Lately I’ve been writing a lot of essays where I take one thing – the color of light or the water I’ve known – and play it out in a bunch of small scenes, using the sections of the piece to give facets on that thing. Right now, the things I’m most fascinated with are things that I consider elemental – fire, water, air, earth, light, the moon, color, clouds – all those pieces of life that are always present and crucial yet so often overlooked. When I write about these things, I find myself going deeper, thinking more complexly, about everything. Plus, as I release into these things, I find myself releasing a lot of my tension – my shoulders stop aching, my mind slows down, I breathe more evenly. There’s something about pushing into one thing with intensity that gives everything else focus. Has anyone had this experience in writing or music or running or painting or anything else? I think most people feel this way when they do one thing they love and when they do it well. I want to cultivate this feeling in more things.
One way I’m working this idea out in my writing is in creating these lyric essays. As The Seneca Review explains, “The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention.” I find this way of writing to be immensely liberating, especially when I spend my days expounding to students and in academic pieces. I love the idea of a mosaic that circles around something, letting that something speak itself into the world. I find that to be so much more like life, where we do our things and speak our minds, only to find we have done and said something we never intended – for good or bad. Rarely do I get the opportunity to explain my actions fully, to write an expository piece on why I decided to do anything, as much as I may want to. So on some levels, I find the lyric essay to be so comforting, so wise, and so complex.
I first came upon this form sideways when I read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Here, Dillard pieces together various ideas, objects, memories, pieces of history to form a complex but not cleanly cogent idea of identity. There’s almost exposition in the book, no explanations of how these things connect. She leaves lots of spaces where the reader’s mind can play out associations and allusions lovingly. This book, more than any other, changed my writing.
“Lagoa do Fogo (Fire Lake)” by Azorina