I started my next Creative Non-fiction class this winter and the first assignment designated to each student is to write a lyric essay. But what is a lyric essay? After talking to fellow students I learned that I was not the only person trying to decipher its structure. A lyric essay is not something that can be pin-pointed such as the memoir, a travelogue, or a short fiction piece. In fact, the more I read about the lyric essay, the more confused I felt. Unlike a glosa or a sonnet, a lyric essay has no specified form. However, by taking the leap into my own writing and allowing the words to guide me, I can now share with you a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
- Personal Essay Transformed
Think of a lyric essay as a personal essay. The personal essay is meant to interweave snippets of memoir in relation to specific research on a topic which is interconnected. Look at the non-fiction piece, Chimera, by Gerald N. Callahan. His fragments of research on the immune system correlate to his personal experiences with memory, such that mannerisms, smells, or images can recall memories of people we have lost in our lives. Specifically, his ex-wife. The lyric essay takes on the same elements of the personal essay, but transforms them poetically.
- Poetic Language
Unlike the personal essay, a lyric essay uses more poetic language such as alliteration, rhythm, and above anything, the metaphor. The lyric essay still uses the elements of all non-fiction and fictional pieces: characterization, voice, and tone, but the words chosen become more specific to what you would find in a poem. Each individual word carries more weight.
Between all the interwoven pieces of a lyric essay runs a metaphor connecting and giving meaning to each fragment. In extended cases, the use of conceit is considered to be a better fit as a conceit is an extended metaphor running from the beginning of a piece to the end. The metaphor, or conceit, often covers a topic which is deemed philosophical, a question folding in on itself, sometimes even unanswerable. However, the writer must still remember to take a step forward. There is a reason to writer and connect each of these moments. This is what the reader needs to be able to decipher, even if it is not bluntly stated, as it often is not.
Although no writer is forced to stick to this structure, I have found that most lyric essays are written in fragments, generally numbered, and organized by association. This means the fragments do not need to be presented on a linear time line. In fact, the beauty of the lyric essay is in its non-linear format.
Like poetry, the lyric essay is knitted together to follow a pattern of association. When one fragment shows a specific image in question, the next fragment gives the answer while simultaneously transforming the first question into a new question to be answered later. Or to look at it more poetically, each fragment is strung together similarly to a poem where one concrete image is linked to the metaphor which develops into the next image portrayed. The writer and the reader should be able to string each fragment or moment together fluidly.