Leaping Before You Look: The Lyric Essay

Christoper Citro

Lyric essays often present a mosaic, a collage, a braid of material that does not lend itself to a more traditional essay treatment. Rather than knowing beforehand what she wants to say, the lyric essayist instead engages with the material in a more open-ended, exploratory manner—similar to how poems are often constructed—and by engaging with the process of writing, makes discoveries along the way, which hopefully the reader can take an active part in.

As a catch-all term for the modern experimental essay, lyric essays run the gamut from poetic essays to essayistic poems. In the center of the bell curve for the genre are essays constructed through fragments, which proceed via association of imagery, juxtaposition of the factual and personal with the lyrical and imaginative, toward some larger sense which builds up in the mind of the patient reader.

"The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form."

-Deborah Tall & John D'Agata

Let's Get Started

1. List some concrete aspects of our contemporary life.

Starting with basic to more specific. An example list might look like:

  • supermarkets

  • Facebook

  • cell phones

  • mortgages

  • diets

  • restaurants

  • pet obedience classes

  • wide screen TVs

  • taxes

  • hot yoga

  • microwave food

  • traffic, etc.

Anything that pops into your head. Perhaps something suggested by an experience you've had recentl e.g. eating at that new Indian restaurant next to Costco last night.

2. Choose one and riff on it with memories of your relationship to the topic.

Memories over time, when you were young, last week, points in between. If one topic runs dry switch to another. Allow yourself not only to write about factual things (e.g. when I was little we went to restaurants as a family usually mainly for Sunday breakfast) but also to loosen the literal reins and drift into lyrical flights of fancy, e.g. each restaurant a bull ring where I battled the plates that could eat my face, spears falling from the lights above the table, bottles of blood and mustard staring back at me.

3. Do som research. 

While you're in the process of drafting these various bits, real and imagined, Google the topic and see what comes up; visit a library, find the section where there are books on that topic, pull a few volumes and explore at random what you find. Do some self-research: look at old photos, letters/texts, call people and ask them what they remember, do a search in your email on relevant nouns, see what you can dig up from your own past.

4. Put all these fragments into one huge document.

Gather more material than you will need. When you find sections that begin to speak interestingly to other sections, put these together. Weed out the bits that don't resonate with other bits or which lead nowhere interesting. Aim to discover  some second, underlying theme that you didn't intend to write about, e.g. perhaps your exploration of restaurants actually leads you to start thinking about family or trust or fear.

5. Craft a lyric essay.

An essay that takes you and your reader on a journey from the simple concrete theme you started writing about, through facts, memories, poetic flights of fancy, into a new realm, one you never intended consciously to write about.

Note: Don't try to explain everything for the reader, don't connect all the dots, don't revise away uncomfortable discoveries, ambiguities, and mysteries. Construct a journey for the reader to take, and for which the journey itself, rather than making some singular point, is the most important thing.