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:

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If I Wasn’t Scared Before… Writing Memoir in Genzlinger’s Age

Neil Genzlinger has dropped the bomb. In a supposed review of four memoirs, he goes off on what’s really eating him: the fact that people are writing memoirs at all:

A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.

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Memoir, Schmemoir – Just Write the Damned Thing!

In my “it’s a new year, let’s do something productive” stage, I’ve begun serious work on a memoir.  The plan is to write eight interlocking essays that will also stand on their own – meaning a reader could theoretically read any one essay from the collection and have a complete narrative without needing to read the entire collection while at the same time providing a book-length narrative that is cohesive and engaging when read altogether.  So far, the essays have been roughly outlined, titles have been played with, and the first essay of the collection is in the drafting stages.  Things were moving along just swimmingly until Continue reading

On Giving Up Buford

Another old CNF experiment.  This one was written in the Spring of 2009 and shortly before we did, in fact, give up Buford.  Of course, that didn’t last long, and Buford is back home with us – calmer, gentler, and snoring like a sailor.

We have a bloodhound, Buford. He’s just shy of two years old and has been perhaps the most destructive force in my life since the flash flood I was caught in five years ago in West Africa. I was there for a summer studying Francophone literature and culture. In those sweltering days, everyone watched the sky with a mixture of foreboding and desire. The rains were late. People were dying. I imagine some of the villages blamed us: pink-cheeked strangers snapping up their souls with our Nikons every chance we got. Continue reading

Notes from a Neophyte

“The best work Hemingway ever did was with that shotgun,” says the only Dean sitting amongst us.  You can literally hear the intake of air as I gasp, choke and laugh at the same time. “You did NOT just say that,” I say as I watch the Dean’s face glimmer with an evil pleasure at having shocked me.  A group of us are sitting at a newish and hip Chinese/Japanese fusion restaurant in frigid Omaha, Nebraska.  After sitting through an eight-hour board meeting for a literary foundation on which four of the five of us sit, the mood is jovial and light.  There are three scholars at the table and a married couple who give an extraordinary amount of time and money to the cause simply because they believe in it.   Continue reading

The Animals Inside

I had dinner last night with a guy who told me a hilarious story about his daughter and one fateful Easter Sunday morning.  I woke this morning with that story rumbling around in my head, here’s what came out.  

***

Mike could barely contain his joy while he strategically placed chocolate coins and rabbits wrapped in shiny blue, pink and yellow foil in a line leading from Marysol’s bedroom to the huge Easter basket stashed away behind the couch.  He never would have dreamed seven years ago when his daughter was born and he began making up these little traditions that they would become, in themselves, religious ritual.  Toby padded along next to Mike, sniffing each chocolate and then backing away, obediently, each time his master gently said “No, Toby.  Those aren’t for you.”

When he’d finished, Mike stepped back to inspect his work.  It looked good.  Marysol would be able to find the Easter basket, but not too easily.  Toby took one longing look at the chocolates on the floor and then moved to the back door where he’d found something of greater interest.  He gave his butt a little wiggle and let out a whine to let Mike know that he wanted to go outside.  By the time his master made it to the door, Toby’s excitement was thundering.  Without waiting for the door to swing wide, Toby jammed his body into the opening and went racing through the yard.

“Jesus, Toby!” Mike said a little louder than he’d wanted.  He didn’t want to wake up Marysol before he was ready.  He closed the door against the frigid morning and turned to watch his wife, Isa, enter the room.  Isa hated Easter Sunday.  She headed straight for the coffee pot and then stopped to look around, listening suspiciously.

“Where’s Toby?” she asked, her thick Puerto Rican accent making everything sound like an accusation.

“He’s outside.”

“I hope you made a loud noise first.”

Mike looked at her.  Isa was always making statements filled with riddle and foreboding.  “Why on earth would I make a loud noise?” Mike asked, a bit grumpy that Isa was upsetting his Easter morning planning.

“Because of the animals outside!” Isa said.

Mike opened his mouth to make some sarcastic remark about how, oh yeah, everyone in this little subdivision on Long Island knew about “the animals” lurking out there in the dark, waiting to pounce on Mike’s hundred and ten pound pitbull.  Right.  But before he could formulate just the right jabs, Marysol’s high pitched scream broke his concentration.

“Help me!  HELP!!”  The child was screaming blue bloody murder.  Mike was out of his seat and up the stairs in seconds, scattering and smashing shiny pink footballs under his feet.  For a second, just a split second, Mike stopped outside his daughter’s door, preparing himself for what he was about to see.  He opened the door and within moments gave his daughter’s body a full inspection.  No blood.  No limbs trapped in some contorted position.  The child looked perfectly fine.

She was standing on her bed, her back facing her bedroom door and her father’s flushed and frantic look.  Marysol’s tiny hands were flattened, pressed hard, against the glass of her bedroom window.  She turned her head when her father entered the room, tears flowing freely down her young face, “Toby’s killing the Easter Bunny, papa!  You have to SAVE him!!”

Mike ran to the window.  Sure enough, Toby had a furry mass in his jaws.  He watched, horrified, as Toby snapped his head up and tossed it, twitching and flailing, into the air.  Marysol began screaming again.

***

Mike was halfway into the back yard before he realized he was only wearing a pair of jockey shorts.  Screw it, he thought.  No way this dog kills the freaking Easter bunny while my little girl watches.  Not today, Toby!  Mike stomped over to the dog who was now lying on the ground, his meaty paws encircling the furry lump.  “Hand him over,” Mike said and then took a startled, stumbling step backward.  The dog turned his head at the sound of Mike’s approach.  His teeth were bared, a low, menacing growl was rising from deep in the dog’s throat.  Mike noticed a single drop of blood fall from the dog’s jowls, staining the snow.

“Shit!” Mike turned and looked up, hoping Isa had grabbed the girl and prevented her from witnessing the crime below.  She hadn’t.  Marysol stood where Mike had left her, palms pressed against the glass, her little body rigid with fear, her eyes wide and aging.   “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” Mike cursed under his breath.  He turned his back on the dog and raced back inside the house.

Isa was still sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  “I told you, you should have made a loud noise,” she said.  Mike brushed past her and headed straight for the refrigerator.  Meat, he thought.  I need meat.  He rummaged around for a moment finally putting his hand on two pounds of all beef hot dogs.  Mike gripped the packages and moved toward the door.  “What are you going to do with those hot dogs?” Isa demanded.  Mike brushed past her again, silent, grabbing the shovel before disappearing back into the snow.

Mike moved slowly toward the dog who was eyeing him suspiciously, the low rumble in his throat a steady warning.  He tore open the first package of hot dogs and started tossing them, one by one, into a pile two or three inches from the dog’s nose.  C’mon, you little bastard, he thought.  Don’t make me use this shovel.  The dog bared its teeth and made a slight lunging motion in Mike’s direction.  Suddenly, a thousand years of instinct flooded Mike’s body.  His muscles tensed, he crouched slightly down, not noticing the burning sensation in his feet and ankles from the icy snow on his bare skin.  Mike’s knuckles grew white around the shovel handle.  From the second story window, Marysol screamed.

***
Something was wrong with Toby’s master.  Toby’s nostrils were filled with the scent of his prey.  He’d gutted the rabbit and eaten the still warm entrails.  He wanted to bury the remains, to save them in a secret spot for later, but his master had interrupted the ritual.  He’d been in trouble for digging in the yard before.  But this was different.  The hot dogs were just outside of Toby’s reach.  He’d have to risk losing his kill to get to them.  Still, there was something in his master’s eyes that made Toby nervous.  He tucked his tail in submission and inched on his belly, slowly, away from the rabbit and toward the hot dogs.
In seconds, Toby had forgotten all about the rabbit.  He was standing now, tail still tucked, body still tensed to flee, gobbling down one hot dog after another.  Toby watched his master, out of the corner of his eye, lift the bloody carcass with the shovel and toss it over the fence.  It was a shame to lose such a good kill, but Toby’s master was clearly pleased with him again.  Toby wagged his tail and looked up smiling.
“Good dog,” Mike said.  It was barely audible, almost a sigh.  He leaned the shovel against the house, reminding himself to wash it off before Marysol came outside, and looked at Toby who was finishing off the last of the hot dogs.  Man’s best friend, he thought.  Mike let his eyes trail off behind Toby to the bloody stain in the snow where the rabbit had been sacrificed.  He shivered for the first time as the realization of what he was prepared to do, almost did, washed over him.  Toby sniffed the ground to ensure he hadn’t missed any last scraps of hot dog, trotted to the scrubby pine and lifted his leg to relieve himself.  Mike stood locked in the image of his own fists hacking his dog to bits with the blunt end of a shovel.  Toby came to stand near his master, pushing his head against Mike’s hand.  “Let’s go inside, boy,” Mike said quietly.  As they approached the door, Mike turned and looked out into the yard and let out a loud, guttural yelp.  Isa was wrong.  There were no animals out there lurking in wait.  All the animals were inside.