Twenty five years ago, the vast majority of my reading was both bounded and continuous—bounded, because most of my reading material came in discrete packets (a book; a magazine; the salacious graffiti of a seedy bathroom stall), and continuous, because although I might put a book down and come back to it, or have several books going at the same time, I was not generally bouncing back and forth between unrelated reading experiences simultaneously.
Today, I’ve already checked Twitter seven times while writing the sentence above, and now my brain is a whizzing fizz of climate change, K-pop, and “hot” takes in three languages and a hundred voices.
Over the course of the last generation, the Internet has changed our common reading experience; now, as a teacher of creative nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars, I’m seeing first-hand how this new world of reading has transformed the instinctual writing voices of my students. An epochal shift is occurring, and from our great humming mass of distributed machines my students are summoning an unexpected ghost: lyricism.
The lyric essay is having a moment—despite the fact that many of these students could not offer a definition of the lyric essay, describe its techniques, or explain why they used them. But this is to be expected, as this change is not the precious reaching of a precocious undergrad, but an upstream change in the base reagents my students are combining in the alchemical process that is writing. To understand why this is happening, and how to take advantage of it, we need to first step back and define the lyric’s place in the ecosystem of essays. And to really do that, we first have to define what essays themselves are made of.
The Three Components of Essays
All essays have three fundamental components: self, content, and form. The self is the point-of-view of the piece, the storyteller; the selective intelligence of the author, which both chooses the moments that make up the piece and imbues each moment with the unique perspective that best serves the piece’s totality. The content is the thing we are writing about; what Vivian Gornick so masterfully defines as “the situation” (the plot or external object under consideration) and “the story” (the meaning, or internal realizations of the narrator). Finally, form is the shape of the words on the page, how they connect, spiral, or explode.
How does nonfiction function in the hands of writers who aren’t sure the truth exists?
Think about it this way: all essays are journeys to new knowledge or states of being. The self is the shoulder we the reader are perched on for the journey. The content is the landscape we are traveling through and the path we are on (in Gornick’s terms, the moment-to-moment stuff we see is “the situation,” and our later reflective understanding of the path we took is “the story”). The form is our mode of locomotion, whether we are walking slowly and methodically from start to finish, or leaping wildly from beginning to end and back again.
The Three Kinds of Essays
Building off of this: there are also three main kinds of essay: personal, research, and lyric. All three have self, content, and form, but each kind has a corresponding component that is of dominant importance.
Personal essays are distinguished by their focus on self. The unique point of view of the storyteller is the fundamental reason to read the essay. The content is mostly there to provide a space for the author to think or have experiences, and the reader isn’t meant to learn that content.
Research essays are distinguished by their focus on content. Like journalism, they prize explaining something to the reader; but unlike journalism, the author is directly implicated—they are a part of the group, idea, or experience being explained, and through that explanation, the reader comes to understand the author better, as well as the content.
Finally, lyric essays are distinguished by their focus on form. In these essays, fundamental aspects of meaning are contained in or created by their shape on the page. For example, in lyric essays white space, fragments, repetition, juxtaposition, caesura, braids, changes in tense, and non-linear-organizing structures are frequently used to suggest or change the relationship between the written words and their meaning.
A Rabbit Hole Into the Concept of Truth
The divisions above aren’t arbitrary; they are indicative of a deeper reality about essays. The concept behind creative nonfiction is easy—tell the truth—but the truth, it turns out, is subjective. The three kinds of essay (personal, research, and lyric) are defined as much by their relationship to the truth as they are by how they are written; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the way they are written is a sotto voce attempt to communicate the author’s understanding of “the truth” as a concept.
How does this work? Well, we can divide all statements into three truth values: true, false, or outside the true-false binary (neither true nor false, both true and false, shifting between true and false, not categorizable as true or false, etc.). In writing, we call these relationships to the truth nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. The different kinds of essays draw both their narrative power and their literary techniques from these pre-existing genres.
Personal essays fall closest to fiction; they are primarily about illustrating the unique point of view of the author. They smooth out the randomness of life to turn it into narrative. The truth exists in the meaning, not the details.
Because the goal of the personal essay is to get the reader to see a certain perspective, they often play fast and loose with the truth (on a small scale). For instance, almost every great personal essayist says that the details are necessary, but they don’t matter. So long as the overall intention is not to deceive the reader, invented detail—in this way of writing—is seen as helping the reader to get at the truth of it all. For example, here’s essayist Jo Ann Beard discussing truth in her book Boys of My Youth:
I remembered the bare bones, and then the rest of it is just constructed from what I know of the people involved. Fuzzy memory doesn’t usually work in an essay; you have to be detailed…the dialogue and various other things were constructed for the pleasure of the reader. And, I must add, the writer…I don’t think anybody could read [BOYS OF MY YOUTH] and think they were reading a factual account of someone’s childhood.
Research essays, on the other hand, double down on nonfiction; they are primarily about explaining some external reality or experience the author has had. The truth in these essays exists in the facts.
Research essays are thus detail oriented. They use a lot of proper names and dates and quotes, and the author can’t make things up without losing my trust as a reader. Atul Gawande, a surgeon turned essayist, is a strong advocate for this kind of truth in nonfiction. In The Guardian in 2014, an interviewer noted that Gawande felt the “idea of precision” is something writers could learn from doctors. “As a doctor,” he said, “you have to notice the particular shade of blue the patient turns. You need to be very factual.”
Here we have the difference between research and personal essays: Gawande says we have to be very factual, Beard says no one would ever assume her work was factual. (For my money, the best craft essay on this topic is T Kira Madden’s “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.”)
Finally, Lyric essays work the techniques of poetry, the area of writing where we rarely ask if something is true or not. Thus, they forefront the idea that truth is in some fundamental way uncertain, unknowable, or uncommunicable, and that life is not at all like a story: it is confusing, conflicting, discontinuous, random, and with multiple or unclear meanings.
Lyric essays tend to be quite subtle, occluded, and difficult, because they often abandon the conventions of normal prose writing. Lyric essays have to teach readers how to understand the rules by which they function, and that can be hard.
In an interview with the journal Sierra Nevada in 2017, lyric essayist Matthew Komatsu discussed his approach to using lyric juxtapositions to move outside the true-false binary. “[You have] two different ways of viewing it, and I think when you put those two next to each other, if you do it right, there can be a very poetic aspect…where you can essentially represent the different viewpoints, neither being more valid than the other.”
We can see this technique play out in Komatsu’s tender meditation “When We Played.” Originally published in the journal Brevity, it compares his experiences as a kid playing soldier, with his experiences as an adult in the military in Afghanistan. But Komatsu makes this comparison via form, not the written word, and by leaving it thus unspoken, he makes it impossible to analyze in terms of its “truth.”
Lyric techniques literally complicate the ability of the reader to find truth in the written word.
“When We Played” is composed of short numbered sections. Odd sections are italicized, even ones aren’t. This suggests to the reader some kind of harmony, or braid, that unites all the odd sections and all the even ones. Here is a short excerpt from the beginning:
1. When we played war as boys, we never died. Dead was a reset button, a do-over, a quarrel over who killed who. Maybe we played fair…
2. All those close calls. That time in Afghanistan the SUV drove past the white rocks and into the red ones—white all right, red is dead—a local in the backseat jabbering jib. What did he say? Translator: “He say, WE ARE DRIVING INTO MINEFIELD.”
3. When we played war as men, the wounded on their backs—they called our names, their mothers’ names, the names of all gods past and present…
Komatsu’s form leads us to expect that section three will be a segment about him as a child. When instead we have another adult section, paralleling the sentence structure of section 1, the unexpected juxtaposition suggests an equivalency between the boys and the men—an ineffable comparison built via placement and font. And this brings us back around to the Internet.
The Poetry of Tabs
In many ways, writing on the Internet (not for publication, just regular daily communication) has quietly routinized us to lyric techniques. Lyric essays are often identifiable at a glance, in the same way poetry can be distinguished from prose. Like Komatsu’s essay above, these pieces often move in small segments and employ white space, placement, and font to express ideas. They might repeat a word or phrase to explore multiple meanings from it; or place images, ideas, or phrases next to each other to suggest meaning without putting it into words; or break traditional grammar and sentence structure; or change POV suddenly; or abandon chronological time in favor of some other organizing principle (often alphabetical); or dive back and forth between seemingly unconnected threads; or speak in many voices simultaneously.
Where else do all of these things happen? On Twitter. In the comment section. In discord chats and news aggregators and blogs and the million other online spaces that now make up the vast majority of the quotidian, functional nonfiction we read every day.
But these techniques aren’t just more common because of the Internet, they’re also more useful, because the Internet has pushed us firmly into a post truth world. Deep-fake videos, endless stories of online grifters, and the anonymity of the Internet have tricked or will trick all of us at some point. Moreover: just the constant and routine exposure to other points of view, different stories, and critique from unexpected angles have led us to be suspicious of the Truth (capital T) and our ability to reach it or tell it overall. How does nonfiction function in the hands of writers who aren’t sure the truth exists? Lyrically.
When employed in creative nonfiction (like essay writing), lyric techniques literally complicate the ability of the reader to find truth in the written word: they leave things unsaid and therefore undefinable; they draw multiple, sometimes conflicting, meanings from one word or phrase; they break down sentence structure, embracing verb and tense confusion; they take the story out of linear time, which destroys an easy understanding of causality and motivation, etc.
Thus, the Internet has spent decades teaching my students to read lyric forms, and simultaneously, doubt the truth. It has created (or made visible) a problem—the unknowability of truth—and at the same time, sculpted a language to talk about it. This is not a process that will stop or reverse tomorrow, and I suspect that I will continue to see more lyric techniques in the essays of my students, peers, and friends in years to come. As a writing teacher, I don’t see it as my job to push my students towards one form of truth over another, but it is essential that I understand how the techniques they are using communicate the truth, and why they are reaching for these techniques, right now, instead of more traditional ones.