Writing Without Limits: Understanding the Lyric Essay
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
Our Upcoming Creative Nonfiction Writing Courses:
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March 15th, 2023
Fiction or nonfiction? Article, short story, or how-to book? Do you want to write for children, teens, adults? There is a type of writing that is best suited for you, and the discovery process can be an adventure.
Finding Confidence in the Braided Essay: A Craft and Empowerment Workshop for Literary Nonfiction
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Telling the Stories Your Body Holds: Writing and Shaping Strong Personal Essays
with Sarah Herrington
March 29th, 2023
Where do essays come from? In this course, they come from the body. Learn how to start—and finish—powerful essays that begin inside the self.
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.
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Purdue Online Writing Lab College of Liberal Arts
Welcome to the Purdue OWL
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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.
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.
FROM THE NARRATIVE OF MRS. MARY ROWLANDSON,
WHO WAS TAKEN CAPTIVE WHEN THE WAMPANOAG
DESTROYED LANCASTER, MASSACHUSETS, IN 1676"
"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.
Two Lyric Essays
Artwork by Samuel Hickson
translated from the Chinese by Ting Wang
Read the original in Chinese, Traditional
Listen to the essays in Chinese, read by Caixin Chen and Li-ling Yeh:
Chen Li was born in Taiwan in 1954. He is regarded as one of the most innovative and exciting poets writing in Chinese today, and is the author of fourteen books of poetry and a prolific writer of prose. With his wife, Chang Fen-ling, he has translated over twenty volumes of poetry into Chinese, including the works of Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Octavio Paz, and Wisława Szymborska. The recipient of many awards in Taiwan (e.g. the National Award for Literature and Arts, the Taiwan Literature Award, the China Times Literary Award, and the United Daily News Literary Award), he has taught creative writing at National Dong Hwa University and is the organizer of the annual Pacific Poetry Festival in his hometown, Hualien. In 2012, he was invited to Poetry Parnassus in London as the poet representing Taiwan. In 2014, he was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Ting Wang discovered her passion for literary translation while studying American and British literature in mainland China. Her translations have appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly and Your Impossible Voice . A native Mandarin speaker, she holds a Ph.D. from the School of Communication at Northwestern University, and lives and works in the Washington metropolitan area.
An Introduction to the Lyric Essay
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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What’s Missing Here? A Fragmentary, Lyric Essay About Fragmentary, Lyric Essays
Julie marie wade on the mode that never quite feels finished.
“Perhaps the lyric essay is an occasion to take what we typically set aside between parentheses and liberate that content—a chance to reevaluate what a text is actually about. Peripherals as centerpieces. Tangents as main roads.”
Did I say this aloud, perched at the head of the seminar table? We like to pretend there is no head in postmodern academia—decentralized authority and all—but of course there is. Plenty of (symbolic) decapitations, too. The head is the end of the table closest to the board—where the markers live now, where the chalk used to live: closest seat to the site of public inscription, closest seat to the door.
But I might have said this standing alone, in front of the bathroom mirror—pretending my students were there, perched on the dingy white shelves behind the glass: some with bristles like a new toothbrush, some with tablets like the contents of an old prescription bottle. Everything is multivalent now.
(Regardless: I talk to my students in my head, even when I am not sitting at the head of the table.)
“Or perhaps the entire lyric essay should be placed between parentheses,” I say. “Parentheses as the new seams—emphasis on letting them show.”
Once a student asked me if I had ever considered the lyric essay as a kind of transcendental experience. “Like how, you know, transcendentalism is all about going beyond the given or the status quo. And the lyric essay does that, right? It goes beyond poetry in one way, and it goes beyond prose in another. It’s kind of mystical, right?”
There is no way to calculate—no equation to illustrate—how often my students instruct and delight me. HashtagHoratianPlatitude. HashtagDelectandoPariterqueMonendo.
“Like this?” I asked, with a quick sketch in my composition book:
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think of math as very mystical,” the student said, leaning—not slumping—as only a young sage can.
“But you are saying the lyric essay can raise other genres to a higher power, right?”
Horace would have dug this moment: our elective humanities class spilling from the designated science building. Late afternoon light through a lattice of wisp-white clouds. In the periphery: Lone iguana lumbering across the lawn. Lone kayak slicing through the brackish water. Some native trees cozying up to some non-native trees, their roots inevitably commingling. Hybrids everywhere, as far as the eye could see, and then beyond that, ad infinitum .
You’ll never guess what happened next: My student high-fived me—like this was 1985, not 2015; like we were players on the same team (and weren’t we, after all?)—set & spike, pass & dunk, instruct & delight.
“Right!” A memory can only fade or flourish. That palm-slap echoes in perpetuity.
“The hardest thing you may ever do in your literary life is to write a lyric essay—that feels finished to you; that you’re comfortable sharing with others; that you’re confident should be called a lyric essay at all.”
“Is this supposed to be a pep talk?” Bless the skeptics, for they shall inherit the class.
I raise my hand in the universal symbol for wait. In this moment, I remember how the same word signifies both wait and hope in Spanish. ( Esperar .) I want my students to do both, simultaneously.
“Hear me out. If you make this attempt, humbly and honestly and with your whole heart, the next hardest thing you may ever do in your literary life is to stop writing lyric essays.”
My hand is still poised in the wait position, which is identical, I realize, to the stop position. Yet wait and stop are not true synonyms, are they? And hope and stop are verging on antonyms, aren’t they? (Body language may be the most inscrutable language of all.)
“So you think lyric essays are addictive or something?” Bless the skeptics—bless them again—for they shall inherit the page.
“Hmm … generative, let’s say. The desire to write lyric essays seems to multiply over time. We continue to surprise ourselves when we write them, and then paradoxically, we come to expect to be surprised.”
( Esperar also means “to expect”—doesn’t it?)
When I tell my students they will remember lines and images from their college workshops for many years—some, perhaps, for the rest of their lives—I’m not sure if they believe me. Here’s what I offer as proof:
In the city where I went to school, there were twenty-six parallel streets, each named with a single letter of the alphabet. I had walked down five of them at most. When I rode the bus, I never knew precisely where I was going or coming from. I didn’t have a car or a map or a phone, and GPS hadn’t been invented yet. In so many ways, I was porous as a sieve.
Our freshman year a girl named Rachel wrote a self-referential piece—we didn’t call them lyric essays yet, though it might have been—set at the intersection of “Division” and “I.”
How poetic! I thought. What a mind-puzzle—trying to imagine everything the self could be divisible by:
I / Parents I/ Religion I/ Scholarships I/ Work Study I/ Vocation I/ Desire
Months passed, maybe a year. One night I glanced out the window of my roommate’s car. We were idling at a stoplight on a street I didn’t recognize. When I looked up, I saw the slim green arrow of a sign: Division Avenue.
“It’s real,” I murmured.
“What do you mean?” Becky asked, fiddling with the radio.
I craned my neck for a glimpse of the cross street. It couldn’t be—and yet—it was!
“This is the corner of Division and I!”
“Just think about it—we’re at the intersection of Division and I!”
The light changed, and Becky flung the car into gear. There followed a pause long enough to qualify as a caesura. At last, she said, “Okay. I guess that is kinda cool.”
Here’s another: I remember how my friend Kara once described the dormer windows in an old house on Capitol Hill. She wrote that they were “wavy-gazy and made the world look sort of fucked.”
I didn’t know yet that you could hyphenate two adjectives to make a deluxe adjective—doubling the impact of the modifier, especially if the two hinged words were sonically resonant. (And “wavy-gazy,” well—that was straight-up assonant.)
Plus: I didn’t know that profanity was permissible in our writing, even sometimes apropos. At this time, I knew the meaning of the word apropos but didn’t even know how to spell it.
One day I would see apropos written down but not recognize it as the word I knew in context. I would pronounce it “a-PROP-ose,” then wonder if I had stumbled upon a typo.
Like many things, I don’t remember when I learned to connect the spelling of apropos with its meaning, or when I learned per se was not “per say,” or when I realized I sometimes I thought of Kara and Becky and Rachel when I should have been thinking about my boyfriend—even sometimes when I was with my boyfriend. (He was majoring in English, too, but I found his diction far less memorable overall.)
“The lyric essay is not thesis-driven. It’s not about making an argument or defending a claim. You’re writing to discover what you want to say or why you feel a certain way about something. If you’re bothered or beguiled or in a state of mixed emotion, and the reason for your feelings doesn’t seem entirely clear, the lyric essay is an opportunity to probe that uncertain place and see what it yields.”
Sometimes they are undergrads, twenty bodies at separate desks, all facing forward while I stand backlit by the shiny white board. Sometimes they are grad students, only twelve, clustered around the seminar table while I sit at the undisputed, if understated, head. It doesn’t matter the composition of the room or the experience of the writers therein. This part I say to everyone, every term, and often more than once. My students will all need a lot of reminding, just as I do.
(A Post-it note on my desk shows an empty set. Outside it lurks the question—“What’s missing here?”—posed in my smallest script.)
“Most writing asks you to be vigilant in your noticing. Pay attention is the creative writer’s credo. We jot down observations, importing concrete nouns from the external world. We eavesdrop to perfect our understanding of dialogue, the natural rhythms of speech. Smells, tastes, textures—we understand it’s our calling to attend to them all. But the lyric essay asks you to do something even harder than noticing what’s there. The lyric essay asks you to notice what isn’t.”
I went to dances and dried my corsages. I kept letters from boys who liked me and took the time to write. Later, I wore a locket with a picture of a man inside. (I believe they call this confirmation bias .) The locket was shaped like a heart. It tarnished easily, which only tightened my resolve to keep it clean and bright. I may still have it somewhere. My heart was full, not empty, you see. I was responsive to touch. (We always held hands.) I was thoughtful and playful, attentive and kind. I listened when he confided. I laughed at his jokes. We kissed in public and more than kissed in private. (I wasn’t a tease.) When I cried at the sad parts in movies, he always wrapped his arm around. For years, I saved everything down to the stubs, but even the stubs couldn’t save me from what I couldn’t say.
“Subtract what you know from a text, and there you have the subtext.” Or—as my mother used to say, her palms splayed wide— Voilà!
I am stunned as I recall that I spoke French as a child. My mother was fluent. She taught me the French words alongside the English words, and I pictured them like two parallel ladders of language I could climb.
Sometimes in the grocery store, we would speak only French to each other, to the astonishment of everyone around. It was our little game. We enjoyed being surprising, but the subtext was being impressive or even perhaps being exclusionary. That’s what we really enjoyed.
When Dee, the woman in the blue apron with the whitest hair I had ever seen—a shock of white, for not a trace of color remained—smiled at us in the Albertson’s checkout line, I curtsied the way my ballet teacher taught me, clasped the bag in my small hand, and murmured Merci . My good manners were not lost in translation.
“Lyric essays are often investigations of the Underneath—what only seems invisible because it must be excavated, brought to light. We cannot, however, take this light-bringing lightly.”
When I was ten years old, my parents told me they were going to dig up our backyard and replace the long green lawn with a swimming pool. This had always been my mother’s dream, even in Seattle. She assumed it was everyone else’s dream, too, even in Seattle. Bulldozers came. The lilac bushes at the side of the house were uprooted and later replanted. Portions of the fence were taken down and later rebuilt. It took a long time to dig such a deep hole. Neighbors complained about the noise. Someone came one night and slashed the bulldozer’s tires. (Another slow-down. Another set-back.) All year we lived in ruins.
Eventually, the hole was finished, the dirt covered over with a smooth white surface. I remember when the workmen said I could walk into the pool if I wanted—there was no water yet, just empty space, more walled emptiness than I had ever encountered before. In my sneakers with the cat at my heels, I traipsed down the steps into the shallow end, then descended the gradual hill toward the deep end. There I stood at the would-be bottom, where the water would someday soon cover my head by a four full feet. When I looked up, the sky seemed so much further away. The cat laid down on the drain, which must have been warmed by the sun.
I didn’t know about lyric essays then, but I often think about the view from the empty deep end of the dry swimming pool when I talk about lyric essays now. The space felt strange and somehow dangerous, yet there was also an undeniable allure. I tell my students it’s hard work plumbing what’s under the surface. We don’t always know what we’ll find.
That day in the pool, I looked up and saw a ladder dangling from the right-side wall. It was so high I couldn’t reach it, even if I stretched my arms. I would need water to buoy me even to the bottom rung. For symmetry, I thought, there should have been a second ladder on the left-side wall. And that’s when I remembered, suddenly, with a shock as white as Dee’s hair: I couldn’t recall a word of French anymore! I had lost my second ladder. When did this happen? I licked my dry lips. I tried to wet my parched mouth. How did this happen? There I was, standing inside a literal absence, noticing that a whole language had vanished from my sight, my ear, my grasp.
I live in Florida now. I have for seven years. In fact, I moved to Florida to teach the lyric essay, audacious as that sounds, but hear me out. I think “lyric essay” is the name we give to something that resists being named. It’s the placeholder for an ultimately unsayable thing.
After ten years of teaching many literatures—some of which approached the threshold of the lyric essay but none of which passed through—I came to Florida to pursue this layered, voluminous, irreducible thing. I came to Florida to soak in it.
“That’s a sub-genre of creative nonfiction, right?” Is it ?
“You’re moving to the sub-tropics, aren’t you?” I am!
On the interview, my soon-to-be boss drove me around Miami for four full hours. The city itself is a layered, voluminous, irreducible thing. I love it irrationally and without hope of mastery, which in the end might be the only way to love anything.
My soon-to-be boss said, “We have found ourselves without a memoirist on the faculty.” I liked him instantly. I liked the word choice of “found ourselves without,” the sweet and the sad commingling.
He told me, “Students want to learn how to write about their lives, their experiences—not just casually but as an art form, with attention to craft.” (I nodded.) “But there’s another thing, too. They’re asking about—” and here he may have lowered his voice, with that blend of reverent hesitancy most suited to this subject—“ the lyrical essay. ” (I nodded again.) “So, you’re familiar with it, then?”
“Yes,” I smiled, “I am.”
Familiar was a good word, perhaps the best word, to describe my relationship with this kind of writing. The lyric essay and I are kin. I know the lyric essay in a way that feels as deep and intuitive, as troubling and unreasonable, as my own family ties have become.
“Can you give me some context for the lyrical essay?” he asked. At just this moment, we may have been standing on the sculpted grounds of the Biltmore Hotel. Or: We may have been traffic-jammed in the throbbing heart of Brickell. Or: We may have been crossing the spectacular causeway that rises then plunges onto Key Biscayne.
“Do you ever look at a word like, say, parenthesis , and suddenly you can’t stop seeing the parts of it?”
“How do you mean?” he asked.
“Like how there’s a parent there, in parenthesis , and how parentheses can sometimes seem like a timeout in the middle of a sentence—something a parent might sentence a child to?”
“Okay,” he said. He seemed to be mulling, which I took as a good sign.
“You see, a lyric essayist might notice something like that and then might use the nature of parentheses themselves to guide an exploration of a parent-child relationship.”
I wanted to say something brilliant, to win him over right then and there, so he would go back to the other creative writers and say, “It’s her ! We must hire her !”
But brilliance is hard to produce on command. I could only say what I thought I knew. “This is an approach to writing that seeks out the smallest door—sometimes a door found within words themselves—and uses that door to access the largest”—I may have said hardest —“rooms.”
I heard it then, the low rumble at the back of his throat: “Hmm.” And then again: “Hmm.”
Years before Overstock.com, people shopped at surplus stores—or at least my mother did, and my mother was the first people I knew. (She was only one, true, but she seemed like a multitude.)
The Sears Surplus Store in Burien, Washington, was a frequent destination of ours. Other Sears stores shipped their excess merchandise there, where it was piled high, rarely sorted, and left to the customers who were willing to rummage. So many bins to plunge into! So many shelves laden with re-taped boxes and dented cans! ( Excess seemed to include items missing pieces or found to be defective.) Orphaned socks. Shoes without laces. A shower nozzle Bubble-Wrapped with a hand-written tag— AS IS.
I liked the alliterative nature of the store’s name, but I did not like the store itself, which was grungy and stale, a trial for the senses. There were unswept floors, patches of defiled carpet, sickly yellow lights that flickered and whined, and in the distance, always the sound of something breaking.
“We don’t even know what we’re looking for!” I’d grouse to my mother rather than rolling up my sleeves and pitching in. “There’s too much here already, and they just keep adding more and more.”
I see now my mother was my first role model for what it takes to make a lyric essay. The context was all wrong, but the meaning was right, precisely. She handed me her purse to hold, then wiped the sweat that pooled above her lip. “If you don’t learn how to be a good scavenger,” my mother grinned— oh, she was in her element then! —“how do you ever expect to find a worthy treasure?”
Facebook Post, February 19, 2016, 11:58 am:
Reading lyric essays at St. Thomas University this morning. In meaningless and/or profound statistics—also known as lyric math—the current priest-to-iguana ratio on campus is 6 to 2 in favor of the priests. Somehow, though, the iguanas are winning.
An aspiring writer comments: ♥ Lyric math ♥ I love your brain!
I reply: May your love of lyric essays likewise grow, exponentially! ♥
Growing up, like many kids who loved a class called language arts, I internalized a false binary (to visualize: an arbitrary wall) between what we call art and what we call science. “Yet here we are today,” I tell my students, palms splayed wide, “members of the College of Arts & Sciences. Notice it’s an ampersand that joins them, aligns them. Art and science playing together on the same team.”
When they share, my students report similar divisions in their own educational histories. They say they learned early on to separate activities for the “right brain” (creative) from activities for the “left brain” (analytical). When they prepared for different sections of their standardized tests, they almost always found the verbal questions “fun,” the quantitative questions “hard.”
“Must these two experiences be mutually exclusive?” I ask. “Because I’m here to tell you the lyric essay is the hardest fun you can have.” They laugh because they are beginning to believe me.
My students also learned early on to assign genders to their disciplines of study—“girl stuff” versus “boy stuff.” They recount how the girl stuff of spelling and sentence-making and story-telling, while undeniably pleasurable, was treated by some parents and teachers alike as comparably frivolous to the boy stuff, with its ledgers and numbers and chemicals that burbled in a cup. In the end, everyone, regardless of their future majors, came to believe that boy stuff was serious— meaningful math, salient science—better than girl stuff, and ultimately more valuable.
“It’s not just an arbitrary wall either,” they say, borrowing my metaphor. “You see it on campus, too—where the money goes, where the investments are made.” I’m not arguing. My students, deft noticers that they are, cite a leaky roof and shingles falling from the English building, while the university boasts “comprehensive upgrades” and “state-of-the-art facilities” in buildings where biology and chemistry are housed. They suggest we are living with divisions that cannot be ignored. They are right, of course, right down to their corpus callosums.
“So,” I say, “one mission for the lyric essayist is to identify and render on the page these kinds of incongruities, inequalities , and by doing so, we can challenge them. We can shine a probing light into places certain powers that be may not want us to look. Don’t ever let anyone tell you lyric essays can’t be political.”
The students are agitated, in a good way. They’re thinking about lyric essays as epistles, lyric essays as petitions and caveats and campaigns.
“To do our best work,” I say, “we need to mobilize all our resources—not only of structure and form but even the nuances of language itself. We need to mine every lexicon available to us, not just words we think of as ‘poet-words.’ In a lyric essay, we can bring multiple languages and kinds of discourse together.”
Someone raises a hand. “Is this your roundabout way of telling us the lyric essay isn’t actually more art than science?”
I shake my head. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure if the lyric essay is more art than science. I’m not even sure the lyric essay belongs under the genre-banner of creative nonfiction at all . ”
“Well, how would you classify it then?” someone asks without raising a hand.
“ Mystery ,” I say, and now I surprise myself with this sudden stroke of certainty, like emerging from heavy fog into sun. Some of my students giggle, but all the ears in the room have perked up. “I think lyric essays should be catalogued with the mysteries.” I am even more certain the second time I say it.
“So, just to clarify—do you mean the whodunnits or like, the paranormal stuff?”
“Yes,” I smile. “ Exactly .”
From A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays , edited by Randon Billings Noble, courtesy University of Nebraska Press.
Julie Marie Wade
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THE LYRIC ESSAY / LYRIC PROSE
- An interview at 3288 Review where I opine on the lyric essay.
- The lyric essay, by definition, will not easily fit into the category of "grounded" writing. Generally, markets that use the "grounded" terminology when referring to creative nonfiction want narrative, a constructed and followable story, but the lyric essay just wants to play. Larger issues can be addressed, are often addressed, in the lyric, but subserviently so. Don't take it too seriously; look for the playfulness in it; hear the music and dance.
- The first line(s) of a lyric essay should surprise the reader with its language or new idea or twist of thought, as should points between beginning and end. But of course this should be true of any genre.
- Maybe, in some ways, the lyric essay is but a playful, experimental, creative nonfiction essay hoping to contrive an entirely new tune using one of a variety of word instruments.
The Reading Room
11 July 2022
An Insider’s Guide to Writing the Perfect Lyrical Essay
As the name might suggest, the lyrical essay or the lyric essay is a literary hybrid, combining features of poetry, essay, and often memoir . The lyrical essay is a form of creative non-fiction that has become more popular over the last decade.
There has been much written about what lyrical essays are and aren’t, and many writers have strong opinions about them, either declaring them expressive and playful, or self-indulgent and nonsensical.
Today, you’ll learn what a lyrical essay is, what literary elements and techniques they usually employ, and how they depart from other forms of writing and why writers might choose to write them. You’ll also find recommendations for some top lyrical essays to start familiarizing yourself with.
What is the lyrical essay?
Lyrical essays combine the rich, figurative language and musicality of poetry with the long-form focus of the essay. A lyrical essay is like the poem in its shapeliness and rhythmic style, but it also borrows from elements of the essay, using narrative to explore a particular topic in an extended way.
What makes this form of writing so distinctive is that it draws attention to its own use of language. Like poems, lyrical essays create certain effects with the words they choose, and are condensed in the way poetry is, attempting to communicate complexity and depth in as few words as possible.
What makes a good lyrical essay?
As with essays and poems, lyrical essays can be about any subject. Many lyrical essays tend to engage with topics such as philosophy, art, culture, history, beauty, politics, and nature, or a mixture of these subjects. They typically focus on a series of images of a person, place, or object, with the aim of evoking emotion in the reader by using very sensory details. A lyrical essay is written in an intimate voice, usually in the first person with a conversational and informal tone. Often, they are memoiristic, but they don’t have to be.
While lyrical essays take on the longer-form shape of essays, they are not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding in a chronological or even logical order. Instead, the writer usually creates a series of fragmented images using figurative language and poetic techniques in a looser, more playful way. Some lyrical essayists draw on research and fact to inform their writing, but lyrical essays are usually more suggestive and explorative than they are definitive or conclusive.
Like poems, lyric essays often use white space creatively. Text can be displayed in chunks, bullet points, and on only parts of the page, rather than conforming to the typical paragraph structure you’d find in normal prose. Lyric essays might include asterisks, double spaces, and numbers to frame parts of the writing in new ways. They sometimes include drawings, documents, photos, or other images that add meaning to the words in some way.
As with poetry, reading lyrical essays can be an intense experience. Instead of being immersed in narrative and plot, the reader is immersed in structure and form, always being reminded of how the language is shifting. Lyric essays are playful, and as such, they can surprise and delight you with their ingenuity.
Lyrical essays usually contain some of the following techniques and features:
- Poetic language – alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme
- Figurative language – metaphors and similes
- Intimate voice and tone – first person in a conversational and friendly style
- Imagery – sensory images of people, places, things, objects, and ideas
- Variety – an array of sentence styles and patterns
- Questions – posed for the reader to answer
- Juxtaposition and contradiction
- Rhythm or rhythmic prose
- Creative presentation of text – text displayed in a fragmented way, with white space, asterisks, subtitles etc to separate or highlight sections of the essay
- Inconclusive ending – often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay
One of the most popular criticisms of the lyrical essay is that they are self-indulgent. Some writers and readers feel strongly that lyrical essays are simply disjointed thoughts that are strung together without any order and that they go nowhere. Some people criticize them as a stream of consciousness, but that is also what others like about them. Those who defend lyrical essays think that they are one of the most exciting and unique forms of writing.
Deborah Tall, an American writer, poet and teacher, explains that the fragmented nature of lyrical essays is what makes them so interesting. She said that lyrical essays take shape “mosaically” and that their power and importance are “visible only when one stands back and sees it whole.” She goes on to say that the story a lyrical essay 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”. But she celebrates this very fact, as it is this unique construction that elucidates meaning.
Lyrical essays allow writers the freedom to push poetic prose until an important and emotional message pops from the page.
Recommended Lyrical Essays
What’s missing here a fragmentary, lyric essay about fragmentary, lyric essays by julia marie wade (from a harp in the stars: an anthology of lyric essays ).
What’s Missing Here? is an extraordinary piece of meta-writing – a lyrical essay about lyrical essays – from author and Professor of creative fiction, Julia Marie Wade. It is an absolute joy to read, at once challenging and fun, and also highly informative as it uses the techniques of lyrical essays to explain what they are and what they can do.
It’s one of the best examples of a clever and engaging lyrical essay, and it’s from a fantastic collection that is worth delving into if you’re interested in learning more about this unique literary hybrid.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely , Claudia Rankine explores isolation, depression, death, and violence in post-9/11 America.
Rankine writes in short sections surrounded by white space and uses images of the television to explore our relationship to the media. It’s a powerful look at culture that is meditative and achingly sad from one of America’s best poets.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is a genre-busting writer who defies classification. Bluets winds its way through depression, divinity, alcohol, and desire, visiting famous blue figures including Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, and Andy Warhol along the way. While its narrator sets out to muse about her lifelong obsession with the colour blue, she ends up facing the painful end of an affair and the grievous injury of a friend.
Bluets is made up of short essayistic, poetic paragraphs, organized in a numbered list. It’s a vulnerable, personal, and philosophical lyrical essay, full of innovation and grace.
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Monday July 22, 2013 By Dave Hood
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. It is based on images and ideas of a particular theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts a lyrical essay about pain called “The Pain Scale,” which has appeared in Harper’s magazine. The writer of the literary essay constructs images with sensory details. The writer also uses poetic language, such as alliteration and assonance. The lyrical essay combines both prose and poetry, sometimes found objects of writing to create the lyrical essay. The essay is created with fragments of details, and each fragmented is separated with white space, asterisk, or number. The writer presents questions and relies on the reader to provide the answers. The lyrical essay encourages the reader to ponder and meditate while reading the essay.
In this article, I will discuss the lyrical essay. The following will be covered: • Definition and features of the lyrical essay • Categories of lyrical essays-prose poem, braided essay, collage, and “hermit crab” essay • Techniques for writing the lyrical essay • Creative Writing Style • Additional reading
Definition of a Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a type of personal essay that combines both prose and poetry. It is often crafted like a prose poem. The writer uses a series of image or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object. The idea can be anything. The writer attempts to recreate the experience and evoke emotion in the reader by using sensory details, description that expresses what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. The lyrical essay is not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.
In 1997, The Seneca Review created the lyrical essay. This literary journal, publishing twice a year, defines the literary essay as follows: • Combines prose and poetry • Constructed from a distillation of ideas • Mentions but doesn’t expound • Suggestive but not exhaustive • Relies on associations, imagery, and connotation • Makes reference to other genres, such as film, music, literature • Arranged in fragments as a mosaic • Based on stories that are metaphors • Based on intimate voice • Crafted with lyrical language
The lyrical essay is usually fragmented. The writer creates a series of images using sensory details. Each image represents a fragment of detail, which are separated by double spaces, asterisk, or numbers. It is also suggestive. The writer implicitly suggests meaning. It is meditative. The reader ponders the words and emotion expressed in those words. It is often inconclusive. The writer provides no final point for the reader to take away. If you are interested in reading examples of a lyrical essay, visit The Seneca Review.
Categories of the Lyrical Essay
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in “Tell IT Slant,” identify four categories of lyrical essay: • The prose poem or flash nonfiction essay • The collage essay • The braided essay • The “Hermit Crab” essay
The Prose Poem. It is crafted like prose but reads like a poem. It is written in sentences, not verse. The writer uses poetic devices, such as imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor to create a prose poem of one or more paragraphs. The writer also uses literary prose by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
The Collage Essay. Like the art collage, the collage of a lyrical essay is based on a collection of fragments from different sources. For instance, prose, poetry, quotation might be combined. The use of juxtaposition is used. The writer separates each section with white space, an asterisk, subtitles, epigraph.
The Braided Essay. It relies on the lyrical examination of a particular topic. The writer uses fragments of detail from different sources . According to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant”, the writer fragments the essay into separate pieces that repeat throughout the essay. There is a weaving of different ideas, such as quotations, descriptions, facts, lists, poet language, imagery. This essay also allows for an outside voice to provide details, along with the writer’s voice and experiences. The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant.”
The “Hermit Crab” Essay. This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives the life within the shell of another mollusk or snail. It borrows from fiction, poetry, description, personal narrative, instructions, questions and answers, diary, itinerary, table of contents, songs, recipes, collection of favorite CDs, that are used as a shell to construct something new.
For additional information about the lyrical essay, you can read “Tell It Slant”, a short text on writing creative nonfiction, focusing on the personal essay, and its various subgenres. To read examples of the lyrical essay, visit the Seneca Review.
The lyrical essay has these features: 1. The writer crafts sentences that have rhythm, like a prose poem. Paces and stressed syllables determine rhythm. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of rhythm. It is based on a pattern of five iambic feet. Yet, writers often just count the number of stressed syllables in a line to determine the rhythmic structure of their prose. A short sentence speeds up the pace. A long sentence slows down the pace. 2. The writer creates lyrical prose that sound musical by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme. 3. The writer constructs the essay with fragments of detail. Each fragment is separated by white space, asterisk, title, or number. 4. The essay is often inclusive. Instead the writer focuses on evoking emotion in the reader, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.
Writers who have popularized the lyrical essay are: • Eula Biss, author of “No Man’s Land” and many lyrical essays, including “The Pain Scale” which can be read online. (Conduct a Google Search) • David Shields, author of the book “Reality Hunger.” • John D’Agata, author of the book “The Lifespan of Fact” • The Seneca Review, a literary journal that publishes lyrical essays.
Techniques for Crafting the Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. The writer creates the essay in prose using lyrical language. As well the writer uses an intimate voice, often by using the first person POV (I). Writers can use the following techniques to create a lyrical essay: • Poetic language. The writer relies on alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. Sometimes the writer will create fragments of prose poetry. • Figurative language. The writer make comparisons with metaphor and simile. • Imagery. The writer creates images of people, places, things, objects, ideas with sensory details, prose that appeal to the writer’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. • Connotation. The writer expresses meaning through connotation, not explicit expression of the details. • Questions. The writer poses questions to the reader who must answer them. • Juxtaposition. The writer often juxtaposes different fragments of detail, which have implied meaning. • Association. The writer expresses meaning through association of different things by using simile and metaphor. • Prose and poetry. The writer crafts sentences in prose using poetic language and rhythm. • Reference. The lyrical essay often mentions something without elaborating. • Rhythm. The writer creates emotion by using rhythmic prose. • Fragmented. White space or an asterisk or subtitles or epigraph are used by the writer to separate each sections of the essay. • Intimate POV. The writer often write in the first person POV (I) and shares intimate details, such as emotional truth. It answers the question: Who does it feel? • Inconclusive ending. The lyrical essay often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay.
The writer creates a lyrical essay based on some theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts an essay on “The Pain Scale.” The themes are pain and how to measure pain. She crafts this lyrical essay by using poetic language and rhythmic sentences. She writers in the first person POV (I) and feelings of emotion. She writes fragments of detail, and each fragmented is separated by white space or asterisk or number. The meaning is constructed by the accumulation of detail.
Creative Writing Style
To write the lyrical essay, use the following writing style:
1. Tone . A friendly and conversational tone. 2. Word choice. Fresh and original, short rather than long, familiar instead of unfamiliar words. 3. Lyrical language. Use of alliteration and assonance and rhythm. 4. Sentence variety. Use of a variety of sentence patterns, such as the balanced sentence, the cumulative sentence, and the periodic sentence. 5. Intimate POV. Use of first person POV (I) and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings and reflections.
To learn more about writing the lyrical essay, read the following: • Hall of Fame by John D’Agata • Plain Water by Anne Carson • The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola • Words Overflown by Stars, Edited by David Jauss • The Seneca Review ( http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx ) • “Essaying the Thing: An Imagist Approach to the Lyrical Essay” by Joey Franklin. (The Writer’s Chronicle magazine, September 2012) • Reality Hunger by David Shields • No Man’s Land by Eula Biss • The Life Span of Fact by John D’Agasta
Tags: alliteration , assonance , Craft Essay , Creative Nonfiction , David Shields , Eula Biss , Fragmented , Fragmented Essay , Fragments of detail , John D'Agata , lyrical essay , Personal Essay , poetic language , rhythm , Segmented Essay , subgenre , Writing
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