From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 5

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.”



  1. marcia aldrich on April 25, 2012 at 5:06 pm


    I wish I had time to read your blog posts each time you post. This one caught my eye and I said: go ahead and read it, see what he says. Very helpful in class exercise and I may well try it out next fall. Many thanks,

    Best, Marcia

    • Lee Martin on April 25, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      Oh, Marcia, I know exactly what you mean about not having time to read everything we wish we could read. I appreciate your stopping by for this post, and I’m very grateful for your comment. This is a new writing exercise I came up with, so, if you end up using it, I’d be curious to know the results. Take care.

  2. Richard Gilbert on April 26, 2012 at 12:39 am

    Thanks for another great exercise, Lee—and, most of all, for a great definition of the lyric essay. It’s a slippery concept, the lyric, and I for one am a sucker for new and better definitions. That’s partly because I see so many disparate essays claimed as lyric, including ones I’d call narrative, classical, or even reportorial.

  3. Lee Martin on April 26, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Thanks, Richard. As you know, one of the things that excites me about cnf is the elasticity of the form and the way it’s always reinventing itself. The danger with the lyric form is that some writers can believe that “anything goes.” Experimentation for the sake of experimentation. A rebellion against the confines of the narrative or a progression of logical thought. There should still be a happy union between form and content. The fragmented form of a lyric essay should allow an expression of material that another form wouldn’t. A lyric done well is more akin to a poem, and it’s a very challenging form.

  4. […] Writing Exercise, Week 5 This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 3 From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 4 → […]

  5. Kelly Kathleen on December 3, 2013 at 8:34 am

    I tried this out on my upper lever undergrad workshop, and it made everyone discombobulated—in a good way, in a pushing beyond the comfort zone way. Before sharing just about everyone felt the need to preface, “I don’t think I did this right,” (including me, but as the leader had to stalwartly go forth without hem nor haw). But then the results were surprisingly good. So, a great exercise for getting out of the “and then” mode of writing. Thanks!

    • Lee Martin on December 4, 2013 at 8:36 pm

      Hi, Kelly! Thanks so much for reading my blog and for trying this exercise with your students. I’m glad to hear that it led to good results.

  6. rubber wristband on November 12, 2016 at 2:13 am

    Hey veey interesting blog!

  7. Leah on June 4, 2020 at 6:17 am

    Hello! I’m finding your blog post after querying how to critique a lyric essay. This post was so helpful! But also – any tips as to what we should keep in mind in a workshop setting? In particular, a workshop where most of the writers are focused on traditional essay or memoir? I’m at a loss and want to offer a careful critique. I can grasp the voice of the piece, but in terms of structure, what would we offer? If anything? The structure is more akin to multiple prose poems with seemingly (to me!) random line breaks. Should that just be left on the table in a workshop?

    • Lee Martin on June 4, 2020 at 11:52 am

      Dear Leah. Such an excellent question. Lyric essays do indeed demand a slightly different workshop approach. When it comes to structure, it’s really more like talking about a poem. You might want to pay attention to the leaps and associations between images, metaphors, etc. as the accretion of such leads the writer to a place of resonance. You might also pay attention to what’s being expressed in the silences of the line and section breaks. A lyric essay is usually a gathering of fragmented images, details, ideas, etc. and the arrangement if extremely important. Because this image is next to this image, for example, something gets said, even if it’s said in what’s not said. I hope this helps.

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