How the Lyric Essay Brought Me Back to Writing Essays

I'm excited to share that the spring 2016 issue of Watershed Review is live and includes my essay, "Orienteering." I'm excited to have this one out in the world, as it includes some moments that really wanted to be written about. This is the first essay I've had out in the world in over 10 years, after experiences that led me to step away from essays entirely. I recently shared that story on The Writing Cooperative:

Poetry is my first love, but essays were calling to me. I was reading Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion and seeing bits of myself in not just what they wrote, but how they thought. There was a sharpness and a synthesis that felt different in essays than it did in poetry. I was struck with that just-right mix of curiosity, kinship, and intimidation that gives you enough gumption to try something new.

So I signed up for a creative nonfiction course in my English department. On the first day of class, I was transparent: I was a poet who wanted to try writing essays. It would be 10 years before I would introduce myself like that again. It was like announcing I was a hummingbird that wanted to become a horse. The division in the class was felt — there were the nonfiction students, a few fiction students (who were okay, because they dealt in narrative), and then me, The Poet.

I could deal with this as a matter of the culture or group dynamic in the class. Maybe it could even become a kind of pride, to be The Poet. But where it did damage was in practice, in the learning. Instead of becoming a guide, the professor became a gatekeeper. She had decided what an essay was, and she had decided which students had the right keys to access it. I learned that poetry was not one of the keys, as most of her feedback was some form of “This is poetry, not an essay.” or announcing, “Well, doesn’t that sound like poetry?” to the class when I shared my work.

I started trying to strip the poetic language out of my essays. I tried to focus on the more concrete, linear moments that were part of the story. As you might expect, those essays fell flat. They couldn’t find their natural shape. They had experiences but no voice. I couldn’t find the threads to follow into my drafts. Without poetry, I didn’t have my intuition.

It wasn't until years after those classes that I came across lyric essays, and a door into essay writing opened up:

I thought the essay form could be Only One Thing, and I didn’t have the key to it. I thought it was more narrative than symbol. I thought it was more head than heart, more linear and cohesive than experimental and stretching. But here was this idea of the lyric essay. And it seemed that even established essay writers could not easily define it, and that was part of what made it attractive. Here was a form that even the best essayists (i.e., Authority) acknowledged might sometimes be more poetry than essay.

You know that wave of relief you feel when you finally recall the word that’s been loitering on the tip of your tongue? Imagine that, and you might have an idea of how it felt to find the lyric essay.

I'm still learning a lot about essays, and about the lyric essay in particular. "Orienteering" is hopefully the start. But I'm happy just to have a way in, after so many years of believing that essays were off-limits.