MFA Nugget: Storytelling vs. Fragmentation

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.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

22 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Storytelling vs. Fragmentation”

  1. Fascinating. I always love hearing what the academic elite are talking about. And hate it–it’s always so abstract. Still, what I like about this is the experimentation with the “rules” of writing. Sometimes you can only figure out what works by breaking the rules and doing something no one has done before.

    • Hi Joe! I admire these writers for bending, or even breaking, the rules. But like Picasso moving from beautiful “traditional” art to cubism, they know the rules and have worked in it. You nailed it.

      • Right. They clearly knew and were bored with the rules enough to break them.

        It’s interesting you used Picasso as an example, though. I’m just thinking outloud here, but the average person looks at a painting for something like 8 seconds. That means, if they’re confused by what’s going on, they’re only going to have to be confused for 8 seconds. If you want to read a fragmented novel or essay, it’s going to take one hundred times that or more to read it. That’s minutes and hours of confusion, and I think while most people might be up for 8 seconds of confusion for a painting, they won’t be able handle hours of it for an essay.
        Blake is still the least read poet in the canon. Of course, maybe academics don’t care about having their books read, as long as they’re respected🙂

        Am I wrong Patrick? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Most interesting topic. Really, I mean “most”. It’s grist for a lot of passionate discussion, to which I would like to add this thought: even a decapitated “middle” probably has a thrust. And if there’s a thrust, we can exptrapolate an ending.

    In other words, even if there’s no “narrative”, there has to be “life”. If there’s life, there’s direction. And I’ve observed, as a reader, that I am busy anticipating endings. I believe that readers seek to impose a structure on what they’re reading. They imagine protagonists beyond the end of the story. And that’s a huge part of the reading process. One can imagine the meandering river winding up in the ocean, even if the narrative doesn’t want to take us that far. And the writer should probably become aware of that, of what the reader is capable of doing.

    Am I making any sense here? I guess I’m saying that structure may be inherent in anything, by virtue of the intelligence of the reader.

    • Hi PJ,

      I love the thought you bring to your comments. You’re making great sense. I see you saying that even without a formal story, these writers are communicating a story, just not in the conventional sense. We’ll leave the essay learning a bit about the author, what he/she is contemplating, with an invitation to continue that. It’s almost like an ongoing, interactive story, we’re meandering toward taht ocean you mentioned.

  3. Wow, I don’t know where to begin. What you have written seems over my head but of what you write lights a fire in me to keep showing up every day to write. Most days I won’t even come close but I WILL keep trying. Thank you for the inspiration that you are.

    • Em, I feel over my head here every friggin’ day. But it’s nice to be challenged, to know that I am making progress on the writing road but that there is so much possibility ahead of me, and many forks. I’m not sure the lyric essay fork is for me, but it’s interesting to hear about it, and yes, like you, the discussion lights a fire in me as well. It means a tremendous amount to me to hear that you can find inspiration in my posts!

  4. Hmmm… I got a little scared even reading this post. Which probably means I’m too close-minded. I like the structure of beginning, middle, end, and my first thought was, why do we need lyrical essays when we have poetry? Poor poets already suffer enough without more competition – LOL!

    On the other hand, pushing boundaries is a good thing – in writing and in life. So while I don’t think it’s a bandwagon I can jump on, I’m glad there are folks out there leading the charge.

    • “Poor poets already suffer enough without more competition.” Love it!

      Julie, I’m with you. I think most readers cherish a beginning, middle and end, and I suspect even this narrow circle of literary elites who eat up lyric essays and understand their nuances still love a good story well told. I love, like you appear to, that some people are out pushing boundaries. It may lead to more competition for poets, but it leaves more room for us storytellers to find our audience.

  5. Interesting idea. I think I grasp what the lecturers are trying to say, but I’m an example girl. I think I’d need to see an example of this type of writing to fully understand it. However, while I’m open to experimenting, as a reader, I like to feel that “conclusion” at the end of a story. It allows me to contemplate, to reflect on the deeper themes and how they affect me and my way of thinking. As a writer, there’s something very satisfying about offering that final breath for my readers. While I’m not the type who likes to adhere to rules and structure, I do believe a narrative needs some type of direction, and some form of conclusion. Otherwise, I feel empty and confused at the end. Or perhaps, is that what the writers want, in this case?

  6. Because I am a poet, I think I just naturally write more “lyrical’ essays, but I don’t consider what I write lyric essays for the most part. I was so put off by D’Agata’s The Next American Essay, that I gave up even being interested in the lyric essay, instead choosing to see myself as a lyrical/poetic writer. But sometimes folks think my “essays” are prose poems, and when I explain that they are prose, they often don’t buy it.

    Richard Jackson, who teaches with me at UTC and who also teaches at VCFA, is teaching a section of poetry this spring on the prose poem. He and I have discussed the fact that neither of us really knows what a prose poem is. I don’t think anybody can really define these things, but I know a prose poem when I see it, I can FEEL a prose poem. I don’t have, or have not yet had, the same experience with the lyric essay. Perhaps that one book just turned me off so much my mind is somewhat closed up. Anyhow, I find your post intriguing and I hope you write more about this. Especially your point about biography being at the opposite end of the CNF spectrum from the lyric essay. I didn’t even think that biography WAS CNF. And just so you know, I graduated VCFA in 2009 with a concentration in CNF and poetry.

    -rebecca
    godlikepoet.com

    • Rebecca,

      I love that you and Richard Jackson resist labels like that, and I like the notion of feeling it rather than clinically defining it.

      It’s great to hear from a VCFAer, and a CNFer at that. Your POV on biography is not uncommon; Sue Silverman has noted that many share it, and it seems my fellow students here are all focused on memoir and personal essay. But what would you call In Cold Blood? It is, at its core, a biography of two troubled men, one of them surprisingly sympathetic. I would also say that Simon Winchester’s Professor and the Madman has as many riveting scenes, richly sketched characters, plot and narrative tension as the best novels.

  7. Andromeda Romano-Lax Reply March 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve been trying to understand what a lyric essay actually is for a while now, and even having read D’Agata’s anthology and discussed it with an online MFA discussion group, I’m no closer. If the lyric essay really is intentionally non-narrative, I’ll stop critiquing from the standpoint that the narrative components seem to be missing, broken, or somehow ungrounded. I’ve been resisting essays that are 30 pages but read, essentially, like poetry. Your post was much more helpful and I look forward to following the links. I’m going to try to open my mind a little wider, though my inclination has been to say exactly what Joe Bunting was saying about visual art and Picasso, i.e. it’s one thing to experience confusion and fragmentation for a matter of seconds (visual art) or even minutes (challenging music, or for that matter, a challenging poem). I think it ignores the reader’s needs to assume someone can be confused for the 8-10 hours it takes to read a novel. But again — thanks for this. I need to learn more!

    • I’m glad you found my post of some use, and it appears we’ve been on the same path in trying to understand the nature of a lyric essay. On your point about a reader being confused for 8 to 10 hours with a novel, I’m finding as I meet more people in the world of literary reading that there is a segment of the population that hungers for that experience, but it is a small one and I am not currently a part of it. That is fine, as there is so much else I can read! And write.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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