The Lyrical Essay

A Brief Primer to Form and Function

4 mins read
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The lyrical essay has become one of the most popular forms of nonfiction in recent years. This resurgence is due in part to the way the form allows writers to explore their subjects in a more personal and intimate way. Writers like Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, and Jeannie Vanasco have all used the lyrical essay to great effect, and their work has inspired a new generation of writers to experiment with the form, making it one of the greatest, but also most difficult techniques to master. Publications like The Believer, n+1, McSweeney’s, and The Paris Review have also given the lyrical essay a platform in recent years, allowing it to become one of the most aspirational narrative forms for writing. But what are the characteristics that make a lyrical essay so interesting and meaningful? And how can writers use the form to its fullest potential?

What Is the Lyrical Essay?

In 1997, John D’Agata was an editor at Seneca Review, and offered, along with his mentor, poet Deborah Tall, a definition of the lyrical essay:

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.

Of its many attributes, the lyrical essay is most often found to be a collection of fragments employing vibrant sensory details to construct a sequence of pictures. Think of your Instagram feed, where each block tells a different story, but combined, they likely hold a larger narrative about you. In the lyrical essay, though, each image depicts a portion of information and is then separated by two spaces, an asterisk, or the numbers to indicate a break in the overall narrative. Lyrical essays are also suggestive, meaning the writer leaves the meaning open to interpretation and for the reader to think about the words and emotions expressed in the piece.

Lyrical essays are also defined by their highly personal and intimate approach to the subject matter being discussed. This means that these essays often take on the first-person perspective. This immediacy allows the writer to explore their subject in a more emotive and intimate way, which can be both a strength and a weakness of the form. On the one hand, this level of intimacy allows the writer to really get under the skin of their subject and to explore its nuances in a way that would not be possible from a more detached perspective. On the other hand, this level of intimacy can sometimes make the essay feel solipsistic or self-indulgent, and it is important for writers to be aware of this potential.

Lyrical essays can also take on a form that allows for a great deal of lyrical, or musical, language. In fact, most people would say the language is more poetry than prose given how the writer uses the language tends to refrain from leveraging pedestrian verbiage and scenery, and instead seeks to use more literary language that bends the meaning of the structure, much like poetry does. The best lyrical essays also make use of tension and release in order to keep the reader engaged. This can be done in a number of ways, but often involves starting with a more lyrical, flowery section before moving into a more concrete and factual section. The tension between the two sections should be resolved by the end of the essay, leaving the reader with a sense of resolution, but that isn’t always necessary, especially in the nonfiction genre.

One of the most important things to remember about lyrical essays is that, above all else, the focus should be on the subject at hand. This might seem like a given, but it’s important to remember that, because of the intimate and personal nature of the form, it can be easy to get lost in the language and forget about the subject, which means the readers will likely do the same and get lost in the prose without taking anything away.

Remember that lyrical essays tend to use the same tools as poetry, and according to William Carlos Williams, a poem is “a small (or large) machine made out of words,” meaning it should have a clear purpose and function and not get lost in a garden of flowery lyrical flatulence. Put simply, remember to put the subject first, above all else, because within the subject is a message the reader should do some thinking to understand but not because of a linguistic obstacle the writer put there to satisfy an unrestrained ego.

The Importance of Purpose

As mentioned before, the intimate and personal nature of the lyrical essay can sometimes make it feel solipsistic or self-indulgent, making it all the more important to be aware of the potential pitfalls of the form when writing a lyrical essay. To avoid these pitfalls, the essay should have a clear purpose and focus and leverage language for that purpose. When I was taking my M.F.A., one mentor regularly referenced how she would paste a sticky note above her monitor with her essay’s purpose written so she could reference it at all times. Being reminded of purpose helps to detract from the possibility of falling into mind traps that lead nowhere, and given that lyrical essays can be extremely difficult to write in the best of circumstances, falling into a line of thought that fails to lead anywhere only fosters frustration.

When reading or writing a lyrical essay, it also helps to be aware of the potential for the essay to feel disjointed or unfocused if the lyrical and factual sections are not properly balanced, meaning that the essay should have a clear structure that guides the reader through the various elements, even if the scenes in the structure are disjointed. For example, the opening scene might be a more lyrical description of the subject, followed by a fact-based section that provides context for the rest of the essay, followed by a completely different scene that initially feels disjointed in its location until you see the writer grounding the section into the larger narrative somewhere in that section. As you can probably see, this form of writing can be quite challenging, but also quite rewarding if done well.

Examples

Speaking of writing great lyrical essays, I am linking this article to a 2018 LitHub article that lists five writers who blur the boundary between the essay and poetry. Reading these can help in assessing and developing an individual aesthetic and maybe even be permissive for appreciating the form, or at least understand it a little more.

Anthony Clemons

Anthony Clemons is the founder and creator of Bard & Prose. He grew up in the Appalachian mountains and served in the Army for nearly 17 years, deploying to both Kuwait and Afghanistan. He attended Columbia University's Teachers College, earning an EdM and MA, and holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. He is taking an MFA in Prose and Poetry from Northwestern University and an MA in English from National University. His work has appeared in Northern Appalachia Review, Silver Rose Magazine, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. Like every writer, he is at work on his first book.

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