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On the Lyric Essay

In preparation for my recent graduate student presentation on the lyric essay, I came across an array of interesting quotes and ideas about what, exactly, the lyric essay is.  From Chris Offutt’s tongue-in-cheek The Offutt Guide to Literary Terms: “Lyric Essay: an essay with pretty language” to Lia Purpura’s humble encounter with a magazine editor, in “What is a Lyric Essay?: Provisional Responses.”  She writes,

I once submitted an essay to a Famous Editor with a note that read Enclosed is a lyric essay, blah, blah, blah, and he sent it back saying, Yes, good, well take it, etcetera, but shouldnt lyric be something someone else says about your essay?

—Which reveals a common misconception about the lyric essay: that it is merely an ornamental device, a compliment to one’s writing, a label to which one’s work aspires, like “powerful” or “poetic.”  When in fact, the lyric essay is a thing, an intended form of essay that seeks to deepen the artistic experience of creative nonfiction, just like modern art and contemporary performance art movements seek to evolve their own forms of artistic expression.

For me, the lyric essay was like opening the door to the Secret Garden.  It was a place that provided permission and space for me to play and explore so I could discover my authentic narrative voice.  All great, but here was the problem: when I would share my lyric essays in workshops and writing circles, I noticed that people were often reluctant to critique, like they didn’t know whether to eat what I had served with a fork or with a spoon.

I love this quote from Brian Doyle’s “Playfulnessless,” in Vol. 15, No. 1 issue of River Teeth:

Thesis: the essay is the widest fattest most generous open glorious honest endlessly expandable form of committing prose not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering salty singing voices in our heads, but also because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively. Discuss.

What Brian Doyle is talking about is the malleability of the essay as a form, the flexibility of the structure itself.  And that, to me, is what the lyric essay is all about: bucking tradition and playing with form, so that instead of the predictable circle-and-dive structure of a more traditional personal essay, the lyric essayist’s narrative “hawk” does something different and unexpected in its pursuit of the truth.

So what are the ways in which the lyric essayist essays?  In the Fall 1997 Special Edition of Seneca Review, in which The Lyric Essay was first defined, editors John D’Agata and Deborah Tall noted that this new hybrid form “gives primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.”  Meaning that the reader is invited into a the stream-of-consciousness view of the narrator’s essay process, rather than a constructed representation of the issue(s) they have already wrestled.

For me, the difference between a more traditional essay and a lyric essay is not unlike the difference between the realistic, still-life paintings of Norman Rockwell and the more contemporary art of Robert Rauschenberg or Jackson Pollock.  Rather than holding the reader’s hand along a guided trail of thought, the lyric essayist provides clues, using the juxtaposition of contrasting images or ideas to convey emotion or explore a theme.  The lyric essayist texturizes his or her prose with layers to convey the complexity of the content, presenting different threads, patterns of thought, and points of intersection.  It’s like walking on a path made of stepping stones — more fun than just walking on dirt.

And rather than being strictly disciplined in form and movement, formulaic in its positioning —like ballet or a 5-paragraph essay— the lyric essay is more organic in its movement, free to borrow devices and techniques from other genres and art forms to illustrate the quest for understanding.  Some traits:

1.    Experimentation with form:

•   Exclusion of linear, logical sequence — organized by themes other than chronology
•   Distilled language, use of poetic imagery and rhythmic sentences
•   Use of fragments and white space, section headings and numbers — taking shape with fragments assembled into mosaics or narrative strands woven into braids
•   Inhabiting other unexpected forms to tell a story (disguising)
•   Omission of smooth narrative transitions — movement involves associative leaps

2.    Uses the power of inference — more active reliance on reader’s intuition to complete the narrator’s thought

3.    Main craft element is the juxtaposition (or associative leaps between) language and imagery

Still, even with an understanding of its traits, many wonder how to go about critiquing the lyric essay.  And while I would no sooner advise someone on this than I would critiquing contemporary art or the mechanics of modern dance, I do think it’s fair to ask whether the piece works, whether it has succeeded in making a connection with a reader on an emotional level.  Of course, like any art form, critiquing a lyric essay is subjective, but I offer some questions to consider:

1.    What is the essay’s aesthetic appeal?  Visually? Rhythmically?
2.    Does the imagery in the piece work?
3.    Do the juxtapositions of imagery and language resonate? Do the contrasts “thrum”?
4.    Can the reader follow the organization and associative leaps between sections?
5.    Is the content best handled in lyric form, or does the construction seem “gimmicky”?
6.    Can the reader understand what the essay is about?  What issue(s) it wrestles?
7.    Is the reader left confused, or does the essay compel the reader to think or consider something new?

So.  These points may not clarify whether you should enjoy a lyric essay with a fork or a with spoon, but perhaps it will empower you to simply dive in with your heart.  Happy reading.


About Mary Heather

I am an East-coaster and a West-coaster. I am an academic and a creative spirit. I am an environmental scientist who always wanted to write, and a writer with a nagging nostalgia for the complexities of environmental science. Above all, I am a mother — so whether I’m writing about the natural world, family, or place, I like to consider my work as environmental advocacy in the broadest sense.



  •    Reply

    Mary Heather,
    It seems we have a lot in common (despite my lack of knowledge in the sciences). I am a mother of four that dabbles in a whole bunch of other stuff. I’m a full-time humanities teacher that hopes to instil a drive for community service among my students – partially in an effort to engage them in the learning process, but quite honestly also to help make this world a better place for my own children. I have just begun my second masters program – this time in English/Nonfiction writing. I am writing an analysis paper on the language of lyric essays as my strongest draw is to creative nonfiction. I love your comparison of lyric essays to more formal essay writing. You quite aptly point out the lack of chronological (and stuffy??) organizational patterns and “different threads, patterns of thought, and points of intersection. It’s like walking on a path made of stepping stones — more fun than just walking on dirt.” I guess this is what draws me to the genre – I’ve never been much of one to walk a completely straight line. I tend to talk in parentheses and I think my writing reflects that. I enjoy reading other people’s writing that has that same meandering type of thought pattern. I think I’d like to reference your ideas above in my analysis of the language of the lyric essay and check out some of your other writing as well. I’m happy I came across your page!

    •    Reply

      Hi Erin, Thanks so much for your comment — I think that the lyric essay has made creative nonfiction more accessible to people new to the genre. I’m so glad you found my post to be helpful & wish you the best with your exploration of the lyric essay. Happy writing! – MHN

  •    Reply

    Thank you for this distilled piece on lyrical essay writing. I like lists! I only recently have come across this format and it is calling to me. I think I’ve been doing it and not knowing it. Not what I’ve published, but when I write for myself.

  •    Reply

    Good article. I’m the editor at Port Yonder Press and the new journal, Eastern Iowa Review. Would love to see some of your work, gals. Got quite a line-up going for the inaugural. :)

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