hen I tell people I write lyric essays, I get blank stares. They correct me, do you mean lyrical essays? Or they say, aren’t those just poems? When I try to define it, I sometimes fumble. I feel like I approach lyric essay intuitively, and perhaps my definition differs from other lyric essayists. In graduate school, I learned lyric essays are scene driven—not stories—with lots of description. I learned that lyric essays often employ research and weave that into personal reflections. They are sometimes described in terms of form: they are short, fragmented, braided, etc. It feels as if all these definitions fit, yet none are definitive. And perhaps with any experimental form of writing, definitions must, by necessity, be up for discussion. Chauna Craig and I tried to narrow it down, but perhaps only widened the field of possibility when trying to pin down this mysterious and alchemic form.
Chauna Craig is the author of the short story collection The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, winner of a Next Generation Indie Book Award for Short Fiction and a finalist in both the Foreword INDIES and High Plains Book Awards. Her creative nonfiction has been honored as a “Notable Essay” in both Best American Essays and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and she’s been awarded full residency fellowships to Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and PLAYA. She was on the editing team for the Best Small Fictions 2018 and currently serves as the creative nonfiction editor for Atticus Review. A Montana native, Chauna now lives and teaches creative writing and literature in western Pennsylvania.
WOW: How do you define lyric essay? How do you know one when you see one?
Chauna: When you say you approach the lyric essay intuitively, I think you’ve hit on one of the major characteristics of what it is to write and read the lyric essay. Meaning accumulates in such essays through language, rhythm and syntax, image and scene, juxtaposition, association, and yes, intuitive leaps. Genre is bended, blended and fluid. One could say that poems and even stories do this, but I think of the lyric essay as a form specifically resisting agreed-upon ideas of essay writing and creating its own sense through the senses.
I’m also going to shamelessly steal from those more expert than I and point to Seneca Review’s Fall 2007 issue dedicated to the lyric essay. Deborah Tall describes it as “[a] kind of essay propelled not by its information, but rather by the possibility for transformative experience,” and Philip Lopate notes the form’s “attention to the movements and undulations of language as a subject in itself.” A lot of writers note the way the lyric essay asks the reader to fill in gaps and make leaps. But Eula Biss reminds us that’s not a license to be vague: “I am suspicious of gaps, of silences, of contradictions because I know how easily they hide unfinished thinking and insufficient research.”
I know I’m reading a lyric essay when my mind perks up, plucked out of what can be a reading rut of the conventional narrative mind, and I’m seeing every word anew because every word is doing so much more than conveying information or events. One of my students recently said that he figured out how to read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway by “skipping over all the description,” and I said, “then you haven’t figured out how to read Mrs. Dalloway at all.” The same is true of the lyric essay; there is no skimming for meaning because every word is the meaning.
WOW: What are some of your favorite essays that represent the genre? What makes them lyric essays?
Chauna: Jenny Boully’s essays are exemplary of the form. I read her on those rare occasions when I have an hour to myself, and I savor her words, doling them out like exquisite, handcrafted chocolates. I could choose any of her pieces, and she’s well-known for her long essay, The Body, composed of footnotes to a nonexistent book; but right now, I’m thinking about “On the Voyager Golden Records,” more recognizably “essay” than her most genre-transcending pieces. In it, she explores her fascination with the records the U.S. shot into space on the Voyager in the 1970s and the extraordinary hope that other intelligent beings might find and decipher something about who we are. While the reader learns details and facts about the space mission, Boully also sends us leaping back to the ‘70s, forward to the imagined time those records might be found (or more likely when the Voyager stops communicating with us), and fluttering with existential panic that we all want to matter and last and be known, that we write for that very reason, however futile the enterprise. Still, there are transcendent moments of beauty, like those sounds etched into the record, that will likely never be played—“ocean waves, thunder, wind, a heartbeat, Glenn Gould playing Bach”—that Boully provokes me to dwell on with sorrow and wonder. I’m learning as much about my own human self, as I am about the Voyager Golden Records. I hear the heartbeat of humanity in the rhythm of the words themselves.
Kerry Neville’s “True Blue” (published in Atticus Review) is a lyrical reflection on the idea of blue as a color and so much more. There are a couple hints of narrative here; but we are mostly spun through ideas of blue, names for blue, facts about blue, and it’s dizzying, deliciously so. Lyric essays, like lyric poems, are not inherently time-bound the way narrative is. They may (and often do) explore ideas of time, but their stories are more implicit. Also, I can’t hold in my mind the concept of blue, along with the idea of the lyric essay, without noting Maggie Nelson’s beautiful book Bluets, a book-length study in blue through scraps and fragments of fact and memory and desire.
John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay, is also full of a wide variety of examples of effective lyric essays.
“Lyric essays are an experience rather than about one.”
WOW: Are there aspects of voice and form that are unique to lyric essays? How does voice in lyric essay differ from that in memoir and personal essays? How does form support and shape the lyric narrative?
Chauna: I think the voice in a memoir or personal essay is often defined by its confident assertion of a self, a personality that has begun to take authority over experience. The voice in a lyric essay is no less controlled, but it often seems trans-personal, like the voice of some iteration of language itself. I most often encounter this voice in poetry and certain types of experimental fiction, and so I think it’s telling that lyric essays are still more likely to be selected for the Best American Poetry anthology rather than Best American Essays. They are an experience rather than about one.
The question on form is more difficult, perhaps because form is organic and intuitive, idiosyncratic to each essay. Certainly, recognized forms in which lyric essays lurk (the idea of the hermit crab essay) organize what is said and to some degree that limits what can be said (though an extraordinary piece of writing somehow escapes even that). It feels so slippery here, like I want to summarize some good takeaway; and all I’m coming up with are quick getaways, escapes from the boundaries of form.
WOW: Aura is a term I’ve recently begun using as a way to describe the intangibles of a piece that go beyond choices in form, voice, arc, and subject. Aura, for me, is the “more than the sum of its parts” aspect of any good writing. It’s the magic the piece creates. The entry into insight. The epiphany. However, while it feels like magic, it is an aspect of craft and intention. A writer doesn’t accidentally create spine-tingling turns and phrases. They are crafted and intentional. How do writers create this aura when writing lyric essays?
Chauna: I actually think we do sometimes accidentally create spine-tingling turns and phrases...it’s just a matter of recognizing whether they belong in the essay you’re presently writing (which is a way of saying that this “magic” is an aspect of craft and intention). I’m going to try not to veer away from this question with the (entirely valid) point that the intangibles are just that—a bit elusive, i.e., we can’t really hold on and say, “This here is how to go about it.”
I do think in the revision process, we need to be attuned to where the energy in the piece is and consciously rewrite to enhance that energy. If the current energy is in the gaps between paragraphs, those leaps we make much like the way synapses work in the brain, try cutting more to make the leap longer but more rewarding? Or maybe change the energy altogether by switching direction and tantalizing the reader’s mind with where this may go? All with the explicit recognition, of course, of that greater sum. I also think we shouldn’t be afraid to push the connections (images, themes, etc.) within the work, even to the point of fearing that it’s overdone. The art of any good writing is in what is left; and the more that’s in there, the more opportunities you have to cut and rearrange and cut deeper and save all of those versions until what you call an aura starts to glow. And the larger reach of the piece announces itself, and your final edits bring it together in such a way that it feels it was always meant to be that way. But that’s probably not even specific to lyric essays; that’s artful writing that transcends the author’s expectations and intentions. That’s good writing.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to push the connections (images, themes, etc.) within the work, even to the point of fearing that it’s overdone.”
WOW: How has your own writing developed in the midst of the many experimental, hybrid, and lyric forms? Your recent book of short stories, The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, was a Next Generation Indie Book Award Winner and a finalist in the High Plains Book award. What experimental techniques did you use when writing it?
Chauna: The Widow’s Guide is mostly quite conventional in form with several character-driven stories that adhere to a more or less traditional narrative arc. Not surprisingly, many of them were written when I was still learning what I thought of as “the” form of the short story. But long before those stories, I took my first creative writing class in which the teacher required me to write a two-page story every week. One of those pieces took the form of an immigrant’s job resume, in which the story’s meaning accrued with every line of some career qualification he valued that an American employer never would. One of my workshop peers simply wrote, “What the hell is this supposed to be?” My professor defended it as a critique of capitalism, which I only now appreciate; but at age twenty, I flinched from anything that might mark me as weird or heaven forbid, radical. So, I went into graduate school determined to write recognizable, more easily appreciated forms.
Fortunately, I let myself continue to grow into my own weirdness. I tried fragmented and braided essays. Much of my creative nonfiction is more lyric than narrative; in fact, my first published essay was structured around scenes and takes from my summer job as a wedding videographer and my own marriage at a young age. The real story was in the contrasts and connections that I let the reader make.
After that, I returned to sentence-driven and compressed fiction pieces, a couple of which show up in the book. I wrote one of those stories consciously letting the sentence rhythm move the story instead of plot, and I was delighted when a voice professor pointed to this story as reading like a musical score.
Another of the more traditional stories incorporates the line of a song invented by two little girls that repeats but also shortens with every repetition. I’ve been asked why I did that, and my rather unsatisfying response is that it “felt right.” The girls’ private world and how it excludes the narrator, who is desperate for their approval, keeps intruding in the story, fracturing every time, while the core of it sticks in the narrator’s mind like a splinter, something under the surface inflaming everything. See? I can rationalize my artistic decision after the fact; but in the writing process, that song line was more a haunting that wouldn’t allow me to let it go.
Lyric essays too are largely anti-rational. Though whatever you don’t end up cutting becomes a craft choice, you have to be willing to let the weird, the unexpected, the irrational roam through your early drafts and stay when they need to.
WOW: As creative nonfiction editor of the Atticus Review, you receive hundreds of submissions each year. What are the trends you’re seeing in lyric essay, as it becomes more widely recognized and understood as a unique subgenre of CNF?
Chauna: One trend I’ve noticed is an increasing use of numbers as an organizing form. Sometimes it’s an intentional list form (which has to really work to work), but often there seems little reason for the form other than a lazy way to write in fragments. I’ve questioned authors about using numbers, i.e., Why twenty-three versus ten versus five sections in this essay? And when the answer is, “That’s just how it came out,” that’s not good enough, not if the essay is truly finished. Numbers draw attention to themselves, and I still believe that form is content; and meaningless form does a disservice to even strong, interesting content. One writer told me that she wrote that way, so readers could keep the different points clear in their minds; but if that’s the case, then either this writer didn’t trust her readers or the writing itself wasn’t doing its work. You should never need to lean on form; it should feel essential, a part of the essay that can’t be changed without changing the essay.
Hermit crab essays are on the rise, too; the University of Nebraska Press recently published what I think is the first book devoted to that form within the genre. When an essay successfully plays at being another form, like a questionnaire or a syllabus (or a job resume!), it can be fun to write and read and most importantly, insightful about the subject and the form, too.
“I’m looking for work that catches me with its deep love for language and the skill of suspenseful revelation (of an event or a turn of mind), one that leaves me a little breathless at the end, aching.”
WOW: What are you looking for in creative nonfiction submissions to the Atticus Review?
Chauna: I’m looking for work that catches me with its deep love for language and the skill of suspenseful revelation (of an event or a turn of mind), one that leaves me a little breathless at the end, aching.
WOW: What do you wish you’d see more of?
Chauna: Work that takes risks with form, a category into which lyric essays often fall. I should note, though, that we’re an online journal, and some forms work better on a printed page than with scrolling or mobile device formatting. Also, I want more essays with depth, essays that mean on multiple levels. Too often we get one-dimensional memoirs or essays that amount to: “This happened to me, and I feel [angry, sad, relieved, etc.] about it.” That can work when the event or the response or the voice/perspective is extraordinary or unusual, but that’s not the case for most of us. The deep and unexpected connections we make between external events/observation and internal transformation are what we crave as writers and readers, too.
WOW: How does a writer catch your attention?
Chauna: Voice is always what grabs me. Even in pieces I eventually reject because they aren’t quite right for us or are a draft or two from really being finished, I hold and re-read work because of a strong sense of voice that makes me believe in the realness of a particular consciousness experiencing something in a particular time and reflecting on it.
“The lyric essay is impossible to pin down, and that’s much of its appeal.”
WOW: For any writer working on lyric essays, what’s the more salient advice you could give?
Chauna: Probably that advice given to every writer because it’s still such solid advice: read widely in the form. The lyric essay is impossible to pin down, and that’s much of its appeal; so allowing yourself to be swept away in the worlds of successful explorations in this form will teach you how language works by accumulation and association. I’m also a fan of imitation. Copy a line or a paragraph by hand on the page; then do it again, following the rhythm and syntax of the original, but infusing it with your own subject matter(s)...then just keep going in that vein and see where it leads until it feels wholly yours.
Perhaps because lyric essays are “impossible to pin down,” they are more completely subjective than other forms of writing. A finished piece should feel “wholly yours;” but in a reader’s hands, the essay might also feel wholly theirs. These essays are similar to poetry in this way. The writing goes far beyond story into realms only the precision of language in both sound and meaning can create. Each reader will have a different experience, and that experience may or may not align with the writer’s intentions. But, like poems, a finished essay no longer belongs solely to the writer; it also belongs to the reader. And a well-written lyric essay will stick with the reader, like a favorite, cherished verse.
Naomi Kimbell earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Calyx, The Sonder Review, and other literary journals and anthologies.
When she’s not writing, she teaches online creative writing classes for WOW! Women on Writing and sometimes wanders in the woods, across hillsides, through ghost towns, taking photographs and shooting video to create impressionistic films with ambient scores using her essays, invented landscapes, and found sounds.