Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

Reporting from the 2011 AWP conference in Washington, D.C., I’ll be posting notes and tidbits from panels on writing, editing and publishing; news from the book room; and the thoughts that hit me late in the night.

Tonight’s post comes from the Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay panel. Here’s the description:

The lyric essay gives writers the license to experiment–to play with language in fresh and surprising ways–but if this playfulness lacks intensity the lyric essay can become a game, or worse, an idle exercise. What do writers do to animate the form so that it not only enjoys the freedom to explore but achieves the level of passion and intelligence we expect from all great writing? A panel of writers will consider the question and offer concrete suggestions.

Rebecca McClanahan started us off with her 13 Ways of Looking at Lyric Essay in 15 Minutes. Here they are in bold with my own notes following:

1. Something like music in my head. The lyric should have a musicality, or a focus on musicality, a focus on the sound of the word, the words.

2. Beauty is as beauty does. Don’t mistake beautiful writing for good writing. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

3. Close cover AFTER striking. Rub two seemingly different things together and see what sparks. Her example: an essay that begins with a quote by Aristotle and a first line that reads: Aristotle is wrong. Basically, create friction in the language.

4. Lyric essay as time travel. Move in time – from here to then, from when to now, and back again.

5. How many “I”s does it take to change an essay? Use them all – the “I” of then, the “I” of now, the “I” of maybe.

6. Caution: contents under pressure. Compression is important. Remember that every word matters.

7. Say it again, Sam. Don’t forget the power of repeated phrases, sounds, mantras, repeated loops in narrative.

8. Take a breath. Remember silence. Music exists only because of the silence between sounds.

9. Right here, right now OR The Luminous Whereabouts of Horse. Immediacy is everything. The lyric essay should illustrate a mind discovering its subject – even as the words appear on the page.

10. Ride the train. Stay with a thought, stay with the language, all the way to meaning.

11. Imagine there’s no heaven or hell. There is greatness in speculation. Feel free to wonder, to imagine, accept the gift of PERHAPS.

12. Go ahead, wear the crazy hat. The lyric essay, says McClanahan, is especially forgiving of odd ideas and structure. Take advantage of it.

13. Get out while the getting’s good. The READER completes the essay. Resist the urge to wrap it up, and allow the reader to supply the final lyric.


Kathryn Winograd followed McClanahan with her essay, On White Space & Silence, in which she says basically the following:

White Space:

  • is the mind moving between what is known, not known, and back again
  • delves deeper rather than moving forward
  • is the intersection of conscious & unconscious
  • is what the writer cannot say or does not want to
  • is waiting for word – for any word – to name me into being
  • is the ultimate tension for the lyric essay – what is written on the page versus all that is not
  • emerges shining in its half articulations

This particular discussion excited me because, as a poet, I’m accustomed to thinking of white space – the space on the page that is not taken up with text, the space that is intentionally placed – but it had not occurred to me to consider the ways in which white space might be employed in prose. A fiction writer friend of mine thought it was all hooey. I don’t know…I think there’s something in there.


Finally, Steven Harvey discussed The Unmaking of the Made-Up Self. He defines this “self” as one that nonfiction writers are very aware – the self-assured, perhaps a bit condescending, a bit-too-okay self with which we sometimes begin our new essays (sometimes hold on to throughout the essay). This “made-up self,” according to Harvey, has consequences. And, in case you’re curious, here they are:

  • The invented self places a limit on the upward discovery of the “I”
  • The lyric essay does not rise from the familiar, self-assured part (the made-up part) but from the disintegrating “I”
  • The invented self bends the world to its story
  • The undoing of this made-up self is the work of the lyric essay

Harvey ended by arguing that the “good” lyric essay is one in which the “I” is enlarged by becoming more than itself, one in which the “I” blossoms, not content to have the world shrink to its size.


I attended three different panels on nonfiction today. This was the first of them. What I am most struck by, at the end of the night and working on very little sleep, is the fact that no one really seems to know exactly what to do with this thing we call Creative Nonfiction. I mean, it became really clear to me that each panel had a very different idea about what nonfiction is, should do, wants to be. The rules, rules I had previously thought of as hard and fast, seem blurry and shaky. And the emphasis on language or truth or storytelling or facts really depends on what you’re doing.

My final thought on this panel comes from my notes taken from Robert Root‘s essay. Root was unable to attend due to the blizzard-like conditions in parts of the country. Steven Harvey read Root’s remarks for him. Here’s the gist of it:

The lyric essay (in particular) molds its allegiance to the actual with its passion for the figurative form. It arises from a thorough blurring of distinctions. It grows, organically, out of a union of form and thought.

That’s the report for tonight. Stay tuned for more to come from the 2011 AWP conference in Washington, D.C. This is Gabriel Scala, signing out.

3 thoughts on “Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

  1. Great post…. I’m living vicariously through you since I’m not there, Gabriel. Good stuff about the lyric essay, much of which can apply to a “regular” essay (such as I often write). I especially liked Stephen Harvey on the “undoing of the made up self.” I think this applies to many genres of writing–if we don’t leave room for discovery, our writing becomes formulaic. Good reminder!

    I’m not sure why there’s confusion about creative nonfiction. The genre has been around for a while, setting itself apart from other forms of nonfiction (narrative, journalistic) by its use of many tools of the fiction writer, while staying true to the facts. You say, “the rules seem blurry and shaky,” but maybe it’s just that there are different rules for the different sub-genres within nonfiction.

    Sounds like a lot of great stuff packed into each day. Thanks for keeping us in the loop!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s