The poet and essayist, Sydney Lea, offered some thoughts on what he called “the lyrical essay” in an article that appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle in February, 1999. This was early on in the explosion of the lyric essay that has continued with the work of such writers as Ander Monson, John D’Agata, Jenny Boully, Eula Biss, and many others, but Lea’s thoughts on how an essayist works by the art of indirection, dealing with seemingly disparate particulars, as he or she writes toward a point of connection, are still extremely relevant to this form as it’s practiced today.
Lea talked about the importance of having no predetermined subject, only a handful of particular details that have lodged in the essayist’s consciousness. He pointed out how the lyric essayist does better when he or she doesn’t know where the essay is headed so that observations have the feel of spontaneity. The meditative impulse of the essay places an emphasis on the writer’s mind in action with perception unfolding in the act of writing, an act of what Lea called “unanticipated discovery.” He stressed the importance of beginning with particulars before leaping into meditation, contemplation, musing, reminiscing, preaching, worrying, arguing, and perhaps even pontificating. We begin, in other words, with what the poet, Miller Williams, calls “the furniture of the world.” “I find that certain things have lodged themselves in my consciousness,” Lea wrote, “and now demand meditation, that they have ‘subjected’ me.” The lyric essayist, as Lea pointed out, seeks to connect a number of images or moments that won’t leave him or her alone. In the process of writing, as Lea referenced Robert Frost, “we discover what we didn’t know we knew.”
With the lyric impulse in mind, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.
1. Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”
2. Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.
3. Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”
4. Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”
5. Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”
6. Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”
The lyric impulse requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.
Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. For examples of the form, please consider these two short essays: Michael Martone’s “Some Space” and Amy Butcher’s “Still Things.”