Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve started writing a lot of creative nonfiction. This is something that I think surprised everyone, including myself, because I’ve always been such a disciple of fiction and fantasy. I spend a lot of my time diving into lives and worlds that don’t belong to me and making myself a part of them, and would much rather write new characters than write about the dreaded Self. So why nonfiction?
Well, as it turns out, I’ve been writing this stuff all my life. I just had no idea that’s what it was. All the journals I’ve kept, those scribbles on post-it notes or in my phone about tiny things like plants and the people eating fast food at airport terminals? Creative nonfiction. The random pages of description of all the places I’ve lived since I was a year old? Creative nonfiction. In fact, all the little bits of things that I always considered more of warm-up exercises than actual writing, that I never thought really “counted”, can all be crafted and expanded into essays, memoir, prose poetry. And once I realized that, there was no stopping me in my voracious exploration of this genre.
In the fall of my senior year at Western Washington University, I was lucky enough to take a course on the lyric essay with creative nonfiction goddess Brenda Miller. For three months, we studied white space and fragmentation, braided essays and collage memoir, all the delightful idiosyncrasies of voice and perspective that can be considered lyrical. What I love about the lyric essay is that you get to make your own rules: there doesn’t have to be a concrete beginning, middle, and end, and how your writing looks on the page is as important and telling as the words themselves. It’s freeing, after years of writing fiction and trying to follow the prescribed trajectory of tension-climax-resolution, to be told that you can actually do whatever you want.
At the end of this class, though, we were each asked to write a paper for our final exam on a deceptively simple question: “what does it mean to write the lyric?” Immediately, my shoulders slumped. Why couldn’t I just write a lyric essay instead of having to explain it? I put off the assignment for the better part of my finals week, vaguely wondering whether it wasn’t too late to drop out of school and become a travel writer or something similarly dramatic. But eventually I forced myself to put fingers to keys–and was surprised by how fun this assignment actually was. (I guess that’s the way with 90% of writing, isn’t it?)
So I’m posting that essay here under the cut, for those who are curious about writing the lyric and what the hell that actually means. It’s a hard question, and I definitely can’t answer it completely, even with all that training under my belt–but I want to try, because this genre means a lot to me and deserves more attention and explorations from writers and readers alike.
If I thought I knew something about lyric essays before I started writing them, it’s nothing compared to what I know now. Which is to say: it has become clear that I know nothing.
It’s a positive kind of unknowing, however–is it possible to create something positive from negative space? This is certainly one of the many questions the lyric essay: how does emptiness shape what is around it? Blank margins carve paragraphs into stories and I am certain that I will never be able to understand how this kind of writing works. That’s the magic. That’s how it should be.
I can describe the unconventional conventions of our chosen form–fragmentation, repetition, shifting point of view. I can show you how the lyric borrows and steals from its neighbors by borrowing and stealing words from those who have done it before. Please understand, from whatever angle you look at me, you will see something new. In his essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Fat”, Ira Sukrungruang adapts a Wallace Stevens poem about blackbirds into a meditation on childhood, the body, and the vulnerabilities of taking up space. The lyric essay may contain definitions, references, or scientific anecdotes, even and especially if they seem to have nothing to do with the story at hand–anything from typos to falcons to neuroscience are fair game. One can even borrow form and structure from external sources: in order to explore love and loss and the mixed blessings of her life, Brenda Miller takes on the conventions of various types of rejection letters in “We Regret To Inform You“, straying from this form when necessary to add intimacy and weight. We understand why you took refuge in the music of the Grateful Dead, dancing until you felt yourself leave your body, caught up in their brand of enlightenment. But you do realize that’s a delusion, right?
These borrowings and collected pieces of external life need not be explicitly broken down for the reader; the form itself, and the essay-writer’s choices, explain that well enough. You need only look between the lines.
Again, that blank space that I do not know how to capture in its opposite.
What I do know is that the lyric allows us to admit things that we might otherwise shy away from saying aloud, because we do not have to give the whole story, or give it in the right order. Anecdotes that might seem foolish or dramatic on their own are supported by other moments, other views, and sometimes even other lives. When Sherri Simpson writes of the fire that destroyed her home in her short essay “Impedimenta”, she uses historical accounts of the exploration of Alaska and memories from her own backpacking trips there to contextualize the loss, and to draw attention to the greater question of what is truly necessary and what one can live without. These memories are juxtaposed against each other without regard to time and space; we have come to know this technique as braiding, or the art of adding dimension to a story through additional, sometimes seemingly irrelevant information.
It all comes together in the end–even when it doesn’t, even when we feel we know as little about where the writer will go from here as they do. After all, in nonfiction one rarely expects a happy or complete ending.
Perhaps my favorite curiosity of the lyric essay is its willingness to bring the reader right into the heart of what the writer is thinking about, whether by direct invitation or through subtle, captivating details so sharp they beg immediate personal connection. When M.F.K. Fisher describes tasting the grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skimmed from a spitting kettle of strawberry jam in “The Measure of My Powers”, you can sense the intimacy of the scene before she has even begun to properly describe it, and you know at once how that jam would taste against your own tongue, too. This is another strength of the lyric essay; it is a form inherently connected to other things, other senses. The word lyric implies music, which is a form of art generally described as separate from writing–so it’s no surprise that writing these essays asks you to consider plurality and overlap, looking outside what has been presented, looking beyond the lines. It necessitates an earnest excavation of what is absent.
A repetition, not a redundancy: lyric essay is a study in blank space, and what that space leaves behind. I do not think about the things I am not saying and yet they sit there unanswered anyway, seeping into my words from the margins and the pauses of line breaks. When writing is so often considered a battle against the empty page–how will I conquer that fresh Word document, what bullshit will I string together to meet the minimum requirement–the idea that I do not have to cover everything with ink is not quite revolution or rebellion but rather a type of surrender. A relinquishing of power, a willingness to let that space be.
I don’t know much of anything about the lyric essay, really. I cannot describe or explain or even attempt to claim an understanding of how any of these essays have been created, least of all my own. It is easy to feign knowledge, to obscure the complexity of miracles with technical terms or line-by-line analyses–and I will not say there can’t be value in that approach, either.
But as Chelsea Clammer says in her pseudo-anti-lyric essay “Lying in the Lyric”, you can’t prescribe a lyric essay. Nor, I think, should you try.