May 25, 2022 § 2 Comments
In Brevity‘s recent May issue, Randon Billings Noble examines the “daringness” of the lyric essay, how it relies on intuition more than exposition, image more than narration, and question more than answer.
“But despite all this looseness,” she writes, “the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle).”
Noble sees in the lyric essay a mammal of sorts, but
one that lays eggs; semiaquatic, living in both water and on land; and venomous, a trait that belongs mostly to reptiles and insects. It will run away if on land—its gait that of a furry alligator—or swim off in the undulating way of beavers. Either way it can threaten you with a poisoned spur before it ripples off.
Noble goes on to classify four common forms of the lyric essay—flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab—and examines the inner workings of each.
You can read the full essay here in Brevity’s Craft Section.
April 5, 2022 § 16 Comments
By Andrea A. Firth
I woke at 4 a.m. to catch an unreasonably early flight. Once in the air (and after a snooze) I pulled out the book I’d set aside for the journey—A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays edited by Randon Billings Noble. I already knew Noble’s essay in the collection, “The Heart is a Torn Muscle.” I’ve taught it many times. Excited, I dug in and immersed myself in flash, segmented, fragmented, collage, mosaic, and hermit crab essays—lyric in performance on every page. I marked my favorites with yellow post-it notes, like Angie Chuang’s “Scars, Silence and Dian Fossey,” combining her experience of ovarian tumor surgery, her trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda. and her take on the enigmatic life of the primatologist Dian Fossey, the essay a brilliant braid that connects and spins on the metaphor of a scar.
I landed on the East Coast seven hours later, the first time I’d been away from my husband since his work life moved into the spare bedroom at the start of the pandemic (I missed him already). The first time I’d see my brother and extended family in real life, in over three years. And by a fortuitous coincidence (my family lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia), the first time I’d attend AWP.
I boarded the train to center city the next day in typical spring weather, wet and gray. Outside the window, old two-story homes with steep pitched roofs made with the tan, gold, and gray fieldstone that I only see when I come back to Pennsylvania, dotted wide green lawns as the conductor called out the towns along the stretch known as the Main Line. Malvern. Paoli. Bryn Mawr. As we expressed to 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia skyline came into view. Everything felt familiar.
I started each day with coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun (a Philly specialty) and mapped out the sessions I’d attend, my focus creative nonfiction and memoir. Thousands of writers and the constant buzz of conversation filled the convention halls. I sat before panels of great writers who I’ve read, admired, and emulated. I’d heard much of what they said before, but here, in person, in real life, voices and thoughts amplified, they sounded clearer and resonated deeper.
The first draft is the place to put it all on the page. Be transparent. Don’t edit.
It’s easier to cut than add. As writers, we are always making choices.
Constraints lead to discovery. What you don’t remember presents opportunity.
What’s left off the page speaks volumes.
There is no truth. Memory changes with each recollection.
Write both the light and the shadow. We are all flawed.
I wandered the Book Fair. Aisles and aisles of booths for journals and publishers. Despite the masks covering half of our faces, eyes smiled. Everyone was anxious to engage. At least eight journal editors told me that they receive significantly fewer, quality creative nonfiction submissions. I’ve heard this before. Now it was clearer. Note to self: Submit more. Make sure it’s your best.
I ended each day with dinner, a glass of white wine, and my brother and his wife, talking and talking as if we hadn’t talked in years.
I attended the last session on the last day, pleasantly surprised to find Randon Billings Noble moderating a panel of contributors to her anthology. Another fortuitous coincidence. Before the session started, I approached Randon and told her how much I’d liked the collection, how I’d read it on the flight. As she autographed my book, the panelist sitting adjacent asked “Where are you are from?” pointing to my conference badge with my name and Diablo Writers’ Workshop, where I teach. Diablo, the mountain anchoring the skyline in my part of northern California, was the clue. She was originally from the same small town where I now live. We chatted. I settled into my seat to listen. And when this writer discussed her essay about a tumor, gorillas, Rwanda, and Fossey, she was Angie Chuang. Another fortuitous coincidence? No—this was connection. This is what good writing does.
I gathered with family on Sunday, my brother, sister-in-law, nephews, niece, great niece, aunt, and uncle. We ate brunch and talked and talked, telling the same funny family stories we’ve told over and over for years whenever we get together.
I woke the next morning at 4 a.m. to catch another unreasonably early flight. In the air (and after a snooze) I finished reading the last couple essays in the anthology and made a list:
Most everything has already been said but always sounds better in real life.
What makes home memorable is the familiar.
Stories are worth repeating.
As the lyric essay does, we connect in myriad ways.
Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching the personal essay class, Your Story, exploring craft, genre and writing technique in the contemporary essay and how to use it in your own work, in April and May. Details and register here.
December 16, 2019 § 17 Comments
By 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.
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.
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.
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.
April 6, 2015 § 9 Comments
Randon Billings Noble discusses the origins of her Brevity essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle””
Sometimes when people read an essay or a memoir they think they know more about the writer’s life than they actually do. They might speculate or wonder, or, if given the chance, ask the writer something that falls outside the boundaries of what was written and shared. But there’s a firm line between what is written and what is lived. Sometimes the best response to these speculations is to tell another story.
When my NYT Modern Love piece “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” came out (an essay about how hard it was to tell my most significant ex-boyfriend that I had married someone else), a family member confronted my husband at a dinner party: “How do you feel about this?” she asked — but it was more of a disapproving challenge than a legitimate question. I was standing next to him, blushing hotly, ready to say something about boundaries (see above) when my husband, a prince among men, said, “Did you read the essay? Because she married me.”
Reader, I did marry him. And I am perpetually happily grateful I did. Even when writing – or living – a piece like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle.” Here’s a bit about how it came to be:
One hour into a ten-day residency at the glorious Virginia Center for the Creative Arts I pulled my back. I was trying to move a gigantic desk closer to the window and just as that little voice inside my head was saying, This is a bad idea – you should ask for help, some small junction of nerves and tendons and muscles in my lower back torqued out of their usual groove and left me bent over at a 45-degree angle for two days. I was barely able to make eye contact with my fellow residents at meals and was supremely grateful to an artist who not only gave me Advil but also drove to a drugstore four miles away to procure a heating pad. By day three I was better – still sore but fairly upright – and after another 24 hours I was back to my usual self.
I had been sketching an essay about temptation and heartbreak and was thinking of structuring it as a timeline: How long does it take to get over a crush, especially a forbidden one? What stages does one go through, what milestones does one pass? Then I started to think about my back and how long it took to heal. Could a heart heal in the same time span? After doing some seemingly unrelated, very practical and non-literary research about ice packs and anti-inflammatories, I realized that the heart, too, a muscle. And much of what I was reading about an actual torn muscle started to feel relevant to treating a metaphorically torn heart. I took the structure from various medical advice sites and wrote from there.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Millions; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; The Los Angeles Review of Books; Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.