Guest Blog Post, Lee Martin: The Lyric Essay: A Writing Activity

Lee MartinI’ve noticed among my students an increasing affection for the lyric essay, a form that requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.

To invite the lyric impulse, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down to the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.

1. Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”

2. Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.

3. Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”

4. Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”

5. Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”

6. Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”

Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. I hope the writing leads you to unexpected connections, becomes a process of discovery, forces you to “push through” material that may be a bit uncomfortable, and in general leads you by an indirect method to the heart of something you may not have approached otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers of creative nonfiction who want to try their hands at forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative, but instead by the meditative leaps from one thing to another.

Lee Martin

Lee Martin’s most recent book is the novel, Late One Night. He is also the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin, and he has published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and a past winner of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

9 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Lee Martin: The Lyric Essay: A Writing Activity

  • January 26, 2013 at 2:07 pm
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    Great writing activity, defiantly going to give this one a try. It’s always nice to have different approaches to writing, helps to promote creativity and push boundaries.

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  • January 26, 2013 at 7:34 pm
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    This looks like an interesting exercise. I love trying out different kinds and even though I’m not much of a nonfiction writer, I’ve had a growing curiosity about the genre since a discussion I had with a friend a few months back. I’m going to have to give this a try.

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  • January 27, 2013 at 11:48 pm
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    I am definitely adding this exercise to my list of other writing exercises. I haven’t really tried my hand in creative nonfiction, so this should be a fun, valuable challenge.

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  • February 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm
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    I’ve never written a lyric essay but it sounds like I might have to. Thanks for the step-by-step guide!

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