Writing mostly poetry for the last two years, I had pretty much given up on prose. Until I met the lyric essay. It was as if I found myself a new lover. I was on a cloud-nine high: I didn’t have to write a tightly knitted argument required of a critical essay. I could loosely stitch fragments—even seemingly unrelated ones. I could leave gaps. Lean on poetic devices such as lyricism and metaphor. Let juxtaposition do the talking. I did not need to know the answer, nor did I need to offer one. It was up to the reader to intuit meaning. Whew!

Okay, so it’s not as easy as that. I can’t just stick bits together. Not if I want to write a decent —fabulous! —lyric essay. Structure is work. A work of craft, like shaping a poem, requiring space and patience. In her essay “The Interplay of Form and Content in Creative Nonfiction,” Eileen Pollack writes “…finding the perfect form for the material a writer is trying to shape is the most important factor in whether or not that material will ever advance from a one- or two-page beginning to a coherent first draft to a polished essay [my emphasis].”

But why such weight on structure?

The lyric essay, say Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, is useful for “circling the core” of ineffable subjects. And in her Fourth Genre essay, Judith Kitchen states that its moment is the present, as it “goes about discovering what its about is [Kitchen’s emphasis].” As such, traditional structures—e.g. narrative logic and fully fleshed arguments that help the writer organize what he or she already knows—don’t befit the lyric essay (as per Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant).

This makes sense. Because when I tried to write prose I would flail in too many words, unable to say what I felt. Hence, the poetry. But now I had discovered a prose genre where the writer leans on form—consciously constructing it or borrowing a “shell” like the hermit crab[1]—to eloquently hold the inexpressible aboutness, to let meaning dance in the spaces between its juxtaposed parts.

For fun—and to appreciate the significance of structure—I juxtaposed two essays from Ellena Savage’s debut collection Blueberries: the titular essay “Blueberries” and “The Museum of Rape,” essays with very different forms; in fact, the whole book is a goodie bag of experimental forms.

I saw that while “Blueberries’” structural unit looked like the paragraph, its appearance is deceptive: the usual paragraph-by-paragraph logic is non-existent; instead, each paragraph acts as an individual poetic musing, making it more like a stanza, which literally means “room” in Italian. Some rooms are big—a single block of unindented text that can be longer than a page—and each room is separated by a single line break. As such, “Blueberries” could have easily become an amorphous piece of writing that leaves the reader thinking What’s the point of this? or scares them off with the lack of white space, but Savage uses metaphor and the lyricism of repetition to build a sturdy, stylish house.

The phrase “I was in America at a very expensive writer’s workshop”—or variations of it—appears in almost every room. Other words and phrases such as blueberries, black silk robe, gender-neutral toilets, reedy and tepid and well-read [male] faculty member, also often fleck the essay. This syntactical play and repetition, delivered in long, conversational sentences as if talking passionately to a friend about something weighty (which she is), are used as metaphors—tangible stand-ins—allowing Savage to have a broader conversation about complex abstract themes, in this case the intersection of privilege, gender, and making a living as a woman and a writer. Crucially, the repetition also makes associative links between the rooms, giving the reader agency to intuit meaning. As such, these structural devices create layered connotations (like a poem), making structure integral to the completeness—and coherence—of “Blueberries.”

In “The Museum of Rape,” Savage sections the content by numbered indexes – e.g. 4.0, 4.1, 4.2, like museum labels for pieces of artwork; hence, performing the essay’s title on one level. Savage uses these indexes to direct the reader to different parts of the essay, associating (in some instances ostensibly unrelated) fragments together, whereas in “Blueberries” Savage uses repetition as the associative device. This structure invites the reader to navigate the essay in multiple interwoven ways, intentionally making meaning a slippery thing that can “fall into an abyss”—a phrase that Savage often directs the reader to. In this way, the structure—labyrinthine and tangential—mimics the content, which is much more allusive—elusive even —than “Blueberries,” given its themes of trauma, memory’s unreliability, and, as beautifully summarized by a review, “the lacunae of loss (of loved ones, faith, and even the mind itself).” Savage captures this essence in index 8.0:

            What I’m saying is that I understand the total collapse of structured memory.

I asked myself, what it means to anticipate the loss of one’s rational function (7.0, 7.1, 7.2)…I comprehend tripping into the lacuna with my hands tied behind my back.

The museum-label structure also offers plenty of lacunae: There is almost a double line break in between each of the indexed fragments, because the index number is left-adjusted and given an entire line. Also, the fragments are, on average, shorter than the rooms in “Blueberries,” with many paragraphs indicated by an indent or a line break rather than a block of unindented text. There’s a poem in there, too, peppered with cesurae. These structural devices further signify the content, whereas “Blueberries” is purposefully dense to indicate a pressing sense of importance. Which is to say, the form used for “Blueberries” could not convey the aboutness of “The Museum of Rape” and vice versa—proof that form is the lifeblood of the lyric essay.

Now all there’s left to do is construct one. So, let’s play.

Choose a nonfiction piece you’ve already written or are working on, preferably one with a subject matter that’s tricky to articulate. Now reconstruct it by building or borrowing a form that’ll illuminate (even perform) the aboutness of your piece. Here are some ideas:

  • A series of letters, emails, tweets or diary entries (epistolatory)
  • An instructional piece—e.g. “How to…,” a recipe, or a to-do list—using “you” as the point of view
  • Stanzas/paragraphs (like “Blueberries”) that can stand alone, but when put together offer a bigger/layered meaning through repetition
  • Versify, playing with lineation and cesura; you can also intermix a series of poems and prose fragments
  • A “mock” scientific paper with title, author(s), aim, methods, results, conclusion, discussion, and a reference list, as a way to section the content

Above all, have fun experimenting.

Lesh Karan is a former pharmacist who writes. Read her in Australian Multilingual Writing Project, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Not Very Quiet and Rabbit, among others. Her writing has previously been shortlisted for the New Philosopher Writers’ Award. Lesh is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing at the University of Melbourne.

[1] The “Hermit Crab Essay” is a term coined by Miller and Paola to describe an essay that “appropriates existing forms as an outer covering” for its “tender” content. A classic example is Primo Levi’s memoir The Periodic Table, structured using the chemical elements in the periodic table.