June 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
After Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979”—and, really, after Brenda in so many ways
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets1
Narrative, even in creative nonfiction, leaps forward, circles back, success in circuit. But ‘90s Utah, desert no dessert—as at other creative writing programs, the choice an or: fiction or poetry, narrative or lyric. A limited menu, prix fixe, the occasional à lá carte visiting writer, or nonfiction workshop taught by a dabbling faculty, and always, always, as a square meal of narrative. When offered, though, those classrooms stuffed, writers starved for it, nonfiction the neutral field on which we fed.
At the University of Utah, as elsewhere, students fed into fiction or—like me—to poetry. Then Brenda Miller was afforded, forded, foraged the first dissertation in creative nonfiction—a foretaste—though her degree notes none of this. At her defense, I recall the classroom stuffed, us writers starved for it. We hungered to see what she’d do next.
After Brenda broke the seal, things blurred a bit. Dawn Marano cultivating a taste for nonfiction at the University of Utah Press2; in course, Utah adding nonfiction to the spread, hiring Robin Hemley as a dedicated position. We hungered for what came next, couldn’t know how Robin and Nicole Walker (there then studying poetry) would nurture NonfictioNOW3. But that was then, and even then, lyric essays slow curing in Nicole’s head/cranium.
And not just Utah—other programs (Ohio, Nebraska, Eastern Washington, though not Iowa) added nonfiction to the spread. Phillip Lopate spread from teaching fiction to nonfiction, edited The Art of the Personal Essay4; Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre a pop-up of publishing. Deborah Tall coined the fusion cuisine “lyric essay.”5 Dinty W. Moore begat Brevity.6
Still, River Teeth’s subtitle is “A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative,” wouldn’t break Beautiful Things tiny milkteeth for fifteen years7; the selections in Lopate’s anthology firmly in narrative’s maw. At best, they ruminated through meditations, assayed and essayed a bit less logical. Even Dinty, in The Best of Brevity, claims his nascent mag considered only the compressed narrative.8 Soon, however, his concept of flash omnivorated.
But writers ruminated through meditation toward less logic, more lyric. Work labeled flash fiction, prose poems—at Quarterly West, when we didn’t know what to do with them, we published these delicacies as whatever the author preferred; the anthology In Short (Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones)9 proferred them in all their chimerical glory. By Y2K it was clear the possibilities were omnivorating. While Tell It Slant (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola)10 presented a craft table of memoir and journalism, it also offered a taste of lyric essay.
Despite being labeled poets, writers—Elissa Gabbert, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine—were crafting delicacies no one knew what to do with. We devoured them like gathering breadcrumbs to trace a path, gorging on those leaping, circular forms. After Tell It Slant, Rose Metal Press (Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney)11 added a leaf to the craft table, made a groaning board of those lyric essays and braids and hermit crabs. If it seems like women nourished much of this work—they did, they do—I don’t know what it means but it sustains me.
Devouring those early poets-turned-essayists, I could trace a path for my own work, as I gorged on Doyle’s Leaping12, on Lee Ann Roripaugh’s haibun and zuihitsu13. I browsed poetic genres and conventions, bending them to prose. I read for sustenance, this stuff by women, to realize, astounded, spun around, that my favorite Annie Dillard book, Holy the Firm, is a book-length lyric essay, an evolutionary leap forward in 1977.14 But, like anything, the writing aged ahead of the critical work explaining how.
Bending Genres (edited by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer and featuring a lot of Utah expats)15 tried, and succeeded, at feeding us some answers. Even Lopate argued “The Lyric Essay” in his update To Show and to Tell16 (spoiler: he’s agin’ it). All that writing, finally nibbling at how. In 2015, NonfictioNOW had a couple panels on hybrids; in 2018, a smorgasbord.17
And yet, in 2020, my grad students at the University of Minnesota argued the lyric essay (spoiler: they’re agin’ it), not for inability to digest, but fed up, glutted on it. Utah now offers a feast of “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, digital writing, hybrid and other experimental forms, [and] book arts.”18 In 2018 at NonfictioNOW, invited to the table, I presented on a hybrid panel19 (mostly women) on poetic forms imported into nonfiction and cited Brenda, present in the audience, got to thank her for setting that table. This is not to say all is sweetness: recently, Ander Monson addressed other judges’ distaste for lyric essay in NEA grant decisions20 (spoiler: they’re agin’ it).
Creative writing programs and syllabus cellars at Assay21 and elsewhere now offer a feast for teaching and studying, an entire palette of genres for every palate. Far from the food desert of the ‘90s, us gone undernourished, the limited menu prix fixe poetry and fiction; the only sips of nonfiction, narrative. Despite this, narrative nonfiction still gets the grants, the agents and advances, the main entrée on the buffet (I prefer to make a meal of hors d’oeuvres, am always eyeing what’s being circulated on the platters). But as we see, even narrative circles back, awaits the great leap forward.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
1. Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Print.
4. Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books, 1995
5. Tall, Deborah and John D’Agata, Foreword to Seneca Review (Fall 1997). Print. Archived online at https://www.hws.edu/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx
8. Moore, Dinty W. “On Voice, Concision, and 20 Years of Flash Nonfiction.” The Best of Brevity, ed. Zöe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2020. Print.
9. Jones, Mary Paumier and Judith Kitchen, eds., In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Norton: 1996. Print.
10. Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola, eds., Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Print.
12. Doyle, Brian. Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003. Print.
13. Roripaugh, Lee Ann. Running Brush. Website. https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
14. Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
15. Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
16. Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay.” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonficton. New York: Free Press, 2013.
20. Monson, Ander, “Dear Essayists Applying for an NEA.” Essay Daily (16 Feb 2021)