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. Let’s break down this challenging CNF form and why it might benefit your next creative project.
What is a lyric essay?
The lyric essay combines the autobiographical information of a personal essay with the figurative language and form of poetry. In the lyric essay, the rules of both poetry and prose become suggestions, because the form of the essay is constantly changing.
The lyric essay combines autobiographical writing with the figurative language and form of poetry.
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 prose poem, a list, or even a contrapuntal.
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.
Approaches to writing the lyric essay
This form of literary journalism is so tough 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 by 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.
Want to explore the lyric essay further? See our lyric essay writing course with instructor Gretchen Clark.
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 (repeated use of 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.
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!
Upcoming Nonfiction Writing Courses
The Hero’s Journey For Storytellers
with Gloria Kempton
August 12th, 2020
Structure your story and give it meaning with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.
Let’s Get Personal: The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay
with Margo Perin
August 19th, 2020
Draw inspiration and material from your life experiences or “real life” people you know to craft compelling, publishable personal essays.
Creating the Visual Journal
with Lissa Jensen
August 26th, 2020
Go beyond narrow definitions of “journaling" to include visual images and let writing give what is seen a new voice. Surprise yourself.
How to Firm Up the “Mushy Middle” of Any Story
with Jeff Lyons
August 26th, 2020
Ensure a strong middle throughline for any story. Say goodbye to the "mushy middle," and hello to stories that work.
No More Excuses! Four Weeks to Finish and Submit Your Personal Essay or Short Memoir
with Giulietta Nardone
September 9th, 2020
Join us for this insightful four-week “get the writing done” program, give and receive thoughtful comments from your fellow writers and the instructor, and enjoy heaps of encouragement and writing wisdom along the way.