Monday, March 4, 2019

In Praise of Ambiguity: The Lyric Essay in 2019 by Zoë Bossiere & Erica Trabold

As the host of an interview podcast series on the New Books Network, one of my missions is to generate quality conversations with writers about their debut books of creative nonfiction. Though I have hosted interviews with writers from all backgrounds, my New Books in Literature channel gives special priority to books written by women, people of color, queer-identifying folx, and other marginalized identities. Recently, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Erica Trabold, whose collection of lyric essays, Five Plots, was released from Seneca Review Books this past November. If you haven’t read it yet, Five Plots represents a sharp contemporary example of the subgenre, boldly experimenting with form to craft a striking portrait of the intersection between terrain and the lived experience of Trabold as a young girl navigating her identity and heritage in rural Nebraska.

Below, essayist Erica Trabold and I continue the conversation we began on the New Books Network about definitions of the lyric essay, why it has such staying power, and how it intersects with identity in order to better understand the lyric essay’s place in the writing world of 2019 and beyond.


Zoë Bossiere: Erica, our conversation about the craft of your book got me thinking about the state of the lyric essay, especially as it comes up in academia. As a teacher, I’ve had countless conversations with the emerging writers in my classroom about what the lyric essay is, exactly. They’re curious about what makes it tick, (Is it the poetic quality of the language? The formal experimentation? The use of white space? All of the above?) and how to master it as eloquently and as (seemingly) effortlessly as Eula Biss in her essay “The Pain Scale” or Claudia Rankine in her Citizen, or Ander Monson in his “I Have Been Thinking About Snow.” We spend time in class mapping each of these essays, seeking answers to big questions about content and form. I encourage my students to experiment with the lyric essay, themselves, which often represents a first departure from the linear narrative prose intro creative nonfiction students write, and an important step toward finding a unique writerly voice. As a result, every semester several of my students will bring pieces into workshop crafted with the lyric essay in mind. Teaching the lyric essay works for my teaching style and classroom, but I know the form is also somewhat contentious in academic spaces. So let’s start there.

Erica, you consider yourself not only an essayist, but a lyric essayist. You began writing lyric essays as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, and they remain a strong (if not the defining) aspect of your identity as a writer. I’m wondering what your experiences with the lyric essay within the academy have been like? Have you encountered any resistance to the form and your personal identification with it?

Erica Trabold: Something I learned as a brand new MFA student: it’s contentious to call yourself a “lyric essayist.” I had just left Nebraska for a program in Oregon, and the students in my cohort were meeting for the first time, introducing ourselves and our work around the dinner table. “Are you sure you write lyric essays?” a second-year student interrupted me to ask. “What even is a lyric essay?” That’s when my face got hot.

“I like D’Agata’s explanation,” I said, “that a lyric essay is dependent on gaps and images.” My answer was built on definitions, and I didn’t necessarily feel any of them were new. The term has its origins in Seneca Review’s Fall 1997 issue, the first in which the journal devoted page space to the subgenre by name. In Seneca Review’s oft-cited editorial note, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata offer a basic definition, and that’s what I was drawing from:
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
With this work, Tall and D’Agata opened their submission queue to writing that “accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically,” is “no more than metaphors,” or circles “the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme.” In sum, the editorial note resists the idea that narrative or argument are the only driving forces behind publishable nonfiction writing. Though a thing always exists before it is named—in 1997, a subgenre was born…. twenty-some years later I was still being asked to defend and define it.

“Are you sure you write lyric essays? What even is a lyric essay?”

Although I identify as a lyric essayist, I ask myself some version of these questions every time I sit down to write. Maybe that’s a product of self-doubt, or maybe these are questions worth asking. I guess I’m not too interested in the difference, only in noticing how the questions are so easily weaponized and uttered in skepticism. I even do it to myself, instead of embracing the freedom and flexibility of the form.

I’ve heard a number of writers express similar suspicion over the term “lyric essay” over the years. Some want it gone, replaced, or shifted to another genre entirely. I get it. Even with our definitions, “lyric essay” remains a hard category to pin down, and like the term “creative nonfiction,” carries with it an encyclopedic volume of baggage. But I worry the contents of these conversations will never really change. When it comes to “lyric essay,” I wonder… besides drawing and redrawing the lines of definition, what else can we talk about in 2019?

ZB: That’s a good question. I’ve heard all kinds of interpretations of the lyric essay both in the workshops I teach and the workshops I’ve taken, ranging from narrow definitions that strictly conform to John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s original conversation to much broader understandings of the form that seem to encompass just about anything. Both are valid, as the only real rule in essaying is that there are always exceptions to the rules.

So I agree that getting hung up on finding an exact definition for the lyric essay can be antithetical to creativity, especially in the workshop setting. For example, in one of my graduate workshops, a peer brought in a piece she titled “a lyric essay” that was comprised of one linear narrative broken up into short sections with lots of white space spread across several pages. Whether the piece was in fact “lyric” or not, no one can actually say. But much of that class was spent arguing over the definition of “lyric essay” before we actually got around to discussing the content of her work. I’m sure that was a frustrating experience for her, and it’s one I’m not keen to repeat in my own classes.

Luckily, there has been a distinct shift in how writers talk about the lyric essay now and when John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s definition first cemented it as a subgenre. Of course, we can’t know what Tall would think of the lyric essay in 2019, but in the years since their collaboration D’Agata has revisited the definition numerous times, calling into question the very foundation of what the lyric essay is and whether the distinction between lyric and other forms is still relevant in the ever-shifting universe of the essay at large.

And though it might be easy for folks to dismiss this as the usual D’Agata move, stirring things up in the writing world, he’s definitely not the only one. Far from protecting the integrity of the form, lyric essayists in particular seem the least willing to interrogate what the term means. This movement from the need to delineate the lyric essay as different from other essayistic forms in 1997 to Eula Biss stating the definition “doesn’t matter” in her 2007 essay “It Is What It Is,” to now, more than ten years later, appears to be in favor of embracing in that ambiguity—or, at least, resigning oneself to it. The titles of recent works on the lyric essay seem to follow in this spirit, as seen in Biss’ essay and also the 2015 Seneca Review anthology, We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay.

So I’m wondering now where you consider your stance to fall along this spectrum. Is the lyric essay a readily identifiable form, or is it something one can only really know when they see it? Do you feel this delineation between lyric and other essay forms is an important aspect of your identity as a writer?

ET: Is it important? That’s a good question, and perhaps, if I re-enter the conversation I had with my classmate, it’s a version of what they were asking. I think it’s incredibly important to call a lyric essay I’ve written a “lyric essay.” Whether in a workshop, submission, or editorial situation, those words mean the essay will be read and responded to appropriately. Nothing is more frustrating than getting feedback or edits that go against the spirit of the lyric essay—gaps, images, repetition, meditation, subtlety, music—and ask it to be something else. No matter the genre, I would guess most of us want our work to be read through the lens of the form we’re aiming for. In that sense, I find the label so important.

That said, I think many of us know a “lyric essay” when we see one, but terms used to categorize genre are often co-opted and decided for us by marketing departments. Sometimes I read a memoir and think, “That didn’t really feel like a memoir to me at all.” Turns out the writer wanted to publish it as fiction. In another example that comes to mind, a writer published each “chapter” of her memoir individually as essays, and through the editorial process, numbers got slapped on. What am I getting at? I think savvy readers know when something doesn’t feel right or fit the category we’re trying to smash it into. And in those cases, a label can do more harm than good. I’m of the opinion that writers should be allowed to name and define their own work—if I say I write “lyric essays,” be generous first and try to understand why, try to understand how it uses the tools of that form to create meaning.

ZB: Right. The trouble with labels and categories, of course, is that by definition they must include some things while excluding others. Implicit in naming the lyric essay—in naming anything—is the imposition of limitations as to what something called “the lyric essay” should look like, should encompass, and even who it should be written by. But how does one begin to categorize a form that “forsake[s] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation” but is also distinctly something other than poetry? Geoffrey Babbitt interrogates this very problem in his recent essay, “On Categories,” wherein he points out how “naming an in-between, such as the lyric essay—which Tall and D’Agata originally defined as a ‘sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem’—can show just how arbitrary categorization is.”

I’d say giving the lyric essay a name provides clarity, and clarity can be a useful thing. When we can identify what an essay is doing, this helps us in turn identify what the essay is doing well for purposes of workshop, critique, and other professional pursuits. For instance, the term “creative nonfiction” only came into contemporary usage around the 1970s because writers needed a way to categorize their work for the National Endowment of the Arts. Then they needed an official name for what they were teaching in the academy. Publishers needed a category for selling books and literary journals for accepting submissions. In a similar vein, Seneca Review needed a name for its contest, and, as Babbitt makes clear, the lyric essay was closest to the kind of work they were seeking. So in light of all this, we might understand the tendency toward distancing the lyric essay from certainty to be a form of resistance to the academy’s obsession with categorization—a way of protecting the lyric essay from becoming institutionalized in the same way other creative forms have been.

ET: Exactly—I think we wade into murky waters by institutionalizing and syllabizing our subgenres. Plenty of academics offer interesting critiques about boundaries, terminology, and ethics, and I think these are conversations unique to the nonfiction genre. I want to get curious about that. Even in pedagogy, I notice a hesitation among creative writing teachers to teach the term “lyric essay” to students. Mostly, they seem worried about our genre’s relationship to truth.

Perhaps some of the hesitation is rooted in the myriad reactions to D’Agata’s 2012 book The Lifespan of a Fact. As that conversation has continued in our classrooms, I’ve noticed a fair amount misunderstanding and conflating. First of all, the book is not about lyric essays; it’s about nonfiction writing en total. It questions just how much nonfiction writers should believe in or rely on “facts.” Some of us don’t like that idea. Isn’t our genre built on facts? Shouldn’t we defend them? If we don’t, what separates our work from fiction? Of course, these are fair questions to ask. But again, The Lifespan of a Fact is not a book about lyric essays—it’s only by association the stigmas get attached to the subgenre and passed onto our students.

Anyway, I think the truth vs. fact conversation is pretty tired. They’re two abstract concepts I don’t see entirely at odds and never have. We can allow our writing to push against while playing within the boundaries of the truth—we know this already. Stopping another writer short from that playfulness is a kind of gatekeeping. It keeps us from having more meaningful conversations about what the lyric essay can accomplish. I see the lyric essay as a place of resistance and especially useful for writers with marginalized identities.

ZB: I’m glad you bring this up, Erica. You’re right that it’s probably time for the conversation around the lyric essay to shift from definition to other questions about who is actually writing the lyric essay, and why. Because I feel like the answers haven’t been examined much beyond the pervasive assumption that only (white) women write them. For instance, Lyzette Wanzer, in her excellent addition to Essay Daily’s 2018 Advent Calendar, “Finding A Way In: Teaching the Lyric Essay” asks why there seems to be, in her words, a “dearth” of men writing lyric essays. I appreciate Wanzer’s question as one certainly worth exploring, though I’m not sure I buy the notion that men aren’t writing lyric essays, per se. I can think of several well-known male lyric essayists or, if preferred, male writers who have been known to write lyric essays, other than the handful Wanzer mentions. There’s John D’Agata, Matthew Gavin Frank, Eric LeMay, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore to name only a few of my favorites. Erica, you could probably name even more!

But accepting Wanzer’s assertion at face value, I think one potential answer for the popularity of the lyric essay among women writers might be its ability to successfully subvert (white, western, heteronormative) literary tradition. That is, the lyric essay takes many of the cardinal rules of “good” writing—linear structure, clear chronology, plot—and throws them out the window in favor of embracing liminality and uncertainty, which are spaces many women inhabit.

The conversation about women and the lyric essay parallels, in many ways, the grouping of women and what’s often called the “confessional” essay form. The confessional essay has been criticized for being what detractors call “too singular,” detailing personal experiences with everything from medical nightmare scenarios to rape and sexual assault in plain, honest language. I wrote a response on the Brevity blog a couple of years ago now to the infamous New Yorker piece, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over,” which touches on the issues surrounding this kind of criticism in greater depth. But in short, the confessional essay is often unfairly dismissed as less serious than other forms of nonfiction writing, and those who write them are not considered “real writers” in the literary sense. That women just so happen to make up the majority of so-called “confessional essayists” is no coincidence, and I worry that categorizing the lyric essay as a predominantly “women’s” form distracts from the amazing genre-pushing work these essayists are doing.

So in this same vein, I wonder whether the rush backward in the conversation surrounding the nomenclature of the lyric essay is actually good or bad for the women writing them. That is, would the end of distinguishing lyric essays from other kinds work better credit women lyric essayists as “real writers,” or does it erase the recognition these women have worked so hard to establish in the genre? It’s a complicated question, and one I’m not sure has a definite answer one way or the other. But I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, Erica.

ET: Those are difficult questions to answer—I think we can agree that it is pretty messed up there is anyone out there who believes they have the power to call someone a “real writer” or not. Unfairly, women have had to fight harder for their work and lives to be taken as “serious matters” worth writing about. However, I don’t think this is just a question about women. Let’s invite all our intersectional identities to the party—writers of color, queer writers, writers with disabilities, writers of multiple languages and multiple Englishes. Let’s reclaim our marginal spaces, like the “lyric essay”—for absolute sure—but I don’t think new definitions are necessary.

For me, “lyric” is perhaps more a quality than a category. There are conventions unique to the subgenre—gaps, silences, white space, images, and association, to name a few. Maybe a piece has some of those lyric qualities and not others—just like every writer has a unique amalgamation of intersecting identities. “Tracks,” one of the essays in my book, Five Plots, is more narrative than anything I’ve ever written, and I’m okay with that. Because it’s still using many of the conventions of the lyric essay while letting others go. We have to be able to allow ourselves that space to decide what selection of tools are useful for a project. And it’s a really powerful thing for a writer to be able to name their own work, instead of having it named for them. Writers should be allowed to assume the identities they see appropriate for themselves.

ZB: You know, in considering why we’re seeing a tendency to distance the lyric essay from its nomenclature, I can’t help but think how this ambivalence is so germane to the lyric essay, and what the form supposed to symbolize. I mean, could a something as liminal, marginal, even queer as the lyric essay exist any other way? In some ways, this movement is reminiscent of creative nonfiction as a genre, up to and including marrying the words “creative” and “nonfiction” together as a stand in for what it is we essayists do. As I tell my students in their introductory workshops, one of the first paradoxes of nonfiction is that it’s named for what it is not—and it only gets weirder from there.

So it is with the lyric essay, which is both lyrical and essayistic but also so much more expansive than any pair of words could encompass. The lyric essay doesn’t follow the “rules” of creative nonfiction (most lyric essays spectacularly fail Lee Gutkind’s “Yellow Test”). It defies traditional narrative prescription, and makes itself comfortable occupying the spaces between artistic normativity. All of which is why it’s important when we talk about lyric essaying to look beyond binaries. You’re right—when the conversation is focused on women and the lyric essay, as it often is, it can be easy to overlook the amazing genre-bending work by trans and nonbinary writers who tend toward lyrical forms in their nonfiction, like Clutch T. Fleischmann, Berry Grass, and Krys Malcolm Belc (to name just a few). The lyric essay and liminality go hand in hand, so it makes sense that queer-identifying folx are choosing this form of written expression in particular, and I’d like to see this method more widely embraced in the worlds of academia and publishing, where these voices have traditionally been excluded.

ET: Wholeheartedly, I agree! In a time when embracing fluidity is essential to positive changes in our culture, why go on resisting the expansiveness the lyric essay offers? The binaries have to to go—including and especially truth-fact. Let’s continue to update our thinking, as teachers and writers.


Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative nonfiction and rhetoric and composition. She is the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and a podcast host for the New Books Network. Visit her at her website, or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, selected as the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. Trabold's lyric essays appear in The Rumpus, Passages North, The Collagist, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Oregon State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Erica writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. Find Erica on Twitter @ericatrabold and the web at

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