Being stuck in the snow felt like an apt, if cliché, metaphor. At the time, I was on my way from my home in Pittsburgh to the New York State Archives in Albany to see some documents on the Craig Colony for Epileptics. For the past four years I had been researching the history of this colony—the first such place for epileptics in the United States—and it was all I could think about. But the further along I got in my research, the more difficult it became to push the stories I found into a cohesive narrative. I couldn’t forget what I’d learned and move forward with my life, but neither could I answer the questions I had about this place to the degree I wanted.
Three-and-a-half hours of sitting on the interstate later, a plow appeared. A police officer waved me down the nearest exit, pointing through the white curtain to a bridge. A truck stop was on the other side, he said, though when I skidded into the parking lot a few minutes later I found it was really just a Burger King attached to a gas station.
Hundreds of cars swelled into the parking lot throughout the night. In the middle of a remote stretch of mountains, we found solace at the only gas station for miles. Inside, I grabbed the last available chair and settled in for a long stay.
A few years ago, back when I was researching MFA programs, I stumbled across Peter Trachtenberg’s faculty profile at the University of Pittsburgh. In it, he describes a style of writing he calls lyric journalism, which he defines as writing that “combines hard research and reporting with a fluid, associative narrative.” I’d never heard this term before. While I was intrigued, I resisted the label for my own work. At the time, I thought of journalism as a necessary but unartful medium. I hadn’t yet been introduced to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or any of the other journalists writing eloquently and incisively about important issues. I didn’t yet correlate the legacy of essayists like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe working a beat to make a living but still bringing all the artistry and lyricism of their personal work into their reportage. No, “journalism”—even “lyric journalism,” whatever that was—didn’t describe the kind of formally weird, experimental essays I was writing. It didn’t describe essay.
In Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss combines personal narrative with hard reporting in a series of essays which interrogate whiteness, racism, and violence in America. Although the essays in this collection vary in content, many, notably, are driven primarily by research.
“Of what use is such an invention?” Biss quotes the New York World as asking in the first line of “Time and Distance Overcome.” “The world was not waiting for the telephone.” Although the piece begins with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, it quickly shifts. Biss uses associative leaps between paragraphs to trace the racial violence connected to the telephone pole. Relying heavily on the New York Times database for information, she lays out its archives in a segmented structure, allowing readers to interpret connections between juxtaposed paragraphs for themselves. By choosing to utilize such a broken structure, Biss essentially mimics her own process of discovery: though she set out to write an essay about the telephone, Biss discovered searching the term “telephone pole” in newspaper archives returned thousands of articles relating to lynchings. The accumulation of short sections in this piece, each detailing a specific person who died by lynching, read like we’re scrolling through the paper’s archives alongside Biss. Reading Biss’s work is an entirely different experience: the associative structure reads like the lyric, but the reporting reads like journalism.
Unlike some other essays in the book, Biss rarely uses the first person in “Time and Distance Overcome.” When she does, it’s to provide a window to the material at hand. Although essayists like Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Jenny Boully often use research in their work to expand upon personal experience, Biss, here, attempts the opposite. She uses the personal as a tool to inform and extend her material—essentially using the narrative “I” as its own form of research. “When I was young,” Biss writes, “I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious.” Here, Biss steps back and refocuses the external towards a personal reflection, intuitively gauging readers’ reactions to the material and allowing them time to process by mimicking their response in her own reflection. Like any essayist, Biss is propelled by hard-to-answer questions and topics. But unlike many, she attempts to answer those questions through research and amplifying the voices of others. Personal experience is just the entryway.
My entryway to Craig Colony can be distilled into a single experience: I was in high school the first time I heard about the colony. My parents and I were driving to the Western New York college I would soon attend, and the colony’s old buildings were just a few miles south of the school. I was shocked to find out the United States used to send people with epilepsy to colonies. Epilepsy runs in my family: I was diagnosed in second grade, and my dad’s had epilepsy his whole life. I remember driving past the place where Craig used to exist and thinking that could have been me.
Craig was a place where a group of people shunned by society forged their own little community. When the colony opened in 1896, inside institute grounds, there was a mattress shop, a fire station, a nursery—all run by patients. In his 1904 manifesto Epilepsy and Its Treatment, the colony’s medical superintendent at the time, William P. Spratling, marveled at the “camaraderie” forged between patients. But it was also a place filled with tragedy and neglect: where five teenage boys suffocated in tunnels below ground, an 18-year-old girl was sexually assaulted inside a chicken coop, and anyone who helped a patient escape was arrested and prosecuted.
Despite the tragedies, neglect, and abuse, New York State didn’t close the Craig Colony until 1986, nearly a century after it first opened. Questions about what happened to the patients who lived there haunted me as I began college, as I graduated, and eventually as I moved to Pittsburgh to start graduate school. As I dug deeper into my research, I collected the pieces Craig Colony left behind in archives, on the land, in the towns surrounding the colony. I flew to Germany to study the institute Craig was modeled upon. I listened between the inevitable gaps and silences left by colony patients who have passed away. None of it was enough.
“I used to think I could understand everything,” Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich writes in the epilogue to Voices from Chernobyl. But, as one of her subjects states in the final monologue of the book, “No one knows what Chernobyl is.” Although mainly a work of history, Alexievich’s book combines the reporting of journalism with the lyricism of essay to embody what she calls a “chorus of voices.” Throughout the book, Alexievich acts more like an archivist than a writer, rotating through a series of monologues spoken by fellow Belarusians in order to grapple with the lingering, often overwhelming, effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Alexievich divides her book into three sections—Part One: The Land of the Dead, Part Two: The Land of the Living, and Part Three: Amazed by Sadness—but there is no set chronology to the way she organizes the monologues within each section. Rather, each section acts like a segmented essay, with Alexievich moving between life before and after Chernobyl within the same section. In this regard, Alexievich uses associative leaps to embrace the chaotic reality of the people who must deal with the everyday consequences of Chernobyl.
While many writers, like Biss, might rely on a first-person personal narrative to connect the disparate threads of so many speakers in a book like Voices from Chernobyl, Alexievich’s voice is largely absent in this book. Rather, she banishes her occasional remarks and rhetorical questions to bracketed interludes, choosing to instead devote the entirety of the main body of her work to the voices of her speakers. By doing so, Alexievich avoids both completely deleting the first person from the text (and thus ignoring her own intrinsic bias in shaping her book), and embracing a first person narrator (which would detract from the focus on her subjects). Readers instead watch as Alexievich repeatedly attempts to relinquish the control of the first person in order to amplify the voices of ordinary Belarusian citizens telling their own stories. Here, self-erasure is not an act of essay but, rather, a call to action.
Sometime during my first year of grad school, after re-reading Notes from No Man’s Land for the first time in a few years, I texted an essayist friend of mine. “Am I a journalist?” I asked him. “Have I been thinking of myself as an essayist when all along what I’ve really been doing is journalism?” He reminded me what I was doing was just…what I was doing. That I didn’t need a label. But in class, and when I sat down to work on my manuscript, I struggled to voice what I was trying to do or find models for the kinds of essays I was trying to compose. I still had a kind of bias against journalism, but I was starting to realize the depth of craft required to produce it. I remembered what John D’Agata wrote about being at Iowa, and feeling the pull from both poetry and nonfiction, but not fitting squarely in either. I felt I had to choose between the non-linear, associative leaps of the essays I loved and the narrative often required of a research-driven, historical topic. I wanted my manuscript to be both researched and essayistic; to use the first person but not let it overshadow the main focus. It felt (and still sometimes feels) like an impossible balance.
What makes an essay lyric? Is it the nonlinear structure, the particular attention to image and emotion? Is it the sense of the unknowable? The underlying question propelling the narrative? In his introduction to Understanding the Essay, Jeff Porter writes that the “trademark” of the essay is “its intimacy.” But this quality, like any other, could be applied to other subgenres of nonfiction too. Which is perhaps why John D’Agata, in his forward to We Might As Well Call It The Lyric Essay, ironically, makes the case for abandoning the “lyric” in lyric essay. “[A]s I got older and started to explore the history of the good old-fashioned essay,” he writes, “I began to find that everything I loved about ‘lyric essays’ was already represented in much of the essay’s past.” In other words, inventing a term to describe a style doesn’t change what already exists or create a new genre. D’Agata argues that “if we could remind ourselves as essayists of the variety of essays that have been written in our genre, we’d have no need for terms that try to stake their claim on narrowly conceived interpretations of the genre.”
The term “lyric journalism” may not be necessary for those same reasons but—for me at least—it is unavoidable. If more writers considered that the line between the lyric essay and journalism is multifaceted, complex, and much blurrier than we’ve previously thought, perhaps a label wouldn’t be necessary. But as it stands right now, a term like “lyric journalism” might bring attention to the fact that overlap already exists between the subgenres. And like D’Agata’s experience with lyric essay and my own with lyric journalism, it might just affirm a young writer’s validity in mixing elements of both.
In Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello takes on an opposite challenge to Alexievich: telling the stories of those who physically do not have a voice. "Of all the images that make our work, animal images are particularly buried inside us," Passarello writes in the first essay of her collection. "Give us a stick and we'll draw them...Spread out across the night sky and we'll point upward. See how they twinkle in the sky?" Throughout the book, Passarello combines the reflective, inquisitive voice common in essay with the reporting of journalism to tell the stories of well-known animals and the humans who interacted with them.
Passarello’s play with genre is obvious before you even open the book: from the Prince song she uses as a title, to the medieval bestiaries which inspired the book’s structure, to her near-fictional recreation of historic scenes, Passarello draws on a combination of music, art, and fiction—in addition to lyric essay and journalism—to write this book. Throughout it all, Passarello is whimsical yet piercing in her observations of animal-human interactions. In “Jeoffrey,” Passarello attempts to recreate the lost half of Christopher Smart’s ode to his beloved cat. In “Harriet,” Passarello tells the story of Darwin’s tortoise from the tortoise’s perspective. And in “Koko,” Passarello tells a joke relying only on the signs the gorilla knew. If Alexievich’s book is a “chorus of voices,” Passarello’s is a menagerie—all coalescing into a single portrait of the way animals have both had an effect on and been affected by human beings.
Despite Passarello’s clear attachment to the animals she features, she rarely ever enters the text as a character—surprising, considering most writers would probably rely on the first person more if their subject were unable to voice their own story. If anything, though, the essays in this book read most like a series of profiles. The amount of detail characterizing each animal reads like Passarello sat down for multi-hour interviews with each, and is a clear testament to the amount of research she undertook to write the collection. At the back of the book, Passarello includes a 27-page bibliography of sources consulted during her writing process. It’s clear that without a serious amount of research—in addition to the reflective, lyrical style she adopts—a book like this simply couldn’t exist.
In my undergraduate nonfiction class, I teach a unit on personal essay and a unit on journalism, and we talk about the crossover between the two. We look at Valeria Luiselli’s necessary use of first person in Tell Me How It Ends, and the types of research Rebecca Solnit underwent to write “Grandmother Spider.”
On promoting lyric journalism as a subgenre in its own right, I expect pushback from those who approach journalism with the same “necessary but unartful” mindset I once had—those who equate journalism with boilerplate news writing. But the fact of the matter is that journalists already employ many of the same craft techniques as essayists in their work.
Last week, my students and I discussed Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s award-winning GQ piece “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof.” The use of first person is what makes this piece. Her stout refusal to show empathy for Roof. Her sectioned structure which leaps between Roof’s ancestry, his hometown’s roots in white supremacy and nationalism, slavery, and the Charleston church shooting’s victims. She juxtaposes Roof’s actions within the larger story of White America’s refusal to acknowledge Black suffering, and of Black survival despite centuries of enslavement, discrimination, and violence. “How we resist. How we rise.” In an interview at Longform, Ghansah says she never intended to write an objective piece about the shooting. In a story like this, objectivity isn’t necessary or even possible. Subjectivity is the point. And by using the first person—by making use of her personal experience reporting in the South—Ghansah both adds a narrative to make her associative leaps easier to follow, and admits to her own subjectivity in writing about Roof. In this particular case, like with much of longform journalism, using the first person is a closer attempt at the truth than any article which deletes the writer’s perspective.
In a year peppered by claims of “fake news,” some might protest the promotion of creativity within a form that uses “journalism” in its name. Again, I’d say: it’s already there. Why pretend otherwise?
In my bedroom, above my desk, hangs a 30’’ x 40’’ framed copy of the Craig Colony’ sewage filtration plans from 1904:
When I started this project, I had a naïve fascination with the way the history of this place—like so much of our history in the United States—has been erased. No one seemed to know the whole truth of what happened at the colony. Not the internet, not the people I interviewed or the historians I talked to, not the archives I visited or the books I read. It was a footnote, a myth, a story with no ending. More than anything, I wanted answers. For myself, but mainly for the patients who were forced to live at Craig. How did a place like this come to exist in the first place? And how can I share the stories of Craig’s patients when they were systematically silenced during their lifetimes, and when archives both past and present have deliberately chosen to exclude them? As I sat at a table in that Burger King, a nor’easter of snow swirling into darkness outside, I realized I had no answers. And perhaps that erasure, like Ghansah’s subjectivity, is exactly the point.
Kathryn Waring is an essayist and multimedia writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her essays and interviews can be found in The Normal School, The Rumpus, and American Literary Review, among others. She's currently at work on her first book, which examines the history of America's first epileptic colony, her own family's experience with epilepsy, and the ways in which we remember (or don't) the history that surrounds us. Find her online at kathrynwaring.com or on Twitter @k_waring105