What’s Missing Here? A Fragmentary, Lyric Essay About Fragmentary, Lyric Essays
“Perhaps the lyric essay is an occasion to take what we typically set aside between parentheses and liberate that content—a chance to reevaluate what a text is actually about. Peripherals as centerpieces. Tangents as main roads.”
Did I say this aloud, perched at the head of the seminar table? We like to pretend there is no head in postmodern academia—decentralized authority and all—but of course there is. Plenty of (symbolic) decapitations, too. The head is the end of the table closest to the board—where the markers live now, where the chalk used to live: closest seat to the site of public inscription, closest seat to the door.
But I might have said this standing alone, in front of the bathroom mirror—pretending my students were there, perched on the dingy white shelves behind the glass: some with bristles like a new toothbrush, some with tablets like the contents of an old prescription bottle. Everything is multivalent now.
(Regardless: I talk to my students in my head, even when I am not sitting at the head of the table.)
“Or perhaps the entire lyric essay should be placed between parentheses,” I say. “Parentheses as the new seams—emphasis on letting them show.”
Once a student asked me if I had ever considered the lyric essay as a kind of transcendental experience. “Like how, you know, transcendentalism is all about going beyond the given or the status quo. And the lyric essay does that, right? It goes beyond poetry in one way, and it goes beyond prose in another. It’s kind of mystical, right?”
There is no way to calculate—no equation to illustrate—how often my students instruct and delight me. HashtagHoratianPlatitude. HashtagDelectandoPariterqueMonendo.
“Like this?” I asked, with a quick sketch in my composition book:
“I don’t know, man. I don’t think of math as very mystical,” the student said, leaning—not slumping—as only a young sage can.
“But you are saying the lyric essay can raise other genres to a higher power, right?”
Horace would have dug this moment: our elective humanities class spilling from the designated science building. Late afternoon light through a lattice of wisp-white clouds. In the periphery: Lone iguana lumbering across the lawn. Lone kayak slicing through the brackish water. Some native trees cozying up to some non-native trees, their roots inevitably commingling. Hybrids everywhere, as far as the eye could see, and then beyond that, ad infinitum.I often think about the view from the empty deep end of the dry swimming pool when I talk about lyric essays.
You’ll never guess what happened next: My student high-fived me—like this was 1985, not 2015; like we were players on the same team (and weren’t we, after all?)—set & spike, pass & dunk, instruct & delight.
“Right!” A memory can only fade or flourish. That palm-slap echoes in perpetuity.
“The hardest thing you may ever do in your literary life is to write a lyric essay—that feels finished to you; that you’re comfortable sharing with others; that you’re confident should be called a lyric essay at all.”
“Is this supposed to be a pep talk?” Bless the skeptics, for they shall inherit the class.
I raise my hand in the universal symbol for wait. In this moment, I remember how the same word signifies both wait and hope in Spanish. (Esperar.) I want my students to do both, simultaneously.
“Hear me out. If you make this attempt, humbly and honestly and with your whole heart, the next hardest thing you may ever do in your literary life is to stop writing lyric essays.”
My hand is still poised in the wait position, which is identical, I realize, to the stop position. Yet wait and stop are not true synonyms, are they? And hope and stop are verging on antonyms, aren’t they? (Body language may be the most inscrutable language of all.)
“So you think lyric essays are addictive or something?” Bless the skeptics—bless them again—for they shall inherit the page.
“Hmm … generative, let’s say. The desire to write lyric essays seems to multiply over time. We continue to surprise ourselves when we write them, and then paradoxically, we come to expect to be surprised.”
(Esperar also means “to expect”—doesn’t it?)
When I tell my students they will remember lines and images from their college workshops for many years—some, perhaps, for the rest of their lives—I’m not sure if they believe me. Here’s what I offer as proof:
In the city where I went to school, there were twenty-six parallel streets, each named with a single letter of the alphabet. I had walked down five of them at most. When I rode the bus, I never knew precisely where I was going or coming from. I didn’t have a car or a map or a phone, and GPS hadn’t been invented yet. In so many ways, I was porous as a sieve.
Our freshman year a girl named Rachel wrote a self-referential piece—we didn’t call them lyric essays yet, though it might have been—set at the intersection of “Division” and “I.”
How poetic! I thought. What a mind-puzzle—trying to imagine everything the self could be divisible by:
I / Parents I/ Religion I/ Scholarships I/ Work Study I/ Vocation I/ Desire
Months passed, maybe a year. One night I glanced out the window of my roommate’s car. We were idling at a stoplight on a street I didn’t recognize. When I looked up, I saw the slim green arrow of a sign: Division Avenue.
“It’s real,” I murmured.
“What do you mean?” Becky asked, fiddling with the radio.
I craned my neck for a glimpse of the cross street. It couldn’t be—and yet—it was!
“This is the corner of Division and I!”
“Just think about it—we’re at the intersection of Division and I!”
The light changed, and Becky flung the car into gear. There followed a pause long enough to qualify as a caesura. At last, she said, “Okay. I guess that is kinda cool.”
Here’s another: I remember how my friend Kara once described the dormer windows in an old house on Capitol Hill. She wrote that they were “wavy-gazy and made the world look sort of fucked.”
I didn’t know yet that you could hyphenate two adjectives to make a deluxe adjective—doubling the impact of the modifier, especially if the two hinged words were sonically resonant. (And “wavy-gazy,” well—that was straight-up assonant.)“Is this your roundabout way of telling us the lyric essay isn’t actually more art than science?”
Plus: I didn’t know that profanity was permissible in our writing, even sometimes apropos. At this time, I knew the meaning of the word apropos but didn’t even know how to spell it.
One day I would see apropos written down but not recognize it as the word I knew in context. I would pronounce it “a-PROP-ose,” then wonder if I had stumbled upon a typo.
Like many things, I don’t remember when I learned to connect the spelling of apropos with its meaning, or when I learned per se was not “per say,” or when I realized I sometimes I thought of Kara and Becky and Rachel when I should have been thinking about my boyfriend—even sometimes when I was with my boyfriend. (He was majoring in English, too, but I found his diction far less memorable overall.)
“The lyric essay is not thesis-driven. It’s not about making an argument or defending a claim. You’re writing to discover what you want to say or why you feel a certain way about something. If you’re bothered or beguiled or in a state of mixed emotion, and the reason for your feelings doesn’t seem entirely clear, the lyric essay is an opportunity to probe that uncertain place and see what it yields.”
Sometimes they are undergrads, twenty bodies at separate desks, all facing forward while I stand backlit by the shiny white board. Sometimes they are grad students, only twelve, clustered around the seminar table while I sit at the undisputed, if understated, head. It doesn’t matter the composition of the room or the experience of the writers therein. This part I say to everyone, every term, and often more than once. My students will all need a lot of reminding, just as I do.
(A Post-it note on my desk shows an empty set. Outside it lurks the question—“What’s missing here?”—posed in my smallest script.)
“Most writing asks you to be vigilant in your noticing. Pay attention is the creative writer’s credo. We jot down observations, importing concrete nouns from the external world. We eavesdrop to perfect our understanding of dialogue, the natural rhythms of speech. Smells, tastes, textures—we understand it’s our calling to attend to them all. But the lyric essay asks you to do something even harder than noticing what’s there. The lyric essay asks you to notice what isn’t.”
I went to dances and dried my corsages. I kept letters from boys who liked me and took the time to write. Later, I wore a locket with a picture of a man inside. (I believe they call this confirmation bias.) The locket was shaped like a heart. It tarnished easily, which only tightened my resolve to keep it clean and bright. I may still have it somewhere. My heart was full, not empty, you see. I was responsive to touch. (We always held hands.) I was thoughtful and playful, attentive and kind. I listened when he confided. I laughed at his jokes. We kissed in public and more than kissed in private. (I wasn’t a tease.) When I cried at the sad parts in movies, he always wrapped his arm around. For years, I saved everything down to the stubs, but even the stubs couldn’t save me from what I couldn’t say.
“Subtract what you know from a text, and there you have the subtext.” Or—as my mother used to say, her palms splayed wide—Voilà!
I am stunned as I recall that I spoke French as a child. My mother was fluent. She taught me the French words alongside the English words, and I pictured them like two parallel ladders of language I could climb.
Sometimes in the grocery store, we would speak only French to each other, to the astonishment of everyone around. It was our little game. We enjoyed being surprising, but the subtext was being impressive or even perhaps being exclusionary. That’s what we really enjoyed.Growing up, like many kids who loved a class called language arts, I internalized a false binary between what we call art and what we call science.
When Dee, the woman in the blue apron with the whitest hair I had ever seen—a shock of white, for not a trace of color remained—smiled at us in the Albertson’s checkout line, I curtsied the way my ballet teacher taught me, clasped the bag in my small hand, and murmured Merci. My good manners were not lost in translation.
“Lyric essays are often investigations of the Underneath—what only seems invisible because it must be excavated, brought to light. We cannot, however, take this light-bringing lightly.”
When I was ten years old, my parents told me they were going to dig up our backyard and replace the long green lawn with a swimming pool. This had always been my mother’s dream, even in Seattle. She assumed it was everyone else’s dream, too, even in Seattle. Bulldozers came. The lilac bushes at the side of the house were uprooted and later replanted. Portions of the fence were taken down and later rebuilt. It took a long time to dig such a deep hole. Neighbors complained about the noise. Someone came one night and slashed the bulldozer’s tires. (Another slow-down. Another set-back.) All year we lived in ruins.
Eventually, the hole was finished, the dirt covered over with a smooth white surface. I remember when the workmen said I could walk into the pool if I wanted—there was no water yet, just empty space, more walled emptiness than I had ever encountered before. In my sneakers with the cat at my heels, I traipsed down the steps into the shallow end, then descended the gradual hill toward the deep end. There I stood at the would-be bottom, where the water would someday soon cover my head by a four full feet. When I looked up, the sky seemed so much further away. The cat laid down on the drain, which must have been warmed by the sun.
I didn’t know about lyric essays then, but I often think about the view from the empty deep end of the dry swimming pool when I talk about lyric essays now. The space felt strange and somehow dangerous, yet there was also an undeniable allure. I tell my students it’s hard work plumbing what’s under the surface. We don’t always know what we’ll find.
That day in the pool, I looked up and saw a ladder dangling from the right-side wall. It was so high I couldn’t reach it, even if I stretched my arms. I would need water to buoy me even to the bottom rung. For symmetry, I thought, there should have been a second ladder on the left-side wall. And that’s when I remembered, suddenly, with a shock as white as Dee’s hair: I couldn’t recall a word of French anymore! I had lost my second ladder. When did this happen? I licked my dry lips. I tried to wet my parched mouth. How did this happen? There I was, standing inside a literal absence, noticing that a whole language had vanished from my sight, my ear, my grasp.
I live in Florida now. I have for seven years. In fact, I moved to Florida to teach the lyric essay, audacious as that sounds, but hear me out. I think “lyric essay” is the name we give to something that resists being named. It’s the placeholder for an ultimately unsayable thing.“Do you ever look at a word like, say, parenthesis, and suddenly you can’t stop seeing the parts of it?”
After ten years of teaching many literatures—some of which approached the threshold of the lyric essay but none of which passed through—I came to Florida to pursue this layered, voluminous, irreducible thing. I came to Florida to soak in it.
“That’s a sub-genre of creative nonfiction, right?” Is it?
“You’re moving to the sub-tropics, aren’t you?” I am!
On the interview, my soon-to-be boss drove me around Miami for four full hours. The city itself is a layered, voluminous, irreducible thing. I love it irrationally and without hope of mastery, which in the end might be the only way to love anything.
My soon-to-be boss said, “We have found ourselves without a memoirist on the faculty.” I liked him instantly. I liked the word choice of “found ourselves without,” the sweet and the sad commingling.
He told me, “Students want to learn how to write about their lives, their experiences—not just casually but as an art form, with attention to craft.” (I nodded.) “But there’s another thing, too. They’re asking about—” and here he may have lowered his voice, with that blend of reverent hesitancy most suited to this subject—“the lyrical essay.” (I nodded again.) “So, you’re familiar with it, then?”
“Yes,” I smiled, “I am.”
Familiar was a good word, perhaps the best word, to describe my relationship with this kind of writing. The lyric essay and I are kin. I know the lyric essay in a way that feels as deep and intuitive, as troubling and unreasonable, as my own family ties have become.
“Can you give me some context for the lyrical essay?” he asked. At just this moment, we may have been standing on the sculpted grounds of the Biltmore Hotel. Or: We may have been traffic-jammed in the throbbing heart of Brickell. Or: We may have been crossing the spectacular causeway that rises then plunges onto Key Biscayne.
“Do you ever look at a word like, say, parenthesis, and suddenly you can’t stop seeing the parts of it?”
“How do you mean?” he asked.
“Like how there’s a parent there, in parenthesis, and how parentheses can sometimes seem like a timeout in the middle of a sentence—something a parent might sentence a child to?”
“Okay,” he said. He seemed to be mulling, which I took as a good sign.
“You see, a lyric essayist might notice something like that and then might use the nature of parentheses themselves to guide an exploration of a parent-child relationship.”
I wanted to say something brilliant, to win him over right then and there, so he would go back to the other creative writers and say, “It’s her! We must hire her!”“Can you give me some context for the lyrical essay?”
But brilliance is hard to produce on command. I could only say what I thought I knew. “This is an approach to writing that seeks out the smallest door—sometimes a door found within words themselves—and uses that door to access the largest”—I may have said hardest—“rooms.”
I heard it then, the low rumble at the back of his throat: “Hmm.” And then again: “Hmm.”
Years before Overstock.com, people shopped at surplus stores—or at least my mother did, and my mother was the first people I knew. (She was only one, true, but she seemed like a multitude.)
The Sears Surplus Store in Burien, Washington, was a frequent destination of ours. Other Sears stores shipped their excess merchandise there, where it was piled high, rarely sorted, and left to the customers who were willing to rummage. So many bins to plunge into! So many shelves laden with re-taped boxes and dented cans! (Excess seemed to include items missing pieces or found to be defective.) Orphaned socks. Shoes without laces. A shower nozzle Bubble-Wrapped with a hand-written tag—AS IS.
I liked the alliterative nature of the store’s name, but I did not like the store itself, which was grungy and stale, a trial for the senses. There were unswept floors, patches of defiled carpet, sickly yellow lights that flickered and whined, and in the distance, always the sound of something breaking.
“We don’t even know what we’re looking for!” I’d grouse to my mother rather than rolling up my sleeves and pitching in. “There’s too much here already, and they just keep adding more and more.”
I see now my mother was my first role model for what it takes to make a lyric essay. The context was all wrong, but the meaning was right, precisely. She handed me her purse to hold, then wiped the sweat that pooled above her lip. “If you don’t learn how to be a good scavenger,” my mother grinned—oh, she was in her element then!—“how do you ever expect to find a worthy treasure?”
Facebook Post, February 19, 2016, 11:58 am:
Reading lyric essays at St. Thomas University this morning. In meaningless and/or profound statistics—also known as lyric math—the current priest-to-iguana ratio on campus is 6 to 2 in favor of the priests. Somehow, though, the iguanas are winning.
An aspiring writer comments: Lyric math I love your brain!
I reply: May your love of lyric essays likewise grow, exponentially!
Growing up, like many kids who loved a class called language arts, I internalized a false binary (to visualize: an arbitrary wall) between what we call art and what we call science. “Yet here we are today,” I tell my students, palms splayed wide, “members of the College of Arts & Sciences. Notice it’s an ampersand that joins them, aligns them. Art and science playing together on the same team.”
When they share, my students report similar divisions in their own educational histories. They say they learned early on to separate activities for the “right brain” (creative) from activities for the “left brain” (analytical). When they prepared for different sections of their standardized tests, they almost always found the verbal questions “fun,” the quantitative questions “hard.”
“Must these two experiences be mutually exclusive?” I ask. “Because I’m here to tell you the lyric essay is the hardest fun you can have.” They laugh because they are beginning to believe me.
My students also learned early on to assign genders to their disciplines of study—“girl stuff” versus “boy stuff.” They recount how the girl stuff of spelling and sentence-making and story-telling, while undeniably pleasurable, was treated by some parents and teachers alike as comparably frivolous to the boy stuff, with its ledgers and numbers and chemicals that burbled in a cup. In the end, everyone, regardless of their future majors, came to believe that boy stuff was serious—meaningful math, salient science—better than girl stuff, and ultimately more valuable.
“It’s not just an arbitrary wall either,” they say, borrowing my metaphor. “You see it on campus, too—where the money goes, where the investments are made.” I’m not arguing. My students, deft noticers that they are, cite a leaky roof and shingles falling from the English building, while the university boasts “comprehensive upgrades” and “state-of-the-art facilities” in buildings where biology and chemistry are housed. They suggest we are living with divisions that cannot be ignored. They are right, of course, right down to their corpus callosums.
“So,” I say, “one mission for the lyric essayist is to identify and render on the page these kinds of incongruities, inequalities, and by doing so, we can challenge them. We can shine a probing light into places certain powers that be may not want us to look. Don’t ever let anyone tell you lyric essays can’t be political.”
The students are agitated, in a good way. They’re thinking about lyric essays as epistles, lyric essays as petitions and caveats and campaigns.
“To do our best work,” I say, “we need to mobilize all our resources—not only of structure and form but even the nuances of language itself. We need to mine every lexicon available to us, not just words we think of as ‘poet-words.’ In a lyric essay, we can bring multiple languages and kinds of discourse together.”
Someone raises a hand. “Is this your roundabout way of telling us the lyric essay isn’t actually more art than science?”
I shake my head. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure if the lyric essay is more art than science. I’m not even sure the lyric essay belongs under the genre-banner of creative nonfiction at all.”
“Well, how would you classify it then?” someone asks without raising a hand.
“Mystery,” I say, and now I surprise myself with this sudden stroke of certainty, like emerging from heavy fog into sun. Some of my students giggle, but all the ears in the room have perked up. “I think lyric essays should be catalogued with the mysteries.” I am even more certain the second time I say it.
“So, just to clarify—do you mean the whodunnits or like, the paranormal stuff?”
“Yes,” I smile. “Exactly.”
From A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, edited by Randon Billings Noble, courtesy University of Nebraska Press.