Throwback Thursday: Best Essays of the Past 50 Years

July 17, 2014 § 3 Comments

83142Back 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 We’ll choose a list or two to feature here on the Brevity blog.

Top 10 Reasons Why “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” Was A Great Panel

March 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

dreamtigers_coverby Sally Ashton

10. Smart Women Panelists

The scheduled mixed-gender panel of four turned out to be three women, three very smart women well-suited to the discussion of the “lyric essay’s delight in gaps, association, and the unknown,” a panel who also presented effective teaching strategies. Panelists included moderator and editor of Rose Metal Press, Kathleen Rooney; Dr. Nicole Walker, Northern Arizona University; and Dr. Julie Paegle, Associate Professor of Poetry at California State University San Bernardino.

9. A Hot Topic

Lyric Essay. This brief form might be voted Most Popular AWP Concept 2014 if you take into account the number of panels devoted to any murky combination of short form considerations. I counted thirteen, though more might have been lurking behind cleverer titles.

8. Best Neologism to Replace Clunky “Cross-Genre-Hybrid-Form-Trans-Blended-Flash-Shorts-Lyric-Essay” Terminology

Thanks to Kathleen Rooney for introducing “Open Form Essay,” and for explaining how she arrived at a term whose definition enacts what it names. She says the term occurred to her after reading Naked Poetry, a 1969 anthology, Stephen Berg, ed.

7. Concrete Tips

See also: #2, Handouts.

6. Sample Assignments

Well-articulated assignments accompanied by either clear instructions or detailed handouts made this panel’s take-away value high. Assignments included “imitation” assignments from readings; working with the Petrarchan sonnet as an generating structure for a piece; and writing secrets, one true and one false that both appear to be true, to be redistributed and serve as a prompt for another student’s essay.

5. Cool Recommended Texts

The texts were chosen to serve in specific themed courses, but having titles listed in the syllabi helped me to better envision the connections each instructor was looking to make. Three books that I felt I would read anyway were A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)Tics, by C.A. Conrad; Dreamtigers, by Borges (I’ve read only selections); and The Noisy Egg, poetry by panelist Nicole Walker. The panelists did seem to be teaching the lyric essay in a cross-genre fashion for the most part, and this was reflected in their hybrid booklists.

4. Good Hybrid Form Apologists

I guess we’re always anxious to know the why of everything and this panel revealed a number of reasons why a hybrid approach is a good strategy for teaching grad and undergrad student writers. Panelists variously claimed that this mode was useful for grads to cross-fertilize their “home” genre, that a short form can serve more concisely as a teaching model for how to understand and manipulate a text, that the open form lends itself to manageable self-reflection, and that in certain student populations it can be empowering for students to realize they can use literary strategies to process trauma.

3. A Well-organized Presentation

At 9am on an AWP-Friday morning, clear and useful presentations full of ideas and hewing to time limitations that also allow ample time for Q&A makes you glad you answered the alarm instead of sleeping through it. Like you wanted to. They were a fast-paced, smart, and superbly prepared panel.

2. Helpful Handouts

You might feel like a shopper at a sale table when an AWP panel offers a handout. Mine! These Navigators offered three. I especially appreciated that at least one panelist brought an assistant to insure the sheets were evenly distributed and that there were enough handouts for the entire group. Except for the last handout that proved to be one short. Mine. However, these panelists offered to email material to those who missed (tip to future panelists: we are writers, after all. We will read and likely hoard the stuff). Handouts include complete course syllabi as well as lists of course texts and a couple of assignments.

And the TOP reason “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay” was so good:

1. Smart Women Panelists Who Said the Following Memorable Near-quotes

Nicole, in regards to instructing students, stressed that they need to “ground floating thoughts . . . Thoughts need an audience. (I tell them) your thoughts need to be seen as a character. Put yourself in a character on the page.” Kathleen, defending her term “Open Form Essay,” stressed the need to avoid designation that over-determines the writing before it’s written, but instead to “allow form to develop organically. To let content shape the piece.” Julie, in discussing the tension inherent in lyric’s epiphanic transport and narrative’s movement through time, said that the lyric essay can be thought of as “a time machine that renegotiates suspended time.” Besides being intelligent writers, they were friendly, engaged, and generous. Thank you, all.

Sally Ashton is Editor-in-Chief of DMQ Review (, an online journal featuring poetry and art. She is the author of three poetry books, and she has just completed Behaviour of Clocks, a hybrid collection. Ashton teaches at San Jose State University and in Disquiet International Literary Program, Lisbon.

Review of Small Fires, a Book of Lyric Essays

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.

AWP 2012 — The Hipster Genre and The Inside Joke

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

One Fish, Two Fish, Big Fish, Writing Contest

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment



From our friends at Cutbank:

From March 1 to April 1, we’re looking for excellent nonfiction writing
under 5,000 words. In addition to innovative, sonically pleasing essays
on topics of your choosing, CutBank seeks great craft essays, as well
as essays on teaching writing or why writing matters. Stylistic
manifestos and smart, self-referential fiction pieces that illuminate
the writing process are also welcome. The winner will receive $200 and
online publication, and all submissions will be considered for both
online and print publication. Here’s how we’re defining the categories:

The Lyric Essay: Innovative, sonically pleasing nonfiction prose on any topic is  welcome in this category. John D’Agata quoting his teacher Deborah Tall once suggested that a lyric form of the essay “is a kind of essay propelled not by its information, but rather by the possibility for transformative experience.” CutBank likes this definition, but we’re also excited to see how you interpret such a malleable genre.

Writers on Writing: We’re looking for original, personal takes on the literary arts. Form is largely up to you, our submitters. We’re hoping
to receive your best craft essays, stylistic manifestos, and impressions on why writing matters. You might even take a crack at
defining the lyric essay for us. Smart, self-referential fiction pieces that illuminate the writing process or the importance of writing are
also welcome in this category.

For more information, guidelines, and to apply, visit

Questioning the Lyric Essay

May 18, 2010 § 3 Comments

Over at The Critical Flame book review site, Scott Esposito offers a lengthy review of John D’Agata’s new book, About a Mountain, and along the way also offers an interesting discussion of D’Agata’s other writing and editing projects.  Eventually, the review works its way into a critical examination of the lyric essay, asking whether the writer’s ability to place any two events or images side-by-side can “lead to a perfunctory, skin-deep composition.”  Part of the problem, it seems (and others have slammed D’Agata for this recently), is that he is writing an extended lyric essay about verifiable, well-chronicled facts, not about dim memories or subjective, personal impressions.

Here’s an excerpt:

Exactly where does fine rhetoric slide into manipulation? The strength of D’Agata’s essays in Halls of Fame was their collage-like use of appropriated texts: because of their inherent diffusion, one rarely felt that the author was building toward an argument. Rather, the opposite: these essays had so many implications that their weakness was not one of over-determination but under-determination.

About a Mountain suffers from no such lack; here, D’Agata’s prose is focused like a laser. The implication is difficult to miss when, for example, D’Agata draws us through this chain of facts: respected journalist Jim McManus authors a book that accuses Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman of ordering a hit on a judge; Goodman sues McManus; the Las Vegas Review-Journal jumps to Goodman’s defense with a suspect line of argumentation; McManus’s publisher issues a full-page apology in the New York Times Book Review; Nevada state senator representing Vegas, Dina Titus, is quoted as saying “if it’s a touch of reality that isn’t pretty, then we want to get rid of it”; Mike Figgis was not permitted to film his Oscar-winning movie Leaving Las Vegas — about a man who goes to Vegas to drink himself to death — within the city’s limits; the excessive rate of suicide in Vegas is something the city strains to hide.

In this truncated version D’Agata’s point is fairly clear — Las Vegas knows how to deal with any reality not to its liking. Reading it in its full glory in About a Mountain, one comes away feeling that Vegas has just been railroaded by an expert prosecutor. It may very well be that Las Vegas has a serious, festering problem about facing up to its own dirty laundry — that’s certainly the feeling one gets after reading D’Agata’s four-page romp — but what have we really learned? Correlation, after all, is not causation, and what we have just read is four pages of correlation. The items D’Agata documents here occurred across nearly 20 years of time, and I imagine that within that time span a similarly damning collection of facts could be gathered for any number of major American cities.

One of the major faults with About a Mountain — indeed with the kind of writing that D’Agata has engaged in throughout his career — is that it relies too heavily on this kind of “proof.” That’s not to say that D’Agata’s perceptions of the world are invalid; nor is it to say that he always relies on this kind of sophistry to get his point across. There are long stretches in both of his books where his claims are valid and proportionate to the research. At other points though — for instance, in the “scream” chapter — D’Agata’s quasi-fictive inhabiting of consciousness presents a kind of cultural criticism through magical reasoning. At these points, it’s clear that his interpretation is just one of many.

There is no reason to complain insofar as About a Mountain is an investigation into why a seemingly happy teenager would lead himself to a horrible death; nor insofar as it evokes the existential disaster that must exist when a nation tries to fill a mountain sitting next to a major, exploding metropolitan area with nuclear waste. The problem, as I see it, comes when D’Agata begins to direct specific charges at Las Vegas without doing the necessary background work to make those charges stick.

It is dishonest to lead readers through a few pages-worth of cherry-picked facts and leave them with the impression that something has been proven. D’Agata, for example, adjusted the dates of the Yucca Mountain vote and Presley’s suicide, asserting that they happened on the same day when they were really three days apart. No matter that D’Agata acknowledges this in the back matter: you cannot argue about the world when you are manipulating the facts. A novelist could be justified in conflating two events, arguing that they were attempting a metaphorical evocation of truth, but an essayist driving an argument based on fact has no such luxury.

… Innovative essay-writing that D’Agata has so ably demonstrated thus far in his career is vital, but his method also exposes an important flaw in the kind of “lyric” essay that writers like he and David Shields promote. The lyric essay is a powerful form, but D’Agata’s work too often shows that it can lead to a perfunctory, skin-deep composition.


** The full review essay can be found here.

Chris Offutt: The Definitive Taxonomy of Literary Terms

April 26, 2010 § 6 Comments

Thank goodness Chris Offutt came along and finally cleared up all of this genre confusion:

personal essay: Characterized by 51 percent or more of its sentences beginning with the personal pronoun “I”; traditional narrative strategy entails doing one thing while thinking about another.

literary essay: Akin to the personal essay, only with bigger words and more profound content intended to demonstrate that the essayist is smarter than all readers, writers, teachers, and Europeans.

lyric essay: An essay with pretty language.

nature essay: An essay written by a person claiming to have a closer relationship with the natural world than anyone else does; traditional subject matter is sex, death, and how everything was better in the past.

pop culture essay: An essay written by someone who prefers to shop or watch television.

academic essay: Alas, an unread form required for tenure.

experimental writing: The result of supreme artistic courage when a writer is willing to sacrifice structure, character, plot, insight, wisdom, social commentary, context, precedent, and punctuation.

Note on Writing “Not a Good Day for Planting Root Crops”

January 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Marcia Aldrich discusses the background to her essay, Not a Good Day for Planting Root Crops, in the current issue of Brevity:

This lyric essay began in an exercise I did with my undergraduate creative nonfiction students. The assignment focused on two separate objectives. The first asked them to experiment formally with the shape of their essay through segmentation. At a minimum they had to include three different kinds of segments and assemble them in an aesthetically pleasing and unifying way. I gave them suggestions: meditation on a color, targeting different senses, recreating overheard dialogue, memories of other places, a found poem. These suggestions were not intended to limit or prescribe what they might consider including in their essay. I talked about different modes as well—narrative, descriptive, meditative.

The second objective focused on observation and creating a mini-portrait of a nonfiction place. Here we talked about how to define our relationship to this specific place. Since the fountain area was located on campus near frequently used classroom buildings, the students were familiar with the place. We weren’t true outsiders, yet because the place was a public space, none of us lived there and most of us just passed through on our way to somewhere else.

Unfortunately it was the middle of March in Michigan when I did this assignment.  The timing of the assignment came to play an unexpectedly large role in what the essay came to be about.

I tried this assignment with my students as a test drive since I had made it up and I didn’t know what its difficulties might be. Segmentation has not come easily for me; I’ve been working to get the hang of it. This essay was a breakthrough and gave me invaluable experience about the complicated layering and textual intersections that can be accomplished through even a brief segmented essay. The segmented approach drove my discovery of the emotional layers in my experience of this place at this specific point in time and surprised me. 

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