial to a scene, you can present the conversation indirectly, as Dillard does above.

Narratives Don’t Have to Center on Dramatic Events

The excerpt above demonstrates how to create scene and summary and how to shift from one to the other. And perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates this: Narratives don’t have to center on dramatic events.

If you think that you don’t have a story to write as your literacy narrative, look again at Dillard’s depiction of herself as a student of the natural world. There’s no dramatic conflict, but there’s desire. First, she wants to see an amoeba,  something she’s never seen before. Second, she wants her parents to share her excitement, but they don’t. With her microscope, Annie Dillard develops her knowledge of nature, but the larger learning experience that takes place is her realization that “you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself” (149). She has “essentially been handed [her] own life” (149).

What quiet, significant learning experience of yours has lingered in your mind? Your answer to that question could be the start of your literacy narrative.

You’ve Got to . . .

The You’ve-Got-To assignment that follows was composed by one of your classmates in English 111. As you read it, ask yourself if a similar reading experience of your own might serve as the subject of your literacy narrative.

The Hate U Give

When I first read this story, I fall in love with it. I am not a person who like to read but with this book I had too. It’s tell you about life, been a black and white kids. Mostly a black kid. How some kids grow up. And how some of them did not have a happy childhood experience like other had. Why other been kill before they could even be done with high school.

In this story it tell you about a black girl name Starr and her family and friends. She and her friends when to a party and have a little bit of drink cop came to the party, she and her friend decided to leave. On their way home they get stop by the police. And her friend get kill that day by the cop. She and her family went to a restaurant. Why the was eating her father get pull outside by the police and embarrass him in from of his family by pushing him on to the ground in from of everyone. People try to protest about what was going on in their community, but it did not go well, the protest turn to a violated one. Gas was everywhere, stores and houses get burn down.


Many of us have been surprised to discover enjoyment in something that we were required to do (and wouldn’t have done otherwise). If the YGT assignment above reminds you of one of those occasions, try writing about it in your journal.

Notes on YGT: “The Hate U Give

  • The assignment requirements specify that the subject’s title–in this case, The Hate U Give–may be part of the assignment’s title but not its complete title.
  • Additionally, the assignment stipulates that the first paragraph consists solely of summary, which is objective. Neither first-person (I) nor the writer’s opinions should be present.
  • Among the details that should be included in the summary are the subject’s genre and subgenre (novel and YA or young adult) and its author (Angie Thomas). In the first paragraph, the writer might also mention that The Hate U Give, though a work of fiction, was inspired by the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, and that a film adaptation of Thomas’ novel was released in 2018. 
  • As a guide for addressing trouble spots, the writer should consult these pages of A Writer’s Reference: 149 (to, too, two), 186-89 (verb tense), 207-12 (sentence fragments), 213-18 (run-on sentences).

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.