Lyric Essay 101 by Jessica Mooney

Posted Tue, 9/03/2019 - 9:34am by  |  Category: , , ,

Don’t know what a lyric essay is? Not sure if you’re even intending to write one? Don’t worry! My class, Structuring the Lyric Essay, will explore the lyric essay as a form that can be used to help inspire your ongoing memoir, experimental essay, creative nonfiction work—no matter what you call it.

What is a lyric essay?

Though somewhat elusive to define, the lyric essay moves between genres, often borrowing the language and associative explorations of poetry, the plot-driven aspects of narrative storytelling, and an integration of research to deepen and augment key themes at the core of the essay.

Unlike more traditional forms of essay typically taught in English Comp or classic creative writing settings, the lyric essay prioritizes a more indirect or hybrid way of storytelling. The approach to drafting a lyric essay is commonly described as a “mosaic,” where each component contributes to the stunning effect of the whole.   

Why the lyric essay?

First, constructing a lyric essay is fun and often provides a lot of discovery for the writer in terms of unearthing surprising themes and connections in creative nonfiction work.

Lyric essays often borrow from interesting text structures, including footnotes, vignettes, epistolary forms, playlists, even medical diagnostic tools, all of which can be utilized to invite the reader into a unique narrative experience that is full of wonder and powerfully told. Lyric essays invite brevity, vivid language, metaphor, indirectness, and parallelism.

I’m not writing in lyric essay form. How will the close reading and workshop approach in this class help me? 

Even if you’re working on what you feel is a more traditional form of creative nonfiction, class discussions and workshop can help troubleshoot challenges you’re facing with your writing.

The class will discuss innovative ways to approach personal essay material across the spectrum of the writing process, such as old ideas that have fizzled that the writer wants to resuscitate, or how to work through being stuck in the middle of a project, or how to tackle drafting new material.

Students will be asked to bring in an excerpt of an essay in progress (can be from a book-length memoir, personal essay, etc.), along with a question or a particular problem they are facing. Some examples:

  • “I just can’t get the structure right—what are you seeing that can help me?”
  • “I’m trying to write a memoir, but the narrative is just plodding along, one thing after the next, and I feel like it’s boring—what can I do to spice it up?”
  • “I am trying to do too much, bring too many different things together, but it’s not working—where should I put my focus?”

I can see how getting feedback on my writing will help me, but I’m not sure I know enough about how to give feedback to other writers.

As a reader, your input is valuable. Even if you may not be the “target audience” of a particular piece of writing, as readers we all approach a piece of writing from the same place: picking up a book, essay, story and starting to read from the first word. The process of giving feedback to others does not require you to be an “expert” of some kind.

As writers, our draft work is often filled with cracked foundation, uneven floorboards, and leaky pipes, only we can’t always see it. Every writer faces blind spots just by the sheer nature of being inside the work. This is why having readers is so important: to illuminate what is missing, dull or overdone.

The writing workshop’s best kept secret: You often learn more by reading other writers’ works-in-progress than through receiving feedback on your own.  

If any of the above speaks to you and your writing, come and join us on Saturdays this fall. Hope you see you in class!

Jessica Mooney‘s short stories, essays and literary criticism have appeared in EntropyMossThe Seattle Review of BooksThe RumpusSalonCity Arts MagazineArcade, the What to Read in the Rain Anthology published by 826 Seattle, and elsewhere. Jessica is grateful to have received artist grants from Artist Trust, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, and 4 Culture. She was a finalist for Washington State’s Gar La Salle Storyteller Award in 2015 and 2016. Jessica is a former Hugo House fellow.