Preamble Ramble to the Attached Collage: “How to be Your Own Lyrical Essay”

December 16, 2019 § 17 Comments

Nina Gaby_Brevity photoBy Nina Gaby

When I’m rejected from a lit mag or when I get a hasty “no” from a contest entry I might try to figure out what went wrong.

Or I might just slam the laptop shut and toss my phone on the dashboard and mutter about being too “painterly” which is art school code for no clear narrative arc and maybe just a messy mashup of ideas. In other words, missed the lyrical mark.

Gaby_6

But this is the way my mind works, I argue. Like a pinball machine of thoughts bouncing off images with some jokes interspersed. How color sits next to its neighbor (see #5.) Or quotes from workshops… “the antidote to writer’s block is play”….who said that, damn, why don’t I write everything down. Isn’t flow what we are after? The intoxicant of pure immersion and the suspension of form (see #6)? But then again, form provides cohesion and yeah I cut my teeth on Kerouac, but I am not him. People want to be able to follow some pilot thread.

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I had to figure out how to get there. If my mind seems chaotic you should see my studio. But there I went—to my collection of ephemera and the flow that comes from a tiny pair of manicure scissors, a vintage typewriter, a sewing machine, a disjointed set of rubber stamps.

I credit Randon Billings Noble for her precise attempts at an explaining the lyrical essay in her recent Hippocamp workshop. In clear diagram she outlined just how it works, which I have paraphrased (see #14, 15, 16.) But what else does it take to immerse? A good playlist (#2, 8)? A little yoga (see #7), some mindfulness, a good laugh (see #12, 19)? Adderall?

So for my fellow strugglers, just follow the attached steps and (#20) be beautiful.

Gaby_20

CLICK HERE TO SEE NINA’S FULL COLLAGE ESSAY

 

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Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and advanced practice nurse who specializes in addiction and psychiatry. Gaby has been working with words, clay, and people for five decades. Her essays, fiction, prose poetry, and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, journals and magazines, and her artwork is held in various collections, including the Smithsonian, Arizona State University and Rochester Institute of Technology. Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, was published in 2015 and she has essays in several upcoming anthologies. More information at www.ninagaby.com.

A Brief Guide to Essays

August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments

We’re ready for our prose poem!

The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”

Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!

It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:

Lyric

They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.

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Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.

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Not this one.

 

Prose Poem

Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.

 

Collage

Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.

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I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?

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In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.

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The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”

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In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.

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The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.

 

Braided Essay

You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.

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Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.

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As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.

The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.

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Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.

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Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.

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Some nice braided essays:

The Search for Marvin Gardens by John McPhee

Buzzards by Lee Zacharias

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Seriously. The strands have to repeat.

 

Hermit Crab

It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.

1) Choose an existing form, such as guidebook, grocery list, rejection letter or recipe.

2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.

3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.

4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.

5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.

6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

 

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