MONTPELIER, VERMONT: When is a creative writer not a storyteller?
That was the question that came to my mind as I took in the lecture “The Lyric Essay: In Defense of a Fragmented Structure” here at my MFA residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was a graduation lecture by Emily Casey, a skilled writer I was privileged to be able to workshop with at my previous residency.
Emily is a poet turned fiction writer turned creative nonfiction writer. She’s graduating with both a fiction and CNF specialization here, not an easy task. But she doesn’t just write CNF; she embraces the “lyric essay,” which at its core embodies the antithesis of narrative structure. In other words, Emily the fiction storyteller now seeks consciously to not tell stories.
This “MFA Nugget” is going to take a detour—to break free of its usual form–because Emily’s lecture triggered reflection in me regarding my own writing path. As such, you have before you a “meditative blog post.”
“Don’t we all write to tell stories?” I asked myself during Emily’s lecture. I believe I do. Before turning my focus on CNF in the last year I spent a fair amount of time writing fiction, although I had unfortunately drifted away from it in recent years. During that entire period, however, I was telling stories professionally as a journalist. Thus, all of my writing—creative and professional—centered on story.
“Fiction is plot—beginning, middle, end.” Emily said this has been her view of fiction. But her discovery a year ago of the lyric essay—with its focus on evoking reflection through imagery and metaphor—spoke to an even earlier iteration of Emily’s creative writing, her poetry. Citing VCFA’s Sue Silverman, Emily said “the lyric essay explores the boundaries of poetry and prose.” And Emily noted lyric essays are sometimes instead labeled “prose poetry.”
A confession: If you had asked me a year ago to define a lyric essay or a prose poem, I would first have stared blankly, then changed the subject. Even now I struggle a bit with the definitions, just as I struggled this semester when reading a collection of lyric essays compiled by the form’s champion, John D’Agata.
“Are you telling me this entire essay is just a series of orphaned footnotes? &*%$#!” I shouted when encountering Jenny Boully’s “The Body: An Essay” two months ago. And sure enough, Emily cited that work in her lecture as a “celebrity” essay among the academic elite of literature. I am not close to that circle, and I do not—yet—celebrate the absence of narrative. Allow me to point out that the other term for creative nonfiction, one I happen to embrace, is “narrative nonfiction.”
But I understand why someone as creatively curious as Emily would wish to break free of the constraints of plot, of structure, of story. Her enthusiasm for the freedom lyric essays provide her is palpable.
In this last semester I produced a number of personal essays. I struggled with the challenge of putting myself on the page, of telling my story rather than that of someone else. But invariably my essays had, in some respect, a beginning, middle and end. I didn’t have to work at that; it just happened. It always happens.
But will that always be the case? Two nights ago I performed here a reading of a short work. It had to be short, because given the number of students here we are limited to four minutes. None of my work produced for VCFA fit that length, so over the last two weeks I wrote a new piece, featuring a bit of humor and a touch of pathos. It told a story, of sorts. But in reality it was really only a “middle.” I told myself that the restriction on length prevented me from completing the arc, but when I was “done” with the essay I liked its abrupt beginning and unresolved ending.
“I try to honor the process of letting things out,” Emily replied when I asked her how her lyric essay writing is impacting her fiction. She was telling me that she now approaches all of her writing with less initial adherence to form; she follows the meandering river, also the name of a Sue Silverman essay Emily cited in her lecture.
I realize now that I rode that river when writing that short essay. I also realize that knowing I would be reading it aloud, I placed particular emphasis on rhythm, on cadence, on silence. Was my piece a prose poem? A listener afterward asked me how long I have been writing poetry. The last poem I wrote was in 1985, when I was ordered to by a high school English teacher.
There are so many labels bandied about in the literary world. This writing is this, and that writing as that. I was relieved to hear Emily say she doesn’t worry too much about labels, that they are useful to her only in that they provide a starting point for conversation about a particular work. I suppose it’s not surprising that someone breaking free of the constraint of story also resists the constraint of labels.
I am open to the possibility of writing lyrically; on my path of an art-committed life I remain open to all creative possibility. But I still find comfort in structure. Emily featured in her slide show a spectrum Sue Silverman documents in The Meandering River; it categorizes creative nonfiction from the most rigid narrative to the most fragmented. The lyric essay lies at one extreme. The genre I aspire to, biography, is its opposite.
An MFA can open a writer to new possibility. It can also inform a writer of his own passion. Emily’s lecture, for this listener, did both.