Lyric Essay Writing Exercise

Lyric Essays


These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.

Contributors:Kenny Tanemura
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:09:57

Because the lyric essay is a new, hybrid form that combines poetry with essay, this form should be taught only at the intermediate to advanced levels. Even professional essayists aren’t certain about what constitutes a lyric essay, and lyric essays disagree about what makes up the form. For example, some of the “lyric essays” in magazines like The Seneca Review have been selected for the Best American Poetry series, even though the “poems” were initially published as lyric essays.

A good way to teach the lyric essay is in conjunction with poetry (see the Purdue OWL's resource on teaching Poetry in Writing Courses). After students learn the basics of poetry, they may be prepared to learn the lyric essay. Lyric essays are generally shorter than other essay forms, and focus more on language itself, rather than storyline. Contemporary author Sherman Alexie has written lyric essays, and to provide an example of this form, we provide an excerpt from his Captivity:

"He (my captor) gave me a biscuit, which I put in my

pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fear-

ing he had put something in it to make me love him.





"I remember your name, Mary Rowlandson. I think of you now, how necessary you have become. Can you hear me, telling this story within uneasy boundaries, changing you into a woman leaning against a wall beneath a HANDICAPPED PARKING ONLY sign, arrow pointing down directly at you? Nothing changes, neither of us knows exactly where to stand and measure the beginning of our lives. Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?"

Alexie provides no straightforward narrative here, as in a personal essay; in fact, each numbered section is only loosely related to the others. Alexie doesn’t look into his past, as memoirists do. Rather, his lyric essay is a response to a quote he found, and which he uses as an epigraph to his essay.

Though the narrator’s voice seems to be speaking from the present, and addressing a woman who lived centuries ago, we can’t be certain that the narrator’s voice is Alexie’s voice. Is Alexie creating a narrator or persona to ask these questions? The concept and the way it’s delivered is similar to poetry. Poets often use epigraphs to write poems. The difference is that Alexie uses prose language to explore what this epigraph means to him.

The poet and essayist, Sydney Lea, offered some thoughts on what he called “the lyrical essay” in an article that appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle in February, 1999. This was early on in the explosion of the lyric essay that has continued with the work of such writers as Ander Monson, John D’Agata, Jenny Boully, Eula Biss, and many others, but Lea’s thoughts on how an essayist works by the art of indirection, dealing with seemingly disparate particulars, as he or she writes toward a point of connection, are still extremely relevant to this form as it’s practiced today.

Lea talked about the importance of having no predetermined subject, only a handful of particular details that have lodged in the essayist’s consciousness. He pointed out how the lyric essayist does better when he or she doesn’t know where the essay is headed so that observations have the feel of spontaneity. The meditative impulse of the essay places an emphasis on the writer’s mind in action with perception unfolding in the act of writing, an act of what Lea called “unanticipated discovery.” He stressed the importance of beginning with particulars before leaping into meditation, contemplation, musing, reminiscing, preaching, worrying, arguing, and perhaps even pontificating. We begin, in other words, with what the poet, Miller Williams, calls “the furniture of the world.” “I find that certain things have lodged themselves in my consciousness,” Lea wrote, “and now demand meditation, that they have ‘subjected’ me.” The lyric essayist, as Lea pointed out, seeks to connect a number of images or moments that won’t leave him or her alone. In the process of writing, as Lea referenced Robert Frost, “we discover what we didn’t know we knew.”

With the lyric impulse in mind, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.

1.     Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”

2.     Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.

3.     Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”

4.     Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”

5.     Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”

6.     Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”

The lyric impulse requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.

Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. For examples of the form, please consider these two short essays: Michael Martone’s “Some Space” and Amy Butcher’s “Still Things.”


About the Author: Lee Martin

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