To begin the week, Ball State English brings you the first installment in the new faculty profile series. Be sure to check out past profiles, which include but are not limited to Prof. Susanna Benko and Prof. John King.
Meet Silas Hansen, one of our newest assistant professors of English.
Born and raised in western New York, he graduated from SUNY College at Brockport with a bachelor’s degree in English (with minors in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies) and earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University. His essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Puerto del Sol, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.
Below, Silas gives us insight into his creative journey.
How did you get interested in creative nonfiction?
I have always written.
I remember writing my first “personal essay” in the first grade not long after I learned to read. I actually made up about 25-50% of it to make it more interesting. But I didn’t know you could study it, or that it could lead to a job until I was in college.
Until I took my first creative writing class the summer after my sophomore year of college, I never shared my writing with anyone–just a friend or two, and sometimes my high school English teachers if it was for an assignment. At the time I took that class, I was a Political Science major and had signed up to fulfill my fine arts general education requirement. By the end of the class, though, I had changed my major for what was at least the eighth time in two years.
I was hooked.
I enjoyed a lot of the classes I was taking, but I didn’t know I could be that excited to go to class, or to do my homework. I started out writing fiction, but I was a mediocre short story writer at best. I have never been particularly good at inventing characters and plots, so most of my stories were really thinly veiled nonfiction. The characters were always a little flat, and the plots were always a little confusing. I didn’t want my classmates to know they were really about me.
Finally, one of my professors—who knew what the problem was—told me to just try writing nonfiction. I wrote my first real, serious essay for her class—a piece of memoir about working as a dishwasher in a restaurant when I was sixteen, my unlikely friendship with one of the line cooks, and my ambivalence about leaving my small hometown behind—and everything suddenly clicked into place.
It was the first time I felt like I was really good at something, and I knew I needed to stick with it.
How did your creative journey continue into graduate school?
I applied to graduate school right out of undergrad and got into Ohio State’s MFA program. I got there a few months after I turned twenty-three, thinking I was a big shot, and almost immediately realized just how little I knew about writing. Thankfully, I had the next three years to study with incredible teachers.
I worked most closely with Michelle Herman—who always read my work and told me where I was holding back and when I needed to just let myself make a mess in my second draft—and Lee Martin, who taught me everything I know about structure and how to make sense of the mess when I was done. I know a lot of people who feel burned out after finishing their MFAs, or who end up realizing that writing isn’t for them.
I was lucky: I still can’t believe that they let me spend three years doing exactly what I love to do, and then gave me a degree at the end of it.
I love nonfiction because…
- it’s like putting together a really good but difficult puzzle without knowing what it’s supposed to look like when I’m done. I have all of the pieces and I can see what each piece looks like on its own, but I can’t see what they look like together until I’ve tried to put it together.
- I love the process of trying to make sense of it all, even when I have to throw it out and start over from scratch.
How would you describe yourself as a teacher?
I think it’s important—especially in a workshop environment—for my students to feel comfortable making mistakes, asking difficult questions, and being honest about who they are and what they think.
For that reason, I try to strike a balance between an environment where we get the work done and ask important questions about the things we read and write. I want to create an environment where we can get to know one another and learn to trust each other as writers, as readers, and as people.
I also try to create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable disagreeing—with each other, and with me. My favorite part of teaching is getting to hear my students’ interpretations and opinions of the work we’ve read. I have read most of the essays I assign numerous times—so many times that I can probably quote long sections of several of them from memory—but I always learn something new from how my students read them for the first time.
I see my role as one where I teach my students what I know—what the experts have said, what others have done, what has and hasn’t worked so far—and then ask them to think critically about whether or not that rings true for them and their work.
What are you most proud of as a teacher?
A few years ago, I went to a panel on innovative teaching practices for the creative writing workshop at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Michael Martone, who teaches at the University of Alabama, talked about his idea of “success” for a creative writing program: whether or not students are still writing after the class is over—a year later, or maybe twenty years later.
I think there are a lot of measures of success for creative writing programs, and creative writing teachers, but that is definitely the one that means the most to me. I love it when my students graduate, get jobs, and still write.
That makes me feel like I’ve done something right.
What are you working on right now?
I have been working on a collection of personal essays for the past few years. It started as my MFA thesis, but I cut about 70% from that draft about a year ago. Quite a bit of the manuscript is complete. I resist the temptation to call these essays done just yet, as I’m keeping an open mind about what the finished manuscript might look like. Right now, I am writing a few new essays and revising a couple of older ones.
Once I’ve finished those, I’ll go back and revise the entire manuscript to work more cohesively and to bring some of the older essays up to date.
I write primarily about questions of masculinity: what it means to be a man (particularly a white man) in different places and in different situations—my rural western New York hometown, the Midwestern city where I spent a good chunk of my young adulthood, the classrooms where I teach, the communities in which I claim citizenship—and the ways that my concept of what it means to be a man has been shaped.
Right now I am revising an essay about learning to bake bread, and I’m jotting down notes toward an essay that looks like it might be about participating in a fantasy football league for the first time, my obsession with TV shows and movies about football teams, and my passion for the Buffalo Bills—all of which is complicated by the fact that I know very little (and care even less [except for the above list]) about football.