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.

Lit-ercise: Two Writing Exercises

Give yourself a word count.

1. Give yourself a word count, the smaller the better. Steve Moss, editor of The New York Times and flash fiction pioneer, recommends a word count of 55 words. No more and no less. Try to tell a complete story, a story with a protagonist, a conflict and a resolution. The idea is that once you start to get close to that word limit you’ll find that there are certain parts of your story that you can tell in a more efficient way, or even some parts that you don’t need.  As you write more and more of these you’ll find that you’re writing will become tighter and cleaner.

2. Pull out some stories from your favorite authors. Read their opening paragraphs and then try and imitate their style in an opening paragraph of your own. Authors tend to spend a lot of time on their opening paragraphs and as a result it is usually some of their best work. The goal here is to step a bit out of your style comfort zone, and see what it’s like to write like a published author. You may find that your own writing becomes stronger and more engaging.