August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments
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:
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.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
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.
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.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
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.
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.
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.
November 21, 2016 § 14 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
The lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infested a host mushroom in a peculiar symbiosis. The fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, typically attacks milk-caps and brittlegills, absorbing them completely and imparting the bright reddish-orange color and seafood-like flavor of a cooked lobster.
Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact. You become infected by an idea, a topic – open adoptions, fracking, the history of perfume – that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until the you’re transformed, not the same person as before.
Or, you may play the part of parasite – cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form: an essay disguised as a list, a letter, an index, a diary. A hermit-crab essay. A lobster mushroom.
Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own. Think you’re writing about hiking? Nope, it’s about your ex-. A piece about the band Morphine and The Matrix’ Morpheus and the Sandman comics? Nope, your ex-. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobster mushrooms are much more valuable than the mushrooms they infect – about $25 a pound fresh, or $50 dried, at last check.
You should remember that both creative nonfiction and lobster mushrooms, like all fungus, feed off of dead matter, are in turn fed off of. You don’t always get there first. Sometimes appalling creatures have nested inside it – sometimes stuff you knew was there, sometimes stuff you forgot was there, sometimes unexpected stuff you uncover. You might be cutting through a mushroom when a centipede or earwig or worm crawls out of the hole it’s burrowed into the flesh. “Fuck!” you might yell, dropping the mushroom. Now you have to decide what to do next:
a. Sweep the mushroom into the trash. Burn trash. Burn house. No mushroom, no matter how valuable it might have seemed, is worth this toxic invasion.
b.Pick up the mushroom and examine the damage – how deep does it go? Has the nastiness laid eggs? Are there others? You may feel hesitant to give up on the mushroom, but sometimes you have to negotiate the value of the mushroom against how compromised it’s become. If there’s too much damage, go back to a); otherwise, continue to c). Remind yourself of two things:
1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.
2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.
c. Decide you have worked too hard for this mushroom. It is too valuable to let go. THIS IS YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOM. Find a way to deal with the damage:
1. Cut it out completely;
2. Work around it. Convince yourself it will be altered in the shaping/cooking of it anyways. Keep what isn’t too bad, what you can still use, what’s of value. If you can deal with it, so can everyone else.
3. Take a deep breath and swallow it whole, bugs and all.
But here’s the thing. The lobster mushroom, the parasitic fungus, has a super power: it infests mushrooms, matter that is otherwise inedible, possibly toxic, and makes it safe for consumption. Palatable. Even delicious.
Is this a craft essay infected by a lyric essay, or a lyric essay infected by a craft essay?
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis.
April 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:
When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”
– Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric
Lyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:
The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.
Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?
A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”
This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?
The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.
Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.
January 27, 2015 § 3 Comments
Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre and co-editor of the textbook/anthology of the same name, pays tribute to CNF pioneer Judith Kitchen on his blog this week. Steinberg acknowledges Kitchen for being “one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction’.” She certainly was, and Judith was among the most generous of literary figures as well.
She is greatly missed. Michael’s blog tribute, with excerpts from Kitchen’s essay “Mending Wall,” is well worth a read, including this gem of a paragraph, quoting Judith on the overuse of the term lyric essay:
This past year, I attended a reading of “lyric essays,” and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.
September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines essay, image and poetry to describe how mounting racial aggressions in daily life and the media–some intentionally offensive, others errors consistently made–affect a person’s abilities to speak, write, perform, and stay alive.
At BOMB Magazine, Lauren Berlant interviews Ms. Rankine on the daily encounters that make up the “tone” of citizenship, the weaving of fiction and nonfiction, and the use of mixed forms throughout her work:
Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. [Your question] presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!
The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.
She also discusses the difficulty of attempting to “reroute the content I am living,” within the frame of a world pushing back against her truth.
Ms. Rankine also has a fascinating website. It’s well worth checking out how she presents her visual, collaborative video, spoken, and multi-genre work in a graphic format that frames and reflects her subject matter.
September 10, 2014 § 155 Comments
What nobody tells you as an artist is that every project starts at the beginning. Not just the blank page, the empty stage, but that you have to re-establish your credentials and your quality every time. You can coast on reputation a little, but it doesn’t last long if you don’t deliver.
What nobody tells you is that praise—a standing ovation, a good review, your teacher’s approval—makes you feel good for a day, but one line of internet criticism from a stranger reverberates in your skull forever.
Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
(I tried to feel bad when that critic killed himself the next year, but I didn’t.)
What nobody tells your boyfriend is that writing 3000 words in a calm, soothing, supportive environment still leaves you too tired to call home at the end of the day. So does doing three twenty-minute shows.
And then feeling guilty about it. But not guilty enough to call.
What nobody tells you, the artist, the writer, is that spending an entire day being paid to do something you love is not the same as fun. It’s often better than fun, but it’s not fun. What nobody tells you is that spending an entire day being paid to do something you love is sometimes a lot less fun than spending an entire day doing something you love for free.
What nobody tells you is that selling out is strangely comforting. That once you’ve decided to package your product and suck a little corporate dick for the chance to show most of what you like to do but structured as a James Bond theme and wearing black and yellow because it goes with the logo, the large check that ensues will feel earned. That paying rent with your art money feels like finally growing up. That you probably can come up with five hundred words about margarine and even feel proud of making it sound like something people would eat. (Please don’t.)
What nobody tells you is that if you believe in yourself and dream big dreams you will still come in second to someone who worked hard. Or to a talentless hack related to the producer. Or to someone sleeping with the editor. Or to your best friend whom you will have to congratulate as sincerely as possible. Or to someone no better than you and there will be no reason at all.
What nobody tells you is that if you believe in yourself and dream big dreams and work hard you can accomplish anything, but if you’re willing to wear a sexy outfit while accomplishing it, or include vampires, you’ll get paid a lot more.
What nobody tells you is that you have to be the kind of person who can hear a hundred no’s before you get to yes, and that if you are not that kind of person, selling your art may not be for you. Here, let’s practice:
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. I’ll call you back. No. No. No. No. No. We went with someone else. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. My cousin will do it for free. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. This did not fit our needs at this time; we sincerely wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. No. No. No. No. No. NO. No. No. No. NO. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No response means no. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. NO. Next! No. No. No. No. No. My boss said no. My editor said no. No. No. No. No. No. NO. Sorry. No. No.
Speaking editorially, we should get to ‘yes’ here, but it’s better to experience the dissatisfaction of having our expectations unfulfilled, so we can quit before dissatisfaction crushes us. Or, so we can immunize ourselves.
So we can say, I am blue. My work is blue. The blue of a thousand cerulean seas. The blue of Texas bluebells. The stunning blue of the sky from the top of the mountain. The deep blue of sapphires. The gentle blue of my mother’s eyes. The best blue.
They might want red.
And what nobody tells you is that it’s not up to you to be red, and that whether or not you want to make your blue more of a purple, or draw a crimson border around it, or pass out violet-tinted glasses to all your readers, it is a choice. Your choice. Your choice to change or stay the course, and neither of those are wrong.
It is not a cruel world full of no.
It is a beautiful world in which the one (or many) persons to whom your work–your particular, personal work–speaks are waiting for you. Waiting for you to grow, to revise, to polish, to publicize, to sell, to share. Waiting for you to make art they love and will pay for.
Go and find them.
Allison K Williams is Social Media Editor of Brevity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. She is also a freelance editor. She tweets @GuerillaMemoir.
July 17, 2014 § 3 Comments
Back in 2011, Flavorwire’s Kathleen Massara sifted through
…innumerable notable essays written between 1961 and today. However, even though it’s a crazy idea to attempt to make a top ten list of the pieces that shaped the era, that’s what we do…
Inspired by the University of Iowa’s Essay Prize, Ms. Massara sought out ten essays she thought “best exemplifie[d] the art of essaying — inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change.” Included are some legends and some more obscure. And yes, Céline Dion made the list.
Check out the list here. (Some of the links lead to online reads, others to sale pages for books featuring the essays.)
What’s your best essays list? Five Essays That Should Be Famous? Seven Essays That Changed the Author’s Life? Ten Best Essays Under 1000 Words?
Create a category and make your case, then email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll choose a list or two to feature here on the Brevity blog.
April 13, 2012 § 1 Comment
Review of Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires
Sarabande Books 2011
By Emma Nelson
As a teenager in the 90s, I remember the anticipation of creating a time capsule. I recall sitting cross-legged with my two sisters sifting through a tattered cardboard box of memorabilia—jagged salt-crusted pebbles collected from the Dead Sea, sloppily written notes from friends, and a stuffed monkey in heart boxers from a long-forgotten boyfriend—attempting to find the perfect items that would one day define my life’s contributions to the unsuspecting person that would happen upon my capsule and understand the essence of me.
Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires tells a similar story of her own time capsules that, much like the essays themselves, preserve self and childhood memories. Small Fires, a book of lyric essays, seamlessly incorporates Kantian philosophy, 1980s popular culture, and poetic explorations of words and meanings. Wade’s word choices and descriptions are impeccable, leading her reader on a rhythmic walk through the landscape of life as she explores what we give up to become who we are. Her exquisite language is not limited to word choice, however, but expands to the ways she plays with ordinary words and ideas such as waffle: a breakfast food or a verb “to switch back and forth between possibilities,” she writes, and camouflage as a metaphor for hiding who we are. Wade plays with the ideas, sounds, and feelings of words in a way that only a true poet can, sounding like a woman who not only loves language, but one who knows language well.
I could often see myself in Wade’s memories. As a teenager who similarly loved words and struggled to understand arbitrary limits imposed by adults, I found myself nodding in agreement at her tumultuous recollections. For this reason, one of my favorite elements of Small Fires is Wade’s use of triptychs, which skillfully knit a threesome of narratives together to craft compelling vignettes of endearingly multidimensional characters. Wade was clearly the center of her own universe, but the likable characters add to the palpable tension between the angst-ridden teenager and her well-meaning relatives. Small Fires is a heartfelt exploration of complicated relationships.
In learning that I grew up in the same era as Wade made her recollections more powerful—her exploration of loss, longing, and estrangement more graceful and truthful. She weaves references to Punky Brewster, Shakespeare, Immanuel Kant, and George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life) beautifully and seamlessly into questions of family, religion, gender, sexuality, and identity. Small Fires is a book of essays that left me transfixed and transformed through brilliant prose and ideas. It’s like finding a time capsule of nostalgic treasures.
Emma Nelson is a graduate student at Brigham Young University studying American literature and culture. She teaches several writing classes and writes personal essays that combine her love of family, nature, and memories.
March 9, 2012 § 18 Comments
By Paul Haney
Chicago 2012 was my first AWP, and as such, by week’s end, I was pooped. All those panels, all them booths, all that cold Chicago out there to mess around in. But as one who check-boxed all the nonfiction-themed panels on the schedule, I had one more to attend in the last slot on Saturday evening: “Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms, or a Form of Collapse.” It turned out to be the most contentious panel of the week.
My girlfriend, though professedly not a writer (I would argue, Who isn’t?), came with me to the panel as it fit in our schedule between seeing the jellyfish at the Shedd aquarium and meeting friends for dinner over a Chicago deep dish pizza. As the discussion got underway, she slouched down and stared at the laces on her boots. I sat up and got out my notebook.
Wendy Rawlings posed the issue for the panel, a certain “pedagogical vacuum” she had found between narrative nonfiction and the lyric essay in which she struggled to articulate and define for her students the rules and allowances for truth, fact, and art within that spectrum.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius addressed the matter first, speaking at length about Virginia Woolf’s wandering, narrative “I,” and the slipperiness caused by allowing writers to stretch the truth, play with details, and force the reader to discern fact from fantasy. Memory is the essential self, Bartkevicius seemed to say, and the essay should mirror actual memory, like Woolf’s essays, and not fabricate details. It’s the image of the mind we’re after, not perfect prose and narrative arc.
After Bartkevicius’ scholarly approach, Steven Church drew a humorous analogy between the lyric essay, a genre that has come to be defined as a compromise between poetry and prose, both lyric and narrative, and the contemporary stereotype of the hipster. The lyric essay’s cooler than everyone, above reproach because it knows more than everybody else, like an inside joke. According to Church, at its worst, the lyric essay “dances in sequined pants” without having anything to say. At its best, it preferences subjective perception over collective, and respects the “writer-reader relationship that makes nonfiction special.”
I thought Church was forceful and funny. My girlfriend studied her fingernails.
Next Colin Rafferty spoke from personal experience as the first faculty ever hired as an essayist at the University of Mary Washington. Rafferty said that nonfiction is becoming more prevalent in creative writing departments across the country, and with the essay grabbing a place in the university, nonfictionists are having to grapple over a definition of who they are and what exactly their genre does. This is a good and necessary thing, he said. He also asserted that once an essay privileges fact and truth, it can get as lyrical as the author would like.
There seemed to be an implicit reference in Rafferty’s concluding remarks to the recent hubbub over John D’Agata’s blatant dismissal of absolute fact. Earlier, Bartkevicius had ostensibly thrown D’Agata with James Frey in the bucket of writers who fib and betray.
The final speaker, Ned Stuckey-French, directed his comments straight at D’Agata in a “Dear John letter.” “It’s over, John,” he repeated, deadpan, and used the form and tone to admonish D’Agata’s fact-stretching, adherence to the label “creative nonfiction” (“‘creative’ as opposed to what,” Stuckey-French asked, “‘destructive’”?), and deracination of essays from their original context in anthologies without acknowledging the interpretative effects of such an act. The audience chuckled throughout. My girlfriend crossed her arms.
And then it happened. In the Q&A, the first questioner spoke with such vehemence and conviction in defense of John D’Agata that the room broke into a free-for-all, the panelists scrambled to shield themselves from AWP field guides-turned-projectiles, and audience members dove into the fracas in the name of nonfiction.
Okay, so it wasn’t that intense.
But the questioner did say that to put D’Agata in the same sentence with James Frey was inane and ingenuous because the book itself, About a Mountain, points out every instance of fudging with the facts in a special notes section in the back. She accused the panel at hand, as well as all the other panels that weekend who took up the D’Agata controversy, of character assassination, of making the issue personal, of seeking to ruin a man’s reputation because of some set of arbitrary, nebulous, incipient, prescriptive rules of composition. When she finished making her objection, the questioner received a few smatters of applause from around the room.
It was a question that ended with a period.
And was followed by an awkward silence. The panel leaned forward on their elbows.
“Is there a question?” Rawlings said.
Rafferty was the first to respond and attempted an informative, cogent answer that would also pacify tempers. When he was done, others audience members from the D’Agata camp demanded more answers.
“Look,” Stuckey-French said, pulling the microphone close. “I’m not really breaking up with John D’Agata.” It seemed to me that the rhetorical moves made in the panel’s presentations—Bartkevicius’ bucket of betrayal; Stuckey-French’s breakup letter—hit a sore spot that had reached its pain threshold. But I wondered, wasn’t the panel somewhat playing devil’s advocate? Weren’t they using D’Agata not as a punching bag, but as a learning moment, a launching pad for an important discussion in a nascent genre?
As we left, I looked to my girlfriend for answers. “What’d you think?”
“It was like a giant inside joke I wasn’t let in on.”
“What about the disagreement at the end?”
“I don’t know why people care so much.”
Maybe that’s the question we should be asking.
Paul Haney is soon to receive his Master’s in Literature from Florida State University. His has a nonfiction piece forthcoming in Redividerand shudders to think of the angry horde of fact checkers waiting to dismantle it. He is originally from Orlando