Writing Without Limits: Understanding the Lyric Essay
Sean Glatch | February 28, 2023 | 7 Comments
In literary nonfiction, no form is quite as complicated as the lyric essay. Lyrical essays explore the elements of poetry and creative nonfiction in complex and experimental ways, combining the subject matter of autobiography with poetry’s figurative devices and musicality of language.
For both poets and creative nonfiction writers, lyric essays are a gold standard of experimentation and language, but conquering the form takes lots of practice. What is a lyric essay, and how do you write one? Let’s break down this challenging CNF form, with lyric essay examples, before examining how you might approach it yourself.
Want to explore the lyric essay further? See our lyric essay writing course with instructor Gretchen Clark.
What is a lyric essay?
The lyric essay combines the autobiographical information of a personal essay with the figurative language, forms, and experimentations of poetry. In the lyric essay, the rules of both poetry and prose become suggestions, because the form of the essay is constantly changing, adapting to the needs, ideas, and consciousness of the writer.
Lyric essay definition: The lyric essay combines autobiographical writing with the figurative language, forms, and experimentations of poetry.
Lyric essays are typically written in a poetic prose style . (We’ll expand on the difference between prose poetry and lyric essay shortly.) Lyric essays employ many of the poetic devices that poets use, including devices of repetition and rhetorical devices in literature.
That said, there are few conventions for the lyric essay, other than to experiment, experiment, experiment. While the form itself is an essay, there’s no reason you can’t break the bounds of expression.
One tactic, for example, is to incorporate poetry into the essay itself. You might start your essay with a normal paragraph, then describe something specific through a sonnet or villanelle , then express a different idea through a POV shift, a list, or some other form. Lyric essays can also borrow from the braided essay, the hermit crab, and other forms of creative nonfiction .
In truth, there’s very little that unifies all lyric essays, because they’re so wildly experimental. They’re also a bit tricky to define—the line between a lyric essay and the prose poem, in particular, is very hazy.
Rather than apply a one-size-fits-all definition for the lyric essay, which doesn’t exist, let’s pay close attention to how lyric essayists approach the open-ended form.
There are few conventions for the lyric essay, other than to experiment, experiment, experiment
Personal essay vs. lyric essay: An example of each
At its simplest, the lyric essay’s prose style is different from that of the personal essay, or other forms of creative nonfiction.
Personal essay example
Here are the opening two paragraphs from Beth Ann Fennelly’s personal essay “ I Survived the Blizzard of ’79. ”
“We didn’t question. Or complain. It wouldn’t have occurred to us, and it wouldn’t have helped. I was eight. Julie was ten.
We didn’t know yet that this blizzard would earn itself a moniker that would be silk-screened on T-shirts. We would own such a shirt, which extended its tenure in our house as a rag for polishing silver.”
The prose in this personal essay excerpt is descriptive, linear, and easy to understand. Fennelly gives us the information we need to make sense of her world, as well as the foreshadow of what’s to come in her essay.
Lyric essay example
Now, take this excerpt from a lyric essay, “ Life Code ” by J. A. Knight:
“The dream goes like this: blue room of water. God light from above. Child’s fist, foot, curve, face, the arc of an eye, the symmetry of circles… and then an opening of this body—which surprised her—a movement so clean and assured and then the push towards the light like a frog or a fish.”
The prose in Knight’s lyric essay cannot be read the same way as a personal essay might be. Here, Knight’s prose is a sort of experience—a way of exploring the dream through language as shifting and ethereal as dreams themselves. Where the personal essay transcribes experiences, the lyric essay creates them.
Where the personal essay transcribes experiences, the lyric essay creates them.
For more examples of the craft, The Seneca Review and Eastern Iowa Review both have a growing archive of lyric essays submitted to their journals. In essence, there is no form to a lyric essay—rather, form and language are experimented with interchangeably, guided only by the narrative you seek to write.
Lyric Essay Vs Prose Poem
Lyric essays are commonly confused with prose poetry . In truth, there is no clear line separating the two, and plenty of essays, including some of the lyric essay examples in this article, can also be called prose poems.
Well, what’s the difference? A prose poem, broadly defined, is a poem written in paragraphs. Unlike a traditional poem, the prose poem does not make use of line breaks: the line breaks simply occur at the end of the page. However, all other tactics of poetry are in the prose poet’s toolkit, and you can even play with poetry forms in the prose poem, such as writing the prose sonnet .
Lyric essays also blend the techniques of prose and poetry. Here are some general differences between the two:
- Lyric essays tend to be longer. A prose poem is rarely more than a page. Some lyric essays are longer than 20 pages.
- Lyric essays tend to be more experimental. One paragraph might be in prose, the next, poetry. The lyric essay might play more with forms like lists, dreams, public signs, or other types of media and text.
- Prose poems are often more stream-of-conscious. The prose poet often charts the flow of their consciousness on the page. Lyric essayists can do this, too, but there’s often a broader narrative organizing the piece, even if it’s not explicitly stated or recognizable.
The two share many similarities, too, including:
- An emphasis on language, musicality, and ambiguity.
- Rejection of “objective meaning” and the desire to set forth arguments.
- An unobstructed flow of ideas.
- Suggestiveness in thoughts and language, rather than concrete, explicit expressions.
- Surprising or unexpected juxtapositions .
- Ingenuity and play with language and form.
In short, there’s no clear dividing line between the two. Often, the label of whether a piece is a lyric essay or a prose poem is up to the writer.
Lyric Essay Examples
The following lyric essay examples are contemporary and have been previously published online. Pay attention to how the lyric essayists interweave the essay form with a poet’s attention to language, mystery, and musicality.
“Lodge: A Lyric Essay” by Emilia Phillips
Retrieved here, from Blackbird .
This lush, evocative lyric essay traverses the American landscape. The speaker reacts to this landscape finding poetry in the rundown, and seeing her own story—family trauma, religion, and the random forces that shape her childhood. Pay attention to how the essay defies conventional standards of self-expression. In between narrative paragraphs are lists, allusions, memories, and the many twists and turns that seem to accompany the narrator on their journey through Americana.
“Spiral” by Nicole Callihan
Retrieved here, from Birdcoat Quarterly .
Notice how this gorgeous essay evolves down the spine of its central theme: the sleepless swallows. The narrator records her thoughts about the passage of time, her breast examination, her family and childhood, and the other thoughts that arise in her mind as she compares them, again and again, to the mysterious swallows who fly without sleep. This piece demonstrates how lyric essays can encompass a wide array of ideas and threads, creating a kaleidoscope of language for the reader to peer into, come away with something, peer into again, and always see something different.
“Star Stuff” by Jessica Franken
Retrieved here, from Seneca Review .
This short, imagery -driven lyric essay evokes wonder at our seeming smallness, our seeming vastness. The narrator juxtaposes different ideas for what the body can become, playing with all our senses and creating odd, surprising connections. Read this short piece a few times. Ask yourself, why are certain items linked together in the same paragraph? What is the train of thought occurring in each new sentence, each new paragraph? How does the final paragraph wrap up the lyric essay, while also leaving it open ended? There’s much to interpret in this piece, so engage with it slowly, read it over several times.
5 approaches to writing the lyric essay
This form of creative writing is tough for writers because there’s no proper formula for writing it. However, if you have a passion for imaginative forms and want to rise to the challenge, here are several different ways to write your essay.
1. Start with your narrative
Writing the lyrical essay is a lot like writing creative nonfiction: it starts with getting words on the page. Start with a simple outline of the story you’re looking to write. Focus on the main plot points and what you want to explore, then highlight the ideas or events that will be most difficult for you to write about. Often, the lyrical form offers the writer a new way to talk about something difficult. Where words fail, form is key. Combining difficult ideas and musicality allows you to find the right words when conventional language hasn’t worked.
Emilia Phillips’ lyric essay “ Lodge ” does exactly this, letting the story’s form emphasize its language and the narrative Phillips writes about dreams, traveling, and childhood emotions.
2. Identify moments of metaphor and figurative language
The lyric essay is liberated from form, rather than constrained by it. In a normal essay, you wouldn’t want your piece overrun by figurative language, but here, boundless metaphors are encouraged—so long as they aid your message. For some essayists, it might help to start by reimagining your story as an extended metaphor.
A great example of this is Zadie Smith’s essay “ The Lazy River ,” which uses the lazy river as an extended metaphor to criticize a certain “go with the flow” mindset.
Use extended metaphors as a base for the essay, then return to it during moments of transition or key insight. Writing this way might help ground your writing process while giving you new opportunities to play with form.
3. Investigate and braid different threads
Just like the braided essay , lyric essays can certainly braid different story lines together. If anything, the freedom to play with form makes braiding much easier and more exciting to investigate. How can you use poetic forms to braid different ideas together? Can you braid an extended metaphor with the main story? Can you separate the threads into a contrapuntal, then reunite them in prose?
A simple example of threading in lyric essay is Jane Harrington’s “ Ossein Pith .” Harrington intertwines the “you” and “I” of the story, letting each character meet only when the story explores moments of “hunger.”
Whichever threads you choose to write, use the freedom of the lyric essay to your advantage in exploring the story you’re trying to set down.
4. Revise an existing piece into a lyric essay
Some CNF writers might find it easier to write their essay, then go back and revise with the elements of poetic form and figurative language. If you choose to take this route, identify the parts of your draft that don’t seem to be working, then consider changing the form into something other than prose.
For example, you might write a story, then realize it would greatly benefit the prose if it was written using the poetic device of anaphora (a repetition device using a word or phrase at the beginning of a line or paragraph). Chen Li’s lyric essay “ Baudelaire Street ” does a great job of this, using the anaphora “I would ride past” to explore childhood memory.
When words don’t work, let the lyrical form intervene.
5. Write stream-of-conscious
Stream-of-consciousness is a writing technique in which the writer charts, word-for-word, the exact order of their unfiltered thoughts on the page.
If it isn’t obvious, this is easier said than done. We naturally think faster than we write, and we also have a tendency to filter our thoughts as we think them, to the point where many thoughts go unconsciously unnoticed. Unlearning this takes a lot of practice and skill.
Nonetheless, you might notice in the lyric essay examples we shared how the essayists followed different associations with their words, one thought flowing naturally into the next, circling around a subject rather than explicitly defining it. The stream-of-conscious technique is perfect for this kind of writing, then, because it earnestly excavates the mind, creating a kind of Rorschach test that the reader can look into, interpret, see for themselves.
This technique requires a lot of mastery, but if you’re keen on capturing your own consciousness, you may find that the lyric essay form is the perfect container to hold it in.
Closing thoughts on the lyric essay form
Creative nonfiction writers have an overt desire to engage their readers with insightful stories. When language fails, the lyrical essay comes to the rescue. Although this is a challenging form to master, practicing different forms of storytelling could pave new avenues for your next nonfiction piece. Try using one of these different ways to practice the lyric craft, and get writing your next CNF story!
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I agree with every factor that you have pointed out. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this. A personal essay is writing that shares an interesting, thought-provoking, sometimes entertaining, and humorous piece that is often drawn from the writer’s personal experience and at times drawn from the current affairs of the world.
[…] been wanting to learn more about lyric essay, and this seems a natural transition from […]
thanks for sharing
Thanks so much for this. Here is an updated link to my essay Spiral: https://www.birdcoatquarterly.com/post/nicole-callihan
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An Introduction to the Lyric Essay
Rebecca holds a PhD in English and is a professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. She teaches courses in composition, literature, and the arts. When she’s not reading or grading papers, she’s hanging out with her husband and son and/or riding her bike and/or buying books. She can't get enough of reading and writing about books, so she writes the bookish newsletter "Reading Indie," focusing on small press books and translations. Newsletter: Reading Indie Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes
View All posts by Rebecca Hussey
Essays come in a bewildering variety of shapes and forms: they can be the five paragraph essays you wrote in school — maybe for or against gun control or on symbolism in The Great Gatsby . Essays can be personal narratives or argumentative pieces that appear on blogs or as newspaper editorials. They can be funny takes on modern life or works of literary criticism. They can even be book-length instead of short. Essays can be so many things!
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “lyric essay” and are wondering what that means. I’m here to help.
What is the Lyric Essay?
A quick definition of the term “lyric essay” is that it’s a hybrid genre that combines essay and poetry. Lyric essays are prose, but written in a manner that might remind you of reading a poem.
Before we go any further, let me step back with some more definitions. If you want to know the difference between poetry and prose, it’s simply that in poetry the line breaks matter, and in prose they don’t. That’s it! So the lyric essay is prose, meaning where the line breaks fall doesn’t matter, but it has other similarities to what you find in poems.
Lyric essays have what we call “poetic” prose. This kind of prose draws attention to its own use of language. Lyric essays set out to create certain effects with words, often, although not necessarily, aiming to create beauty. They are often condensed in the way poetry is, communicating depth and complexity in few words. Chances are, you will take your time reading them, to fully absorb what they are trying to say. They may be more suggestive than argumentative and communicate multiple meanings, maybe even contradictory ones.
Lyric essays often have lots of white space on their pages, as poems do. Sometimes they use the space of the page in creative ways, arranging chunks of text differently than regular paragraphs, or using only part of the page, for example. They sometimes include photos, drawings, documents, or other images to add to (or have some other relationship to) the meaning of the words.
Lyric essays can be about any subject. Often, they are memoiristic, but they don’t have to be. They can be philosophical or about nature or history or culture, or any combination of these things. What distinguishes them from other essays, which can also be about any subject, is their heightened attention to language. Also, they tend to deemphasize argument and carefully-researched explanations of the kind you find in expository essays . Lyric essays can argue and use research, but they are more likely to explore and suggest than explain and defend.
Now, you may be familiar with the term “ prose poem .” Even if you’re not, the term “prose poem” might sound exactly like what I’m describing here: a mix of poetry and prose. Prose poems are poetic pieces of writing without line breaks. So what is the difference between the lyric essay and the prose poem?
Honestly, I’m not sure. You could call some pieces of writing either term and both would be accurate. My sense, though, is that if you put prose and poetry on a continuum, with prose on one end and poetry on the other, and with prose poetry and the lyric essay somewhere in the middle, the prose poem would be closer to the poetry side and the lyric essay closer to the prose side.
Some pieces of writing just defy categorization, however. In the end, I think it’s best to call a work what the author wants it to be called, if it’s possible to determine what that is. If not, take your best guess.
Four Examples of the Lyric Essay
Below are some examples of my favorite lyric essays. The best way to learn about a genre is to read in it, after all, so consider giving one of these books a try!
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen counts as a lyric essay, but I want to highlight her lesser-known 2004 work. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely , Rankine explores isolation, depression, death, and violence from the perspective of post-9/11 America. It combines words and images, particularly television images, to ponder our relationship to media and culture. Rankine writes in short sections, surrounded by lots of white space, that are personal, meditative, beautiful, and achingly sad.
Calamities by Renee Gladman
Calamities is a collection of lyric essays exploring language, imagination, and the writing life. All of the pieces, up until the last 14, open with “I began the day…” and then describe what she is thinking and experiencing as a writer, teacher, thinker, and person in the world. Many of the essays are straightforward, while some become dreamlike and poetic. The last 14 essays are the “calamities” of the title. Together, the essays capture the artistic mind at work, processing experience and slowly turning it into writing.
The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert
The Self Unstable is a collection of short essays — or are they prose poems? — each about the length of a paragraph, one per page. Gabbert’s sentences read like aphorisms. They are short and declarative, and part of the fun of the book is thinking about how the ideas fit together. The essays are divided into sections with titles such as “The Self is Unstable: Humans & Other Animals” and “Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex.” The book is sharp, surprising, and delightful.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Bluets is made up of short essayistic, poetic paragraphs, organized in a numbered list. Maggie Nelson’s subjects are many and include the color blue, in which she finds so much interest and meaning it will take your breath away. It’s also about suffering: she writes about a friend who became a quadriplegic after an accident, and she tells about her heartbreak after a difficult break-up. Bluets is meditative and philosophical, vulnerable and personal. It’s gorgeous, a book lovers of The Argonauts shouldn’t miss.
It’s probably no surprise that all of these books are published by small presses. Lyric essays are weird and genre-defying enough that the big publishers generally avoid them. This is just one more reason, among many, to read small presses!
If you’re looking for more essay recommendations, check out our list of 100 must-read essay collections and these 25 great essays you can read online for free .
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A Guide to Lyric Essay Writing: 4 Evocative Essays and Prompts to Learn From
Poets can learn a lot from blurring genres. Whether getting inspiration from fiction proves effective in building characters or song-writing provides a musical tone, poetry intersects with a broader literary landscape. This shines through especially in lyric essays, a form that has inspired articles from the Poetry Foundation and Purdue Writing Lab , as well as become the concept for a 2015 anthology titled We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay.
Put simply, the lyric essay is a hybrid, creative nonfiction form that combines the rich figurative language of poetry with the longer-form analysis and narrative of essay or memoir. Oftentimes, it emerges as a way to explore a big-picture idea with both imagery and rigor. These four examples provide an introduction to the writing style, as well as spotlight tips for creating your own.
1. Draft a “braided essay,” like Michelle Zauner in this excerpt from Crying in H Mart .
Before Crying in H Mart became a bestselling memoir, Michelle Zauner—a writer and frontwoman of the band Japanese Breakfast—published an essay of the same name in The New Yorker . It opens with the fascinating and emotional sentence, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” This first line not only immediately propels the reader into Zauner’s grief, but it also reveals an example of the popular “braided essay” technique, which weaves together two distinct but somehow related experiences.
Throughout the work, Zauner establishes a parallel between her and her mother’s relationship and traditional Korean food. “You’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup,” Zauner writes, illuminating the deeply personal and mystifying experience of grieving through direct, sensory imagery.
2. Experiment with nonfiction forms , like Hadara Bar-Nadav in “ Selections from Babyland . ”
Lyric essays blend poetic qualities and nonfiction qualities. Hadara Bar-Nadav illustrates this experimental nature in Selections from Babyland , a multi-part lyric essay that delves into experiences with infertility. Though Bar-Nadav’s writing throughout this piece showcases rhythmic anaphora—a definite poetic skill—it also plays with nonfiction forms not typically seen in poetry, including bullet points and a multiple-choice list.
For example, when recounting unsolicited advice from others, Bar-Nadav presents their dialogue in the following way:
I heard about this great _____________.
d. shamanic healer
e. orthodontist ( can straighter teeth really make me pregnant ?)
This unexpected visual approach feels reminiscent of an article or quiz—both popular nonfiction forms—and adds dimension and white space to the lyric essay.
3. Travel through time , like Nina Boutsikaris in “ Some Sort of Union .”
Nina Boutsikaris is the author of I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych , and her work has also appeared in an anthology of the best flash nonfiction. Her essay “Some Sort of Union,” published in Hippocampus Magazine , was a finalist in the magazine’s Best Creative Nonfiction contest.
Since lyric essays are typically longer and more free verse than poems, they can be a way to address a larger idea or broader time period. Boutsikaris does this in “Some Sort of Union,” where the speaker drifts from an interaction with a romantic interest to her childhood.
“They were neighbors, the girl and the air force paramedic. She could have seen his front door from her high-rise window if her window faced west rather than east,” Boutsikaris describes. “When she first met him two weeks ago, she’d been wearing all white, buying a wedge of cheap brie at the corner market.”
In the very next paragraph, Boutskiras shifts this perspective and timeline, writing, “The girl’s mother had been angry with her when she was a child. She had needed something from the girl that the girl did not know how to give. Not the way her mother hoped she would.”
As this example reveals, examining different perspectives and timelines within a lyric essay can flesh out a broader understanding of who a character is.
4. Bring in research, history, and data, like Roxane Gay in “ What Fullness Is .”
Like any other form of writing, lyric essays benefit from in-depth research. And while journalistic or scientific details can sometimes throw off the concise ecosystem and syntax of a poem, the lyric essay has room for this sprawling information.
In “What Fullness Is,” award-winning writer Roxane Gay contextualizes her own ideas and experiences with weight loss surgery through the history and culture surrounding the procedure.
“The first weight-loss surgery was performed during the 10th century, on D. Sancho, the king of León, Spain,” Gay details. “He was so fat that he lost his throne, so he was taken to Córdoba, where a doctor sewed his lips shut. Only able to drink through a straw, the former king lost enough weight after a time to return home and reclaim his kingdom.”
“The notion that thinness—and the attempt to force the fat body toward a state of culturally mandated discipline—begets great rewards is centuries old.”
Researching and knowing this history empowers Gay to make a strong central point in her essay.
Bonus prompt: Choose one of the techniques above to emulate in your own take on the lyric essay. Happy writing!
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Search form, sing, circle, leap: tracing the movements of the american lyric essay.
My journey into the expanse of the lyric essay began when I opened Maggie Nelson’s Bluets . At that time, I had been writing poetry for over ten years, exploring motherhood, mental health, and my Asian American heritage. I saw my work as lyric poetry that drew from the bloodlines of my first love, Sharon Olds, and her transformative poem, “Monarchs.”
Until Bluets , I had viewed the essay through the lens of my high school and undergraduate education: as a rigid box that enclosed a thesis supported by three or more paragraphs of argument sealed in by the packing tape of a conclusion. To me, there was no similarity between poetry’s lush landscape and the corrugated angles of prose.
But fifteen years after graduation from college, I sat on a worn chenille sofa in my living room with Bluets in my hands. I read Nelson’s first lines: “Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession . . .” The slim book fell from my fingers as a chord reverberated within me. My body knew that Nelson’s work was more than strict, formal prose. Within my marrow, Bluets sang and shifted; its music, undeniable. Why, when I read her prose, did my breath quicken, and my chest throb as if I was reading a poem? Where was Nelson’s thesis? Where were her essay’s harsh lines?
That was my introduction to the American lyric essay. A transmutable beast, the lyric essay roams a borderless landscape. I ride on its slick back, scanning the rolling hillsides. Prairie grass brushes against my thighs, sunlight ebbing in and out of towering clouds. The fragrance of honeysuckle weaves into the upturned earth’s musk. The lyric essay ambles and leaps, circling fields blue with cornflower.
In “Out of and Back into the Box: Redefining Essays and Options,” Melissa A. Goldthwaite explores the landscape of the essay. “The page,” she writes, “is an open field, not a box to fill with other box-like structures . . . There are few, if any, right angles in nature. I can think of no natural squares—just hills and uneven slopes, rounded flower petals, curved riverbank, beautifully twisted trees.” To Goldthwaite, the essay resides in many forms: “a tree, a glove, a fish, a fist, a container, an alternative, a poem, a story, and question.”
If an essay flows from form to form, how can it be contained? How can the lyric essay be defined? In my correspondence with Goldthwaite, she answered: there is always the desire to hem in prose, to categorize or label. Even the lyric essay can be “taught [or defined] in rigid ways.”
Perhaps my desire for a concrete answer stems from my training as a chemist and molecular biologist. In the laboratory, I titrated analytes to determine their concentration down to two decimal places. I swelled with satisfaction as I studied the immutable code for DNA strictly defined by the pairings of nucleic acids: adenine with thymine and guanine with cytosine. Though I left the scientific world nearly twenty years ago to become an artist and writer, the desire for precise measurements and definitions still lingers.
In my conversation with the poet Jos Charles, we ruminated on the question again: what is the lyric essay? Perhaps as Charles proposes, the definition of the lyric essay is a Western invention, one that readers try to impose on prose works. Am I trying to cram a mountain into the form of a dogwood blossom? When does the search for definitive truth end in the marring of beauty and wonder?
Werner Heisenberg, a leader in the field of quantum mechanics, proposed that it was impossible to pinpoint the precise location of an electron in space and also determine its momentum. From the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the shapes of electron orbitals were born. These orbitals take the form of spheres or intricate petals extending from an atom’s nucleus, showing the possible position of an electron at any given time. Perhaps Heisenberg’s principle can be applied to the lyric essay, so that its essence resides in an approximate form, a form that shifts according to time and space.
The term “lyric essay” was introduced by Deborah Tall and John D’Agata in the Seneca Review in 1997. This “dense” and “shapely form,” write Tall and D’Agata, “straddles the essay and the lyric poem . . . forsak[ing] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” In this way, the lyric essay “spirals in on itself, circling a single image or idea . . . [it] stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess.”
In her 2007 essay, “Mending Wall,” Judith Kitchen writes that “the job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, play the intuitive and the intrinsic, but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of , not up .” The musical lyric essay is a “lyre, not a liar.”
I believe that the intent of the lyric essay has shifted since “Mending Wall.” Though the lyric essay still searches out truth, it has become more and more uncertain of what the truth is. Its emphasis has changed from navigating a singular truth to reflecting multiple truths.
Why has the lyric essay become more uncertain? It may be, as the essayist Aviya Kushner proposes, that the world itself has become exponentially complex, making it difficult to pinpoint universal truths. Perhaps, the lyric essay reflects humanity’s fragmentation, the exchange of ultimate truths for the truths of individual experiences.
Even the definition of the lyric essay is evasive, the essay’s meaning shifting over time and space. This is where the scientist in me struggles. I dislike this level of uncertainty. The lyric essay shifts under my gaze, glinting like a emerald’s countless facets. I fear that by searching to define the lyric essay, I will become lost within its prism. I feel my way through the dazzling light, the reverberating haze.
I must come to some form of conclusion. How can I speak about something that seems impossible to define? Perhaps, as Jos Charles ponders, the lyric essay evades definition because the lyric essay doesn’t exist as a form. Instead of a lyric essay, perhaps there is, as the scholars Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins propose, a form of “lyric reading,” an agreement between the writer and reader. Perhaps the essay signals to the reader: Approach this piece lyrically. Once the reader enters this agreement, they succumb to the essay’s musicality, rhythm, leaps in logic, and fragmentation.
Though the lyric essay is a wild, changeable beast, attempts have been made to contain it. In the introduction to A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays , Randon Billings Noble attempts to outline the lyric essay. The lyric essay, she states, is “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.” Noble then motions toward some of the current forms of the lyric essay, including the segmented essay, separated into sections through number, title, or white space and the braided essay, with its woven, repeated themes.
In my mind, a pattern emerges, an outline within the mist. Though difficult to define, the lyric essay contains elements that separate it from the rigid forms of my high school and undergraduate years. Unlike the traditional essay that is bound to a thesis, the lyric essay is a cloud of thought hovering around a question. However, as Noble writes, though the lyric essay is “slippery,” it must take on the responsibilities of an essay, “to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.” An essay, at its heart, is an exploration of truth, a straddling of black and white.
To me, the American lyric essay diverges from the traditional argument of the essay and its narrative counterpart, the personal essay, in three ways. Like a poem, the lyric essay might have honed rhythm and sound. It also diverges from narrative structures and instead revolves around themes. The lyric essay might also transition intuitively from concept to concept.
In this way, the lyric essay sings, circles, and leaps. These elements of the lyric essay can be explored through Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water , Maggie Nelson’s Bluets , and Chet’la Sebree’s Field Study .
In her extended craft essay, The Art of Syntax , Ellen Bryant Voigt argues that syntax propels the musicality and rhythm of lyric poetry. The language spoken by “ordinary human beings” is elevated to poetry by the “echoes of more regular patterns of song.” By linking verse to “ordinary” spoken language, Voigt bridges the gap between poetry and prose. In this way, I believe, syntax plays the same role in lyric essay as it does in lyric poetry: it drives the musicality of language, thus propelling the essay from beginning to end.
Syntax can be described as the chunking of language in phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Syntax, Voigt adds, is a “flexible calculus” that creates meaning. Within the lyric essay, syntax unfurls a sonic landscape of expansive rhythm and song.
As the psychologists and researchers Laura Batterink and Helen J. Neville state, the human brain navigates syntax “outside the window of conscious awareness.” Since the areas of the brain that process syntax are adjacent to those that process music, the reader instantaneously experiences the music of lyrical language.
Robert Frost writes that “the surest way to reach the heart [of the reader] is through the ear . . . By arrangement and choice of words on the part of the poet, the effects of humor, pathos, hysteria, and anger, and in fact all effects, can be indicated or obtained.” When the reader encounters the cloud of the lyric essay, they instantaneously experience its music, its murmuring, electrical hum. This is especially true in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water , where syntax carries not only the rhythm and sound of her prose, but also its emotional intensity.
In her lyric essay collection, Yuknavitch navigates her chaotic childhood, her passion for swimming, and the power she summons through her transformation into a writer. In her first piece, “The Chronology of Water,” Yuknavitch harnesses the power of syntax. She writes: “The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”
Here, Yuknavitch carries the reader through the birth of the speaker’s stillborn daughter through what Voigt refers to as “right-branching” syntax. In this form, phrases extend outward carried by similar language. In this passage, the grammatical chunks are separated by the preposition “after” and the conjunction “then.”
Using right-branching syntax, Yuknavitch describes the scene in which the speaker’s daughter is passed from her to her sister, husband, and mother, and then out of the hospital room. At the end of this extended sentence, the right-branching syntax halts. Yuknavitch crafts the sentence in waves: “after . . . after . . . then . . . then . . . then . . .” until the rhythm breaks on the rocks of the independent clause: “the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.” The abrupt change in syntax silences the essay’s musicality. There isn’t a miraculous revival; with the passing of her daughter, the speaker is left with grief.
When Yuknavitch’s language carries me away, I must depart from the marching tradition of prose and drift into the lyrical. With her, all I hear is the water and the sounds of mourning. This is the mystic power of the lyric essay: it sweeps the reader up into its wave. The lyric essay becomes the reader, the reader becomes the song.
Frost writes that “a sentence is not interesting merely in conveying a meaning of words. It must do something more: it must convey a meaning by sound.” If the sentence can be seen as the poetic line, then syntax can work in two ways within prose: to complement the sentence’s flow or to be, as Voigt states, in “muscular opposition” to it.
Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water shows both of these abilities of syntax. In her essay “How to Ride a Bike,” Yuknavitch navigates the harrowing experience of her father forcing her to ride a bike down a steep hill:
Wind on my face my palms sting my knees hurt pressing backwards speed and speedspeedspeedspeed holding my breath and my skin tingling like it does in trees terrible spiders crawling my skin like up high as the grand canyon my head too hot turnturnturnturnturn I am turning I am braking I can’t feel my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my hands my heart my father’s voice yelling good girl my father running down the hill my father who did this who pushed me my eyes closing my limbs going limp my letting go me letting go so sleepy so light floating floating objects speed eyes closed violent hitting object crashing nothing.
Here, Yuknavitch has chosen to break each sentence like a poetic line. In doing so, she has created a section of text that reads like a prose poem. The section is void of punctation until Yuknavitch lands on the collision with the “nothing.” In the absence of punctation, syntax governs the rhythm of the lines. The right-branching syntax of the repeated phrases: “. . . my palms sting my knees hurt . . .” in the beginning of the section churns like the pedals of a bike.
The compressed segments, “speedspeedspeedspeed” and “turnturnturnturnturn” act as turns within the prose poem, where syntactical tension matches the increased tension of the narrative. What follows are two right-branching segments: “I am turning I am braking I can’t feel / my feet I can’t feel my legs I can’t feel my arms I can’t feel my / hands my heart . . .” Again, syntax complements the narrative movement. As a reader, I am carried by the syntax, experiencing the speaker’s panic as the world spins out of control.
Sometimes, syntax can be used to restrain the flow of the sentence. In this case, syntax is in “muscular opposition” to the narrative. In “Illness as Metaphor,” Yuknavitch describes the four-week period in which her eleven-year-old self was ill with mononucleosis. During this time, she was under the supervision of her abusive father. Yuknavitch writes:
In my sickbed my father removed my sweat soaked clothing. My father redressed me in underwear and pretty night- gowns. My father stroked my hair. Kissed my skin. My father carried me to the bathtub and laid me down and washed me. Everywhere. My father dried me off in his arms and redressed me and carried me back to the bed. His skin the smell of ciga- rettes and Old Spice cologne. His yellowed fingers. The mountainous callous on his middle finger from all the years of holding a pen or pencil. His steel blue eyes. Twinning mine. The word “Baby.”
The syntax of the sentences is uneven, alternating between right-branched strands, such as “My father redressed me in underwear and pretty nightgowns. My father stroked my hair,” and chunks of sentence fragments: “Kissed my skin.”
As a reader, I desire to race through this piercing and troubling description, but Yuknavitch holds me to the page. The syntax of this section restrains the flow of the narrative, challenging me to take in the details one after the other, to experience, as Yuknavitch did, every excruciating moment. As Yuknavitch writes: “It’s language that’s letting me say that the days elongated, as if the very sun and moon had forsaken me. It’s narrative that makes things open up so I can tell this. It’s the yielding expanse of a white page.” With a steady, skilled hand, Yuknavitch holds back the current of the narrative using syntax that suspends the reader within the pain and power of the moment.
In “Mending Wall,” Kitchen makes a distinction between a lyrical essay and its lyric counterpart. “Any essay can be lyrical,” she writes, “as long as it pays attention to the sound of its language or the sweep of its cadences . . . A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric .” Like the lyric poem, the lyric essay “swallows you . . . until you reside inside it.” In other words, an essay isn’t a lyric just because of its musical language. Rather than creating a linear narrative, the lyric essay encompasses the reader by circling an image or theme.
In some personal essays, the engine is the story. In “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” Tim Bascom provides pictorial representations of different forms of personal essay. Bascom describes the form, “narrative with a lift,” as a chronology with tension that “forces the reader into a climb.” Jo Anne Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” is an example of this form. Bascom describes Beard’s essay as “a sequence of scenes [that] matches roughly the unfolding real events, but [has] suspense [that] pulls us along, represented by questions we want answered.”
Bascom also contemplates essays that are a “whorl of reflection.” These essays are “more topical or reflective,” eschewing the linear movement of time for a circling of a topic. This circling occurs organically, “allow[ing] for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles.”
I believe that some lyric essays are formed as these whorls. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is an example of elegant circling of image and theme. On the surface, Nelson’s long essay is the study of the color blue. The essay has 240 sections. Each section is interconnected with a focus on blue. “Each blue object,” Nelson muses, “could be a kind of burning bush, a secret code meant for a single agent, an X on a map too diffuse ever to be unfolded in entirety but that contains the knowable universe.”
Nelson finds blue in “shreds of blue garbage bags stuck in brambles,” a lapis lazuli tooth, the eyes of a martyred saint. Nelson also describes the absence of blue: “There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue.” When others ask about Nelson’s fixation on the color, she responds: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love . . . We just don’t get to choose.”
The image of blue swims within the pages of Bluets , flashing in and out of each condensed section. Nelson’s images are strong and visceral, but by themselves, they would be unable to hold my attention for the entire essay. Under the layered blue images is the theme of grief over the loss of an intimate relationship. Nelson introduces this theme early in the essay, in section 8: “‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.” Just as Nelson leans on blue, she had placed her faith in her intimate partner.
As the essay progresses, loss widens and deepens like a sea. Nelson writes: “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object—this is the so-called systemic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.”
Nelson provides scant details of her romantic partner. In sections 67–70, Nelson explores the mating habits of the satin bowerbird. The males, Nelson writes, “can attract thirty-three females to fuck per season if they put on a good enough show,” while the female “mates only once [and] incubates the eggs alone.” These sections hint at a loneliness caused by abandonment. Though the cause of the end of the relationship isn’t revealed, Nelson exposes its aftermath: “It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it?—No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms.”
Bascom writes that “whorl of reflection” essays are driven not by plot, but by the intoxicating pleasure of new perspectives and insights. This is especially true for Bluets. A whorl of contemplation, it’s a lazy river that loops for countless miles. Within it, I sometimes drift along with the images of blue and themes of grief and loneliness. Sometimes, I stand up and push against them. This tension between push and pull keeps me engaged in Bluets , within its circling of blue.
In “A Taxonomy of Nonfiction; or the Pleasures of Precision,” Karen Babine meditates on the “lyric mode” of the essay, which is driven by language, not narrative. Heidi Czerwiec states that “there are essays that are circuitous, nonlinear, that spiral around a central concept, incident or image, accruing meaning as they move. No forks, no false moves, no misdirection, only perhaps a pleasant disorientation as the writing twists and turns.” Though lyric essays are nonlinear, they still have centers that “hold.” Though Bluets isn’t driven by narrative, it circles around image and theme. In addition, there is an undergirding question that holds the essay in a state of tension: how will the speaker survive her grief? The answer is delivered in the one of the last sections of the essay:
For to wish to forget how much you loved someone—and then, to actually forget—can feel, at times like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of our heart. I have heard that this pain can be converted, as it were, by accepting “the fundamental impermanence of all things.” This acceptance bewilders me: sometimes it seems an act of will; at others, of surrender. Often I feel myself to be rocking between them (seasickness).
As Nelson releases herself from the relationship, I also experience freedom and resurface from Bluets transformed.
Like a moth drawn to candlelight, I’m drawn back to exploring the form of the lyric essay. Through the haze of light refracted through dust and smoke, I seek its outline, first through the essay’s musical language and then through its circling of themes. In my conversation with the poet and essayist Chet’la Sebree, we discussed the “machinery” of the lyric essay. Lyric essays hinge on “having a poetic quality.” They are constructed like a poem, creating “sense and meaning” through associative leaps.
My discussion with Sebree makes me return to the work of Sharon Olds. It was within the pages of Satan Says that I encountered “Monarchs,” the poem that entranced me with images of creatures “floating / south to their transformation, crossing over / borders in the night, the diffuse blood-red / cloud of them . . .” Olds’s elegant line breaks allow her images to fluidly flow from one line to the next. Through these breaks, Olds also guides me through associative leaps, helping me connect the speaker to her first lover and the butterflies:
The hinged print of my blood on your thighs— a winged creature pinned there— and then you left, as you were to leave over and over, the butterflies moving in masses past my window . . .
Here, the intimacy is visceral. The speaker, lover, and monarchs are placed closely on the page so that my eye and mind make the connection between them.
Through reflecting on Sebree and Olds’s work, I came to believe that there is a link between poetry and the lyric essay when it comes to leaps of logic. Within both practices, syntax and white space help to guide readers over the gaps between images, thoughts, and themes.
During our time together, Sebree and I discussed her work with the lyric essay. As she wrote Field Study , Sebree asked herself: “How can [I] make an individual thought beautiful?” To Sebree, each thought is an “isolated cube of language.” I believe that each “cube” is connected through the bridge of syntax. Syntax is “sonically driven” and allows the lyric essay to make “musical sense.”
In Field Study , Sebree shaped each of the lyric essay’s sections around sound and musicality. In one section, Sebree reflects on the Women’s March and its significance to white women and how she regards the march as a woman of color. Sebree’s discussion of the march extends over five paragraphs of varying length:
The Women’s March meant a lot to a lot of women in my life. By a lot of women in my life, I mean the 50% of my friends that are white. With them, I don’t have to differentiate between “women” and “white women” because When I say “women,” at least 53% of the time people—and by “people,” I mean “white people”—will assume I mean “white women.” These percentages are fake as fake news but this fact is not: white people see whiteness as universal. There is no appropriate antonym for those of us who are not.
The first two paragraphs consist of one sentence each. In the second paragraph, Sebree uses assonance to create a couplet of “life” and “white.” This paragraph is carefully arranged so that “life” and “white” are placed in close visual proximity. The syntax of the sentence facilitates this visual coupling by placing the shorter dependent clause before the longer independent clause.
Within Field Study , associative leaps follow couplets. In the case of the Women’s March section, I am primed by the couplets to expect a shift in focus from Sebree’s description of her friends to the exclusion of Black women from the definition of “women.” The couplet, “life” and “white,” provides the reader and speaker an opportunity to “come up for air” before a plunge into the difficult topic of erasure. Sebree writes: “white people see whiteness / as universal.”
In Field Study , Sebree also uses white space to facilitate associative leaps. After the section about the Women’s March, Sebree adds a quote from Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda:
To say this . . . is great because it transcends its particularity to say something “human” . . . is to reveal . . . the stance that people of color are not human, only achieve the human in certain circumstances.
Here, Sebree provides Rankine and Loffreda’s quote extra white space, their voices expanding within the essay’s visual and mental landscape. The white space helps the reader “meditate on the quote . . . [then] move back into [Sebree’s] language.”
In comparison, the Women’s March section that precedes Rankine and Loffreda’s quote is a larger block of text, leaving less space for the reader and meditation. As a reader, I can’t catch my breath and am immersed in Sebree’s thoughts about womanhood and racial exclusion. In this way, white space (or the lack of it) is a type of syntax. It acts as another way to group language and ideas.
Continuing the Journey
In the interview “John D’Agata Redefines the Essay,” D’Agata comments: “I like to think of the essay as an art form that tracks the evolution of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory, or emotion. What I’ve always appreciated about the essay is the feeling that it gives me that it’s capturing the activity of human thought in real time.”
In this way, the lyric essay reflects the changing landscape of truth. Through this realization, the scientist in me has come to a place of acceptance—an acceptance of a truth not bound by rigid facts, but cradled in a cloud of shifting time and space. By capturing a moment of contemplation, the lyric essay captures the movement of the human spirit. This is the lyric essay’s gift to the world.
Like Heisenberg’s electron, the lyric essay roams a landscape of beauty and uncertainty. In the future, the lyric essay may transform into a beast that is unrecognizable to me in voice and motion. I will continue to revel in its wildness, a splendor that I cannot tame.
Issue 164 Summer/Fall 2023
Previous: , next: , share triquarterly, about the author, sayuri matsuura ayers.
Sayuri Ayers is an essayist and poet from Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared on The Poetry Foundation website and in Gulf Stream Magazine , Hippocampus Magazine , CALYX , and Parentheses Journal . She is the author of two collections of poetry, Radish Legs, Duck Feet (Green Bottle Press) and Mother/Wound (Full/Crescent Press) and two forthcoming collections, The Maiden in the Moon and The Woman , The River , from Porkbelly Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, Sayuri has been supported by Kundiman, the Virginian Center for Creative Arts, The Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council. To learn more, visit sayuriayers.com .
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Beyond the True-False Binary: How the Internet Helped Transform the Lyric Essay
Hugh ryan on truth and post-truth in creative nonfiction.
Twenty five years ago, the vast majority of my reading was both bounded and continuous—bounded, because most of my reading material came in discrete packets (a book; a magazine; the salacious graffiti of a seedy bathroom stall), and continuous, because although I might put a book down and come back to it, or have several books going at the same time, I was not generally bouncing back and forth between unrelated reading experiences simultaneously.
Today, I’ve already checked Twitter seven times while writing the sentence above, and now my brain is a whizzing fizz of climate change, K-pop, and “hot” takes in three languages and a hundred voices.
Over the course of the last generation, the Internet has changed our common reading experience; now, as a teacher of creative nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars, I’m seeing first-hand how this new world of reading has transformed the instinctual writing voices of my students. An epochal shift is occurring, and from our great humming mass of distributed machines my students are summoning an unexpected ghost: lyricism.
The lyric essay is having a moment—despite the fact that many of these students could not offer a definition of the lyric essay, describe its techniques, or explain why they used them. But this is to be expected, as this change is not the precious reaching of a precocious undergrad, but an upstream change in the base reagents my students are combining in the alchemical process that is writing. To understand why this is happening, and how to take advantage of it, we need to first step back and define the lyric’s place in the ecosystem of essays. And to really do that , we first have to define what essays themselves are made of.
The Three Components of Essays
All essays have three fundamental components: self, content, and form. The self is the point-of-view of the piece, the storyteller; the selective intelligence of the author, which both chooses the moments that make up the piece and imbues each moment with the unique perspective that best serves the piece’s totality. The content is the thing we are writing about; what Vivian Gornick so masterfully defines as “the situation” (the plot or external object under consideration) and “the story” (the meaning, or internal realizations of the narrator). Finally, form is the shape of the words on the page, how they connect, spiral, or explode.
Think about it this way: all essays are journeys to new knowledge or states of being. The self is the shoulder we the reader are perched on for the journey. The content is the landscape we are traveling through and the path we are on (in Gornick’s terms, the moment-to-moment stuff we see is “the situation,” and our later reflective understanding of the path we took is “the story”). The form is our mode of locomotion, whether we are walking slowly and methodically from start to finish, or leaping wildly from beginning to end and back again.
The Three Kinds of Essays
Building off of this: there are also three main kinds of essay: personal , research , and lyric . All three have self , content , and form , but each kind has a corresponding component that is of dominant importance.
Personal essays are distinguished by their focus on self. The unique point of view of the storyteller is the fundamental reason to read the essay. The content is mostly there to provide a space for the author to think or have experiences, and the reader isn’t meant to learn that content.
Research essays are distinguished by their focus on content. Like journalism, they prize explaining something to the reader; but unlike journalism, the author is directly implicated—they are a part of the group, idea, or experience being explained, and through that explanation, the reader comes to understand the author better, as well as the content.
Finally, lyric essays are distinguished by their focus on form. In these essays, fundamental aspects of meaning are contained in or created by their shape on the page. For example, in lyric essays white space, fragments, repetition, juxtaposition, caesura, braids, changes in tense, and non-linear-organizing structures are frequently used to suggest or change the relationship between the written words and their meaning.
A Rabbit Hole Into the Concept of Truth
The divisions above aren’t arbitrary; they are indicative of a deeper reality about essays. The concept behind creative nonfiction is easy—tell the truth—but the truth, it turns out, is subjective. The three kinds of essay (personal, research, and lyric) are defined as much by their relationship to the truth as they are by how they are written; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the way they are written is a sotto voce attempt to communicate the author’s understanding of “the truth” as a concept.
How does this work? Well, we can divide all statements into three truth values: true, false, or outside the true-false binary (neither true nor false, both true and false, shifting between true and false, not categorizable as true or false, etc.). In writing, we call these relationships to the truth nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. The different kinds of essays draw both their narrative power and their literary techniques from these pre-existing genres.
Personal essays fall closest to fiction; they are primarily about illustrating the unique point of view of the author. They smooth out the randomness of life to turn it into narrative. The truth exists in the meaning, not the details.
Because the goal of the personal essay is to get the reader to see a certain perspective, they often play fast and loose with the truth (on a small scale). For instance, almost every great personal essayist says that the details are necessary, but they don’t matter. So long as the overall intention is not to deceive the reader, invented detail—in this way of writing—is seen as helping the reader to get at the truth of it all. For example, here’s essayist Jo Ann Beard discussing truth in her book Boys of My Youth :
I remembered the bare bones, and then the rest of it is just constructed from what I know of the people involved. Fuzzy memory doesn’t usually work in an essay; you have to be detailed…the dialogue and various other things were constructed for the pleasure of the reader. And, I must add, the writer… I don’t think anybody could read [BOYS OF MY YOUTH] and think they were reading a factual account of someone’s childhood.
Research essays , on the other hand, double down on nonfiction; they are primarily about explaining some external reality or experience the author has had. The truth in these essays exists in the facts.
Research essays are thus detail oriented. They use a lot of proper names and dates and quotes, and the author can’t make things up without losing my trust as a reader. Atul Gawande, a surgeon turned essayist, is a strong advocate for this kind of truth in nonfiction. In The Guardian in 2014 , an interviewer noted that Gawande felt the “idea of precision” is something writers could learn from doctors. “As a doctor,” he said, “you have to notice the particular shade of blue the patient turns. You need to be very factual.”
Here we have the difference between research and personal essays: Gawande says we have to be very factual, Beard says no one would ever assume her work was factual. (For my money, the best craft essay on this topic is T Kira Madden’s “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.”)
Finally, Lyric essays work the techniques of poetry, the area of writing where we rarely ask if something is true or not. Thus, they forefront the idea that truth is in some fundamental way uncertain, unknowable, or uncommunicable, and that life is not at all like a story: it is confusing, conflicting, discontinuous, random, and with multiple or unclear meanings.
Lyric essays tend to be quite subtle, occluded, and difficult, because they often abandon the conventions of normal prose writing. Lyric essays have to teach readers how to understand the rules by which they function, and that can be hard.
In an interview with the journal Sierra Nevada in 2017 , lyric essayist Matthew Komatsu discussed his approach to using lyric juxtapositions to move outside the true-false binary. “[You have] two different ways of viewing it, and I think when you put those two next to each other, if you do it right, there can be a very poetic aspect…where you can essentially represent the different viewpoints, neither being more valid than the other.”
We can see this technique play out in Komatsu’s tender meditation “When We Played.” Originally published in the journal Brevity , it compares his experiences as a kid playing soldier, with his experiences as an adult in the military in Afghanistan. But Komatsu makes this comparison via form, not the written word, and by leaving it thus unspoken, he makes it impossible to analyze in terms of its “truth.”
“When We Played” is composed of short numbered sections. Odd sections are italicized, even ones aren’t. This suggests to the reader some kind of harmony, or braid, that unites all the odd sections and all the even ones. Here is a short excerpt from the beginning:
1. When we played war as boys, we never died. Dead was a reset button, a do-over, a quarrel over who killed who. Maybe we played fair…
2. All those close calls. That time in Afghanistan the SUV drove past the white rocks and into the red ones—white all right, red is dead—a local in the backseat jabbering jib. What did he say? Translator: “He say, WE ARE DRIVING INTO MINEFIELD.”
3. When we played war as men, the wounded on their backs—they called our names, their mothers’ names, the names of all gods past and present…
Komatsu’s form leads us to expect that section three will be a segment about him as a child. When instead we have another adult section, paralleling the sentence structure of section 1, the unexpected juxtaposition suggests an equivalency between the boys and the men—an ineffable comparison built via placement and font. And this brings us back around to the Internet.
The Poetry of Tabs
In many ways, writing on the Internet (not for publication, just regular daily communication) has quietly routinized us to lyric techniques. Lyric essays are often identifiable at a glance, in the same way poetry can be distinguished from prose. Like Komatsu’s essay above, these pieces often move in small segments and employ white space, placement, and font to express ideas. They might repeat a word or phrase to explore multiple meanings from it; or place images, ideas, or phrases next to each other to suggest meaning without putting it into words; or break traditional grammar and sentence structure; or change POV suddenly; or abandon chronological time in favor of some other organizing principle (often alphabetical); or dive back and forth between seemingly unconnected threads; or speak in many voices simultaneously.
Where else do all of these things happen? On Twitter. In the comment section. In discord chats and news aggregators and blogs and the million other online spaces that now make up the vast majority of the quotidian, functional nonfiction we read every day.
But these techniques aren’t just more common because of the Internet, they’re also more useful, because the Internet has pushed us firmly into a post truth world. Deep-fake videos, endless stories of online grifters, and the anonymity of the Internet have tricked or will trick all of us at some point. Moreover: just the constant and routine exposure to other points of view, different stories, and critique from unexpected angles have led us to be suspicious of the Truth (capital T) and our ability to reach it or tell it overall. How does nonfiction function in the hands of writers who aren’t sure the truth exists? Lyrically.
When employed in creative nonfiction (like essay writing), lyric techniques literally complicate the ability of the reader to find truth in the written word: they leave things unsaid and therefore undefinable; they draw multiple, sometimes conflicting, meanings from one word or phrase; they break down sentence structure, embracing verb and tense confusion; they take the story out of linear time, which destroys an easy understanding of causality and motivation, etc.
Thus, the Internet has spent decades teaching my students to read lyric forms, and simultaneously, doubt the truth. It has created (or made visible) a problem—the unknowability of truth—and at the same time, sculpted a language to talk about it. This is not a process that will stop or reverse tomorrow, and I suspect that I will continue to see more lyric techniques in the essays of my students, peers, and friends in years to come. As a writing teacher, I don’t see it as my job to push my students towards one form of truth over another, but it is essential that I understand how the techniques they are using communicate the truth, and why they are reaching for these techniques, right now, instead of more traditional ones.
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Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The lyric essay.
- Seneca Review
- Back Issues
- Lyric Essay
- Seneca Review Books
- HWS Colleges Press
With its Fall 1997 issue, Seneca Review began to publish what we've chosen to call the lyric essay. The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention. As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, "It depends on gaps. . . . It is suggestive rather than exhaustive." It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.
Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.
Loyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course through interlocking webs of idea, circumstance, and language - a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning. While it is ruminative, it leaves pieces of experience undigested and tacit, inviting the reader's participatory interpretation. Its voice, spoken from a privacy that we overhear and enter, has the intimacy we have come to expect in the personal essay. Yet in the lyric essay the voice is often more reticent, almost coy, aware of the compliment it pays the reader by dint of understatement.
What has pushed the essay so close to poetry? Perhaps we're drawn to the lyric now because it seems less possible (and rewarding) to approach the world through the front door, through the myth of objectivity. The life span of a fact is shrinking; similitude often seems more revealing than verisimilitude. We turn to the artist to reconcoct meaning from the bombardments of experience, to shock, thrill, still the racket, and tether our attention.
We turn to the lyric essay - with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language - to give us a fresh way to make music of the world. But we must be willing to go out on an artistic limb with these writers, keep our balance on their sometimes vertiginous byways. Anne Carson, in her essay on the lyric, "Why Did I Awake Lonely Among the Sleepers" (Published in Seneca Review Vol. XXVII, no. 2) quotes Paul Celan. What he says of the poem could well be said of the lyric essay:
The poem holds its ground on its own margin.... The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.
If the reader is willing to walk those margins, there are new worlds to be found.
-- Deborah Tall, Editor and John D'Agata, Associate Editor for Lyric Essays
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Wayne state university press, search form, you are here.
The Lyric Essay as Resistance
Truth from the margins, edited by zoë bossiere and erica trabold.
Subjects: Creative Nonfiction , Language and Literature
Lyric essayists draw on memoir, poetry, and prose to push against the arbitrary genre restrictions in creative nonfiction, opening up space not only for new forms of writing, but also new voices and a new literary canon. This anthology features some of the best lyric essays published in the last several years by prominent and emerging writers. Editors Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold situate this anthology within the ongoing work of resistanceto genre convention, literary tradition, and the confines of dominant-culture spaces. As sites of resistance, these essays are diverse and include investigations into deeply personal and political topics such as queer and trans identity, the American BIPOC experience, reproductive justice, belonging, grief, and more. The lyric essay is always surprising; it is bold, unbound, and free. This collection highlights the lyric essays natural capacity for representation and resistance and celebrates the form as a subversive genre that offers a mode of expression for marginalized voices. The Lyric Essay as Resistance features contemporary work by essayists including Melissa Febos, Wendy S. Walters, Torrey Peters, Jenny Boully, Crystal Wilkinson, Elissa Washuta, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, and many more. Their work demonstrates the power of the lyric essay to bring about change, both on the page and in our communities.
Zoë Bossiere is a genderfluid writer from Tucson, Arizona. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and coeditor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity. Erica Trabold is an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College, author of Five Plots , and recipient of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize.
The view from the literary ‘margins’ has never looked as inspiring or as invigorating as it does in this collection of blazing bold voices that are pumping blood into the essay’s very heart.
– John D’Agata , author of About a Mountain
With Auden’s elegy for Yeats, we tend to fixate on what poetry—or the lyric— can’t do and forget that he goes on to say, ‘it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper.’ Indeed, its survival helps us better endure. This brilliant gathering of essayists that Bossiere and Trabold have curated for us is aimed square against kyriarchy. And the collection has me convinced. The lyric can be a powerful tool of resistance. Some truths can only be uttered from the margins.
– Geoffrey Babbitt , .
This important and exciting anthology reveals how lyric essays can be both marginal and central, experimental yet sure, fluid and sound, haunted by ghosts but by beauty too. The Lyric Essay as Resistance is a gorgeous showcase of what the lyric essay can do.
– Randon Billings Noble , editor of A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays
I can easily see this fine anthology included in any of the courses I teach. The twenty essays herein do the triple-duty work of modeling the lyric form, expanding the platform for said form, and challenging the form to stretch so it can accommodate new, and necessary, literary voices.
– Elena Passarello , author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses
The inventive formats dazzle, finding novel ways to drive home each piece's message and testifying to the rewards found when writers are willing to break the rules. These selections exemplify the profound possibilities inherent in the lyric essay.
– Publisher's Weekly
John D’Agata Redefines the Essay
Susan Steinberg Talks with the Editor of The Making of the American Essay about Facts, Lies and the Art of Consideration
John D’Agata’s lyric essays — and his defense of the essay as art form — have been at the center of an ongoing discussion on the roles of fact and truth in the literary arts. His newest anthology, The Making of the American Essay , the third in a series, has sparked even more debate over the very definition of essay, what falls under the category, and the significance of — and suspicion of and resistance to — artistic invention. D’Agata has generously responded to a few of my questions on these topics, as well as on genre, lies, punishment, pleasure, and social media.
— Susan Steinberg
Susan Steinberg : I often try to explain what you mean when you speak of the essay as different from nonfiction — when you refer to the act of “essaying.” You described this to me a few years ago, and I was listening to you, but I since have become unable to articulate what you said. I tend to land on “it’s about the process, not the product,” but I find myself saying that about most things. Can you repeat what the essay, to you, is? Or does?
John D’Agata : I like to think of the essay as an art form that tracks the evolution of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory, or emotion. What I’ve always appreciated about the essay is the feeling that it gives me that it’s capturing that activity of human thought in real time. I think that feeling is what we all respond to in essays: the sense of intimacy that essays give us when we’re made to feel privy to another human being’s thought process. Our minds might be the only truly private spaces that any of us possesses, so to be given access to another person’s mind in an essay can feel wonderfully thrilling. I think that’s why Michel de Montaigne used that Middle French word to describe this literary form in the 16th century: essai. It means “to test, to attempt, to experiment.” The essay celebrates what makes us human because it celebrates thinking. It doesn’t celebrate polemics or fact-checking or whatever else our high school teachers turned it into. It celebrates the art of consideration.
Steinberg : Your anthologies are comprised of writings that some might argue aren’t essays. I argued, in fact, that my story was a story and not an essay, when you first got in touch with me about including it in your most recent anthology. I wanted to defend it as a fiction, in large part because I didn’t want to misrepresent the piece or myself; my concerns were of both a personal and a professional nature, and I now suppose they were somewhat fear-based. So my question is: have other writers or editors challenged your categorizing of the work you select, and what do you make of the attempts to maintain these genre distinctions?
D’Agata : The first anthology in the series, The Next American Essay , includes a short story by Susan Sontag entitled “Unguided Tour,” and suffice it to say, she wasn’t happy with my decision to include her story in the book. Just before the book came out I got an earful from her in a letter that knocked me sideways. She insisted that her story was a story and that it shouldn’t be interpreted as anything else. Unfortunately, the book was already in production by the time she sent that letter, so all I could do was write to her and try to explain why I’d decided to include her story, which is the same reason why I’ve decided to use a good number of other texts throughout this series of anthologies that are actually stories or poems. It’s not to reclaim them as essays, but it’s instead to try to think about essays from a different angle.
When a chapter from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick appears in The Making of the American Essay , it shows up in the midst of a bunch of essays that have long been celebrated as essays — texts by Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain, etc. And so at this point in the anthology we’ve got essays on the brain. We’ve started noticing patterns in those texts, a kind of “essayistic” sensibility that’s recognizable no matter what sort of subject matter it’s applied to. But then: Moby-Dick shows up, and we’re probably thrown off our guard. What I hope, however, is that we are reading this anthology with an open mind and that we are willing to go along with that text’s inclusion for at least a moment, and thus that we are willing to temporarily imagine that that chapter from Moby-Dick is indeed an essay.
So say we do that. Say we read that piece of Moby-Dick in the context of all of those other essays that surround it in the anthology. Does that section of Moby-Dick read differently? Do we see anything in it that’s similar to the other texts around it? Can we recognize the same essayistic movements in Melville that we’ve been noticing throughout the rest of the anthology? And, if we can, then what does that mean? Does it change our perception of Moby-Dick ? Does it change our perception of the essay?
What is an essay, after all, if we can see it working as a propulsive force in fiction or poetry? Can we call the essay its own genre if it’s so promiscuously versatile? Can we call any genre a “genre” if, when we read it from different angles and under different shades of light, the differences between it and something else start becoming indistinguishable? If our perception of a text can so easily change the moment that text is placed in a different context — an essay collection one day, a poetry collection the next — is it possible that the borders between genres are not the towering blockades that some people fiercely defend them as?
When The Next American Essay came out, I sent a copy of the book to Ms. Sontag along with my sheepishly argumentative letter, and she replied with a postcard that basically said “Okay. I sort of see what you’re trying to do. Signed, Susan Sontag.” I took it as a compliment.
Steinberg : If memory is unreliable, perspective is subjective, and emotion is unfixed, then what is the function and/or responsibility of “fact” in essays? I ask because I’m curious about your relationship to fact, but I’m also curious about your thoughts on readers’ fixations on the notion of truth. If a misconception about essay writers is that they’re truth-tellers, then do they often run the risk of disappointing the reader? How can essay writers confront or undo what seems to be an impossible-to-fulfill expectation?
D’Agata : Facts are akin to images, for me. That probably strikes some as a perverse statement, but I say it as someone who turns to essays for literary experiences only, and for that reason, when I’m reading I don’t need facts to do much more than resonate with the rest of the story that’s being told.
But that’s not the case with every reader, of course. We’re all looking for different things and have different expectations when we read. Yet for that very reason we do a disservice to both the essay and its readership by suggesting that everything that falls beneath the umbrella of “nonfiction” ought to be written by the same rules and for the same audience. There are some nonfiction books that traffic primarily in facts, by which I mean that we value them for the facts and information that they introduce to us and the ways in which they organize them. And those books are great. I’m a rabid reader of history and science, for instance, and I turn to those genres because I want the information that their dustjackets proffer: A Story about X and How It Changed the World. And while I appreciate those books being well written and am always down for great storytelling, I’m not necessarily expecting that from those books or looking for that when I read them. When I read a memoir, on the other hand, I’m hoping to bear witness to an exhilaratingly expressive voice and am therefore expecting a completely different literary experience. I don’t care about the facts in that case; I care about the story.
Writers can help the issue by not insisting that everyone else write their “nonfiction” the same way they do.
Writers can help the issue by not insisting that everyone else write their “nonfiction” the same way they do. When my book The Lifespan of a Fact came out and started ruffling some feathers, there were a lot of famous writers who went out of their way to distance themselves from the book by denouncing it in self-serving ways. Some wrote op-ed letters or spoke up at writing conferences or Tweeted vigorously in order to declare that they would never do what I was advocating in the book. And I get that. Or, I mean I kind of get that. On some level I understand where that was coming from because the book was openly discussing a taboo subject in the nonfiction world, and it’s hard to cleanse yourself of that kind of taint once it gets on you. So distancing yourself as much as possible makes sense.
Yet on the other hand, aren’t we artists? Isn’t one of the duties of art to explore the outer reaches of our media, to go to places that our culture says are off-limits? It seems a little cowardly — or at least ungenerous — to attack someone just because they make their art in ways you do not want to make yours.
Steinberg : Do you feel there’s pleasure associated in punishing the essay writer who has been “caught in a lie”? Is punishing is too strong a word?
D’Agata : “Punishing” is probably too strong a word, as is “pleasure.” Catharsis might be more accurate. I think some people probably feel empowered by attacking writers whom they think have wronged them. Others of course may feel pressured to do it. Oprah’s decision to chastise James Frey was due to the pressure that she felt from her fans after it was revealed that some parts of his very popular memoir — which she helped make popular when she selected it for her book club — had been exaggerated. I think that’s why she decided many years later to apologize to Frey, because she realized that she’d been bullied by popular opinion. I found it interesting that she chose to apologize to him in private, however, rather than on her show.
Of all places, literature and art should be where uncertainty can be explored and is relished and even championed.
So while I’m not sure what is accomplished by “punishing” such a writer, I do understand the cathartic benefits of doing it. Our economy’s wobbly, our security’s being threatened, and who knows what’s happening politically right now? We’re chatting during a season in which the Republican nominee for the next presidential election is spewing inaccuracies on almost a daily basis, and for some reason no one seems able — or willing — to hold him accountable. It’s hard to know what to trust. So it makes sense that a book which presents itself as x yet turns out to be y would frustrate and anger some readers because we’re frustrated up the wazoo with everything else that’s going on. But the problem with getting angry at that kind of instability is that our anger is misdirected. Of all places, literature and art should be where uncertainty can be explored and is relished and even championed. It might make you feel better to tell me that I should kill myself (as someone did after my last book) because you don’t like how I wrote something, but the problem with that reaction is that 1) I’m not going to kill myself, and 2) you’re shutting yourself off from the very literary experience that I’m trying to offer. A lot of my work is about questing certainty, questioning genre, questioning the very assumptions that we make about the world.
Steinberg : What might a “lie” in an essay look like?
D’Agata : For me, a “lie” is something that feels incorrect on the page, which I think is the difference between verifiability and veracity. Something that’s verifiable can be fact-checked beyond the world of the text. But veracity — or truthfulness — speaks to the believability of what’s on the page and what’s going on in the world that has been created by the author. While reading, if I can move through a text without wondering whether or not what I’m reading is “real,” then that text has done its job of capturing the truthfulness of whatever it is that it’s exploring. And that’s what I’m looking for when I’m immersed in a literary experience.
But it’s a whole other story beyond the realm of literature. When I’m reading a news article about the banking industry, or a medical textbook about how to fix my heart, or a set of instructions on building a suspension bridge, I’m not looking for a literary experience. I want every fact in those texts to have been verified multiple times. We do the literary essay a disservice, however, when we expect from it the same kind of verifiability as we would from a medical text book.
Steinberg : As a fiction writer writing first-person narratives, readers ask if I did the things my narrators do. In these moments, which I would argue are often gendered, I know I can exercise the right to hide behind the word “fiction” as a polite way of saying “what difference would it make if I did (or did not).” How do you, as an essay writer, maintain a separation between you (John, the person) and your characters, aesthetic choices, and narratives?
D’Agata : There is a separation. I don’t know how else to say it: there just is one. The history of the essay is a history of personas, and of writers using those slanted versions of themselves to tell bigger stories than themselves so that they can explore bigger themes. Throughout the essay’s history the persona has been the vehicle that has propelled this genre into the stickiest and most evocative places it’s visited.
The persona has been the vehicle that has propelled this genre into the stickiest and most evocative places it’s visited
It’s true, though, that a lot of writers have struggled with the contradiction of writing through themselves but not really of themselves. In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne wrote extensively about the fabricated self that he was presenting on the page. “I may presently change,” he once wrote, “not only by chance, but also by intention.” In the 18th century, Charles Lamb admitted to “the assumption of a character . . . which gives force and life to writing.” Virginia Woolf struggled too between “Never being yourself and yet always — that is the problem.”
I think of it the way I imagine actors do, which is that while I’m definitely using some portion of myself in order to create a persona, the character that ends up on the page isn’t my full self. My previous book was a collaboration with a fact-checker called The Lifespan of a Fact which tried to address this. It replicated the exchanges that the fact-checker and I had while we were fact-checking one of my essays for a magazine. Because the argument in the book is partially about the “shaping” that’s necessary in all art forms, we recreated some of our exchanges, completely fabricated others, and cast ourselves as two characters that were loosely based on us but were not actually us. And in order to spice up the drama in the book, we each assumed an exaggerated role: he, the poor mistreated intern who’s heroically trying to nail down every fact in the piece; and I, the arrogant and pompous diva who won’t allow anyone to mess with his art.
When the book came out, we gave lots of interviews in which we talked openly about the fabricated nature of the book, and yet some people still insisted on reading those characters as real. Reviewers did it too. I was called a “jerk” by a few very famous publications because the assumption was that I was the “I” that appeared on that page. What this taught me is that even when we’re told otherwise, and even when we know otherwise, we still let the stranglehold of the term “nonfiction” dictate how we read something. We still insist on reading that “I” as a mirror of the author. And so now, in many people’s minds, I am that “jerk” that they read in The Lifespan of a Fact . I’d say this frustrated me if I didn’t find it so fascinating and baffling.
Steinberg : There is no perfect segue into this next question, though I believe it’s connected to much of what you’re saying about persona and reality and how we respond to writing. What are your thoughts/feelings about social media? And what are your thought/feelings, if any, about writing essays in the context of an online culture that’s manufacturing a seemingly endless stream of writings and visual texts many would call “essays”?
D’Agata : I don’t have any social media accounts, and I don’t follow any either. Actually, that’s not true. I follow a couple Instagram accounts of funny celebrities. I don’t consider those essays, though; I just consider them funny. I could imagine an Instagram essay, however — something that mixes image and text in an episodically narrative way for a defined extent of time, like during a trip or a pregnancy or something like that. I’m sure there are such essays already, in fact, but until Chris Pratt writes one I probably won’t encounter any.
But if you’re asking whether I’d call them essays? Yeah, sure. I haven’t seen any yet, but I don’t know why they wouldn’t be considered essays. Even a simple blog that explores the daily activities of someone’s dog can be essayistic. It might not be very good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not essaying the idea of dogness. There’s an awful lot of crappy fiction and poetry out there that’s still called “fiction” and “poetry” even though it’s lazy or derivative or panders to the broadest common denominator of readers. But it still gets to call itself fiction or poetry. Quality can’t be a standard for inclusion in a genre.
Steinberg : I, too, have avoided social media. Several writers have told me this is crazy, whereas others have congratulated me. Both responses seem exaggerated, and both reinforce my decision to stay away from it. I’m wondering why you’ve chosen not to use it.
D’Agata : I’m not sure I have an interesting reason for avoiding social media. I felt a little brutalized on Twitter and Facebook during the broohaha surrounding my Lifespan book, so some of my reasons might be a little transparent. I prefer not to invite other people’s feverish anxieties into my life. But I also just like my privacy, so I’m not really a great candidate for platforms that encourage users to share their every thought with the world . . . and every meal, workout, vacation photo . . .
Steinberg : At the end of The Making of the American Essay , you have included a note on the title in which you elaborate some on the word “making.” I confess that before I read this note, I was going to ask why you chose this particular word. But instead I’m going to ask what you think could be the “unmaking” of the American essay.
D’Agata : Not letting the essay essay, not letting it grow and explore and change as a genre. That’s what could be its unmaking: not letting the essay essay .
About the Interviewer
Susan Steinberg is the author of two story collections. The most recent is Spectacle , from Graywolf. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s , Conjunctions , American Short Fiction , and elsewhere. She has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and teaches at the University of San Francisco.
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‘Hotel California’ Trial Centers on Handwritten Eagles Lyrics
Three men face charges in Manhattan that they trafficked in classic rock ephemera: notes that contained early versions of Eagles hits.
By Colin Moynihan
In the late 1970s, a writer working on a book about the Eagles that would never be published obtained 100-odd pages of notes and lyrics related to the multiplatinum album “Hotel California.”
The papers included handwritten drafts of lyrics by the band’s songwriter and drummer, Don Henley.
Decades later, according to court documents, the writer, Ed Sanders, sold the trove to a prominent dealer in rare manuscripts who had placed the papers of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe in university libraries and had worked to sell Bob Dylan’s archive for a sum estimated at up to $20 million.
In 2022, prosecutors in Manhattan said that the manuscript dealer, Glenn Horowitz, and two other men had been charged with conspiring to possess stolen property valued at over $1 million that included embryonic versions of hits like “Hotel California,” “New Kid in Town” and “Life in the Fast Lane.”
On Wednesday, the three men went on trial in an unusual proceeding that may feature testimony from Mr. Henley, who told a grand jury the material was stolen. During opening arguments in State Supreme Court before Justice Curtis Farber, who will decide the case, a prosecutor said that the drafts, handwritten on yellow legal pads, were invaluable artifacts that showed how “deeply committed” Mr. Henley was to the songwriting craft, meticulously revising and refining his language.
“He was a perfectionist,” said the prosecutor, Nicholas Penfold, adding that Mr. Henley “labored over every word, image and rhyme.”
Lawyers for all three defendants said their clients had done nothing wrong and that prosecutors lacked evidence that the notes had ever been stolen.
Mr. Horowitz’s lawyer, Jonathan Bach, described the Eagles material as a “rough work product” that had not been especially prized by anyone connected with the band when Mr. Sanders obtained it. He added that his client had the material for only a few years and made a mere $15,000 from its sale.
“He was not involved in any conspiracy,” Mr. Bach said. “He did not commit any crime.”
Before being arrested, Mr. Horowitz had installed himself at the confluence of literature and finance in New York, dealing in huge sums and equally huge reputations.
After working in the rare book room at the Greenwich Village bookstore the Strand, he struck out on his own at 23 and built a flourishing business with offices in Manhattan and East Hampton, N.Y., bringing gallery-style glitz to the musty world of archives and antiquarian volumes.
His sale of Vladimir Nabokov’s literary estate to the New York Public Library in 1992 was widely considered the first archive deal to top $1 million. Those who knew Mr. Horowitz saw him as a bit of a hustler. Rick Gekoski, a book dealer who did business with him, was quoted in 2007 describing him as “a terrific combination of a scholar and a grifter.”
In addition to Mr. Henley, who co-founded the Eagles and was instrumental in crafting the breezy, melodic country-rock sound that sold millions of records, witnesses could include Mr. Sanders, a minor musical celebrity in his own right.
In the mid-1960s he had co-founded the Fugs, a proto-punk folk-rock group based on the Lower East Side that was known for sometimes-literary-sometimes-scatological imagery. Mr. Sanders described himself in 1970 as “a poet, song writer, head Fug, peace creep and yodeler.”
He subsequently became a successful author with “The Family,” a 1971 book about Charles Manson and his murderous cult. Later in the decade, he signed a contract to write about the Eagles.
Although the book was never published, Mr. Sanders described the manuscript in a 1994 interview with Seconds magazine as an “exhaustive” four-volume account that had included what the interviewer phrased as “sex-and-drugs-type stuff.”
“I put a couple years into it,” he said at the time. “I got paid very, very well.”
In charging Mr. Horowitz and his co-defendants, Craig Inciardi and Edward Kosinski, prosecutors said that the Eagles material had been “originally stolen” by an author hired to write the band’s biography. Subsequent court filings identified the author as Mr. Sanders.
There is, however, no record of his having been charged in the case or identified as an unindicted co-conspirator. Mr. Sanders could not be reached for comment.
Defense lawyers wrote in one of their filings that if prosecutors did not consider Mr. Sanders a thief, then the material could not be considered stolen, and the judge should dismiss the case.
Mr. Sanders acquired the material for a book, prosecutors say in a court filing, but “the lyrics became ‘stolen’ and Sanders committed a larceny once he failed to return the lyrics to the Eagles within a ‘reasonable’ period following the contract’s termination.”
Prosecutors say Mr. Sanders sold the Eagles documents to Mr. Horowitz in 2005. The conspiracy, they argue, began seven years later when Mr. Inciardi, who has worked as a curator for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Mr. Kosinski, the owner of an online auction website for music memorabilia, bought at least some of the material from Mr. Horowitz.
When they, in turn, tried to sell some of it, prosecutors say, Mr. Henley told them that it had been stolen and demanded it back. Eventually, Mr. Inciardi and Mr. Kosinski went to the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s with some of the material.
No sales took place, though, and in 2016 the district attorney’s office seized 16 pages that had been left with Sotheby’s as well as 85 pages stored at Mr. Kosinski’s home in New Jersey.
An indictment described what prosecutors said were Mr. Horowitz’s efforts to create a bogus history for the material, which included the idea that it had come from the Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, who had recently died , rather than from Mr. Henley. Mr. Horowitz wrote to Mr. Sanders in 2017 that identifying Mr. Frey as the source “would make this go away once and for all,” the indictment said.
But, according to the indictment, Mr. Horowitz soon appeared to recognize that claim would be at odds with a different account that Mr. Sanders had given in an email 12 years earlier.
In that 2005 email, the indictment says, Mr. Sanders wrote to Mr. Horowitz that he had combed through a bounty of archival Eagles material while “staying at Henley’s place in Malibu.”
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Structure: Lifeblood of the Lyric Essay
Writing mostly poetry for the last two years, I had pretty much given up on prose. Until I met the lyric essay. It was as if I found myself a new lover. I was on a cloud-nine high: I didn’t have to write a tightly knitted argument required of a critical essay. I could loosely stitch fragments—even seemingly unrelated ones. I could leave gaps. Lean on poetic devices such as lyricism and metaphor. Let juxtaposition do the talking. I did not need to know the answer, nor did I need to offer one. It was up to the reader to intuit meaning. Whew!
Okay, so it’s not as easy as that. I can’t just stick bits together. Not if I want to write a decent —fabulous! —lyric essay. Structure is work. A work of craft, like shaping a poem, requiring space and patience. In her essay “The Interplay of Form and Content in Creative Nonfiction,” Eileen Pollack writes “…finding the perfect form for the material a writer is trying to shape is the most important factor in whether or not that material will ever advance from a one- or two-page beginning to a coherent first draft to a polished essay [my emphasis].”
But why such weight on structure?
The lyric essay, say Deborah Tall and John D’Agata , is useful for “circling the core” of ineffable subjects. And in her Fourth Genre essay , Judith Kitchen states that its moment is the present, as it “goes about discovering what its about is [Kitchen’s emphasis].” As such, traditional structures—e.g. narrative logic and fully fleshed arguments that help the writer organize what he or she already knows—don’t befit the lyric essay (as per Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant ).
This makes sense. Because when I tried to write prose I would flail in too many words, unable to say what I felt. Hence, the poetry. But now I had discovered a prose genre where the writer leans on form— consciously constructing it or borrowing a “shell” like the hermit crab  —to eloquently hold the inexpressible aboutness , to let meaning dance in the spaces between its juxtaposed parts.
For fun—and to appreciate the significance of structure—I juxtaposed two essays from Ellena Savage’s debut collection Blueberries : the titular essay “Blueberries” and “The Museum of Rape,” essays with very different forms; in fact, the whole book is a goodie bag of experimental forms.
I saw that while “Blueberries’” structural unit looked like the paragraph, its appearance is deceptive: the usual paragraph-by-paragraph logic is non-existent; instead, each paragraph acts as an individual poetic musing, making it more like a stanza, which literally means “room” in Italian. Some rooms are big—a single block of unindented text that can be longer than a page—and each room is separated by a single line break. As such, “Blueberries” could have easily become an amorphous piece of writing that leaves the reader thinking What’s the point of this? or scares them off with the lack of white space, but Savage uses metaphor and the lyricism of repetition to build a sturdy, stylish house.
The phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writer’s workshop”—or variations of it—appears in almost every room. Other words and phrases such as blueberries, black silk robe, gender-neutral toilets, reedy and tepid and well-read [male] faculty member, also often fleck the essay. This syntactical play and repetition, delivered in long, conversational sentences as if talking passionately to a friend about something weighty (which she is), are used as metaphors—tangible stand-ins—allowing Savage to have a broader conversation about complex abstract themes, in this case the intersection of privilege, gender, and making a living as a woman and a writer. Crucially, the repetition also makes associative links between the rooms, giving the reader agency to intuit meaning. As such, these structural devices create layered connotations (like a poem), making structure integral to the completeness—and coherence—of “Blueberries.”
In “The Museum of Rape,” Savage sections the content by numbered indexes – e.g. 4.0, 4.1, 4.2, like museum labels for pieces of artwork; hence, performing the essay’s title on one level. Savage uses these indexes to direct the reader to different parts of the essay, associating (in some instances ostensibly unrelated) fragments together, whereas in “Blueberries” Savage uses repetition as the associative device. This structure invites the reader to navigate the essay in multiple interwoven ways, intentionally making meaning a slippery thing that can “fall into an abyss”—a phrase that Savage often directs the reader to. In this way, the structure—labyrinthine and tangential—mimics the content, which is much more allusive— elusive even —than “Blueberries,” given its themes of trauma, memory’s unreliability, and, as beautifully summarized by a review , “the lacunae of loss (of loved ones, faith, and even the mind itself).” Savage captures this essence in index 8.0: What I’m saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured memory.
I asked myself, what it means to anticipate the loss of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2)…I comprehend tripping into the lacuna with my hands tied behind my back.
The museum-label structure also offers plenty of lacunae: There is almost a double line break in between each of the indexed fragments, because the index number is left-adjusted and given an entire line. Also, the fragments are, on average, shorter than the rooms in “Blueberries,” with many paragraphs indicated by an indent or a line break rather than a block of unindented text. There’s a poem in there, too, peppered with cesurae. These structural devices further signify the content, whereas “Blueberries” is purposefully dense to indicate a pressing sense of importance. Which is to say, the form used for “Blueberries” could not convey the aboutness of “The Museum of Rape” and vice versa—proof that form is the lifeblood of the lyric essay.
Now all there’s left to do is construct one. So, let’s play.
Choose a nonfiction piece you’ve already written or are working on, preferably one with a subject matter that’s tricky to articulate. Now reconstruct it by building or borrowing a form that’ll illuminate (even perform) the aboutness of your piece. Here are some ideas:
- A series of letters, emails, tweets or diary entries (epistolatory)
- An instructional piece—e.g. “How to…,” a recipe, or a to-do list—using “you” as the point of view
- Stanzas/paragraphs (like “Blueberries”) that can stand alone, but when put together offer a bigger/layered meaning through repetition
- Versify, playing with lineation and cesura; you can also intermix a series of poems and prose fragments
- A “mock” scientific paper with title, author(s), aim, methods, results, conclusion, discussion, and a reference list, as a way to section the content
Above all, have fun experimenting. ____
Lesh Karan is a former pharmacist who writes. Read her in Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Not Very Quiet and Rabbit , among others. Her writing has previously been shortlisted for the New Philosopher Writers’ Award. Lesh is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne.
 The “Hermit Crab Essay” is a term coined by Miller and Paola to describe an essay that “appropriates existing forms as an outer covering” for its “tender” content. A classic example is Primo Levi’s memoir The Periodic Table , structured using the chemical elements in the periodic table.
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Prince William Meets Queen Daenerys! See Emilia Clarke Honored by the Royal at Windsor Castle
The 'Game of Thrones' alum called the honor the 'cherry on the cake' of the important work she and her mother have done for people with brain injuries
Janine Henni is a Royals Staff Writer for PEOPLE Digital, covering modern monarchies and the world's most famous families. Like Queen Elizabeth, she loves horses and a great tiara moment.
The Prince and Princess of Wales/Instagram
Prince William reunited with a TV queen when he presented Emilia Clarke with an honor at Windsor Castle.
On Wednesday, the Prince of Wales, 41, presented the Game of Thrones star and her mother, Jennifer Clarke, with Most Excellent Order of the British Empire medals in recognition of their services to people with brain injuries as founders of the charity SameYou .
“From Westeros to Windsor, a real pleasure presenting @emilia_clarke and her mum Jennifer with their honours today for their charity work with @sameyouorg supporting brain injury recovery care 🎖️ Congratulations to all of today’s recipients!” Prince William’s team captioned a montage of the ceremony on Instagram .
The mother and daughter smiled as the Prince of Wales pinned on the insignias and spoke about what the recognition meant.
“Well, it was such an honor personally, but more importantly, we started the charity because the consequences of brain injury are just so unknown,” Jennifer began.
“To have an award like this… cherry on the cake,” Emilia, 37, said. “I’m going to get my photo taken because of this award. And people are going to say, ‘Why is this person, who we recognize, got this award?’ And we’re going to say, ‘It’s for brain injury recovery.’ ”
“We're doing it to try and help other people who have been doing it for a lot longer than us, make the changes that are so desperately needed for people,” Jennifer added.
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News of the Clarkes' awards was announced in King Charles’ 2024 New Year Honours List in December 2023, recognizing those in the U.K. who have demonstrated exemplary service or achievement in their respective fields. The mother and daughter established SameYou to raise money and awareness for people recovering from brain injuries and strokes after a health scare directly affected their family.
Emilia, who played Queen Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones during its eight-season run from 2011 to 2019, suffered two aneurysms in 2011 and 2013, sharing her story for the first time in a 2019 essay for The New Yorker published shortly before the final season's premiere.
“The whole experience inspired me to launch my charity SameYou,” Emilia told PEOPLE that November. “People’s lives are transformed completely after a brain injury, and the core of our work is recovery — it’s not just the first weeks that you need help, you still need help for years. I wanted to match someone with a consistent person who has the answers and can hold their hand and tell them that they’re not alone. Being there when someone is scared, confused or angry is one of the kindest things you can do.”
Andrew Matthews - Pool/Getty Images
While Emilia and Jennifer described receiving the MBEs as a top honor, the actress has crossed paths with Prince William before. She opened up about being flustered by the protocol around meeting a member of the royal family during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018 and recapped the guidance she was given at Kensington Palace.
"So it’s kind of a frightening thing going, to the palace. There’s a whole thing,” she said, explaining that she was told to not turn her back and address Prince William as “Your Royal Highness.”
"For whatever reason, maybe because I was so scared, I couldn't manage to get out 'Your Royal Highness.’ So it was kind of like 'Ra, ra,' was pretty much all I managed," she joked to the host.
The Prince of Wales has previously shared that he and his wife, Kate Middleton (who is currently recovering from abdominal surgery ), are big fans of the hit HBO show. The couple revealed they watched the series while eating curry takeout in their “comfy clothes.”
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
When the royals met Game of Thrones actor Tom Wlaschiha (who plays Jaqen H’ghar) during a visit to Berlin, they reportedly tried to get a few spoilers out of him.
“They said they really liked Game of Thrones and have watched every series,” Wlaschiha said. “They wanted spoilers, but I said I couldn’t tell them.”
Prince William and Princess Kate might not be the only fans of the franchise in the family, either! In 2020, King Charles and Queen Camilla took time to tour a special willow Iron Throne that was made for a party to celebrate the premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2020.
A few years prior, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip also toured the set of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. During the stop in 2014, Queen Elizabeth was led into the throne room where she met cast members and came face-to-face with the Iron Throne — but she declined an invitation to test it out.
Can't get enough of PEOPLE's Royals coverage? Sign up for our free Royals newsletter to get the latest updates on Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and more!
Prince William is back to royal duties this week after taking time off with Princess Kate amid her ongoing recovery and their three children — Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis — while they were on a school break. They spent the family time at Anmer Hall , their country home on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.
Home — Essay Samples — Geography & Travel — Travel and Tourism Industry — The History of Moscow City
The History of Moscow City
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Published: Feb 12, 2019
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