What is a lyric essay? Lyric comes from the late sixteenth century: from French lyrique or Latin lyricus, from Greek lurikos, from lura ‘lyre.’

To the ear, “lyre” and “liar” sound the same, which I resist because I do not condone lying in essays, lyric or otherwise. But mythology tells us that the origins of the lyre come from a kind of lie.

Hermes, the gods’ messenger and something of a trickster, stole Apollo’s sacred cattle. Hermes tried to deny his theft but ultimately confessed. In atonement, he gave Apollo a new way to make music: the lyre. Later Apollo taught Orpheus how to play the lyre and Orpheus became the best musician and poet known to humankind. He charmed trees, rocks, and rivers. While sailing with the Argonauts he overpowered the Sirens with his songs, allowing the ship and its crew to pass safely on their quest to find the Golden Fleece. And when his wife died, he sang his way into the underworld to retrieve her. His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.

Lyric essays have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome.

Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle). The whole of a lyric essay adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

I came to define a lyric essay as:

a piece of writing with a visible / stand-out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way

But about that visible / stand-out / unusual structure, that unexpected idea: Lyric essays are tricky. If you try to mount one to a spreading board, it’s likely to dodge the pin and fly away. If you try to press one between two slides, it might find a way to ooze down your sleeve. And if you try to set it within a taxonomy, it will pose the same problems as the platypus—a mammal, but one that lays eggs; semiaquatic, living in both water and on land; and venomous, a trait that belongs mostly to reptiles and insects. It will run away if on land—its gait that of a furry alligator—or swim off in the undulating way of beavers. Either way it can threaten you with a poisoned spur before it ripples off.

Despite its resistance to categorization, there are four broad forms of the lyric essay that are worth trying to define:

Flash Essays

origin Middle English (in the sense ‘splash water about’): probably imitative; compare with flush and splash

I define flash essays as being one thousand words or fewer. They are short, sharp, and clarifying. The shortest ones illuminate a moment or a realization the way a flash of light can illuminate a scene. Longer ones may take a little more time but regardless of their length, the meaning of the essay resonates more strongly than its word count might suggest.

Lightning flashes, as do cameras, flares, signals, and explosions; all show a brief moment in a larger scene. A small syringe can deliver a powerful drug. A capsule can too—unless it dissolves in a glass of water to reveal a paper flower. Regardless of their content, flash essays are imitative of their form. They give the reader a splash of a moment and leave us flushed with emotion and meaning.

Segmented Essays

origin late sixteenth century (as a term in geometry): from Latin segmentum, from secare ‘to cut’

Segmented essays are divided into segments that might be numbered or titled or simply separated with a space break.

These spaces—white space, blank space—allow the reader to pause, think, consider, and digest each segment before moving on to the next. Each section may contain something new, but all still belong cogently to the whole.

Segmented essays are also known as


(origin late Middle English: from French, or from Latin fragmentum, from frangere ‘to break’)


(origin mid-nineteenth century: from Greek parataxis, from para- ‘beside’ + taxis ‘arrangement’; from tassein ‘arrange’)


(origin early twentieth century: from French, literally ‘gluing’)


(origin late Middle English: from French mosaïque, based on Latin musi(v)um ‘decoration with small square stones,’ perhaps ultimately from Greek mousa ‘a muse’)

How you think of an essay may influence how you write it. Citrus fruits come in segments; so do worms. Each segment is part of an organic whole. But a fragmented essay may be broken on purpose and a collage deliberately glued together.

Braided Essays

origin Old English bregdan ‘make a sudden movement,’ also ‘interweave,’ of Germanic origin; related to Dutch breien (verb)

Braided essays are segmented essays whose sections have a repeating pattern—the way each strand of a braid returns to take its place in the center.

Each time a particular strand returns, its meaning is enriched by the other threads you’ve read through.

You can braid hair for containment or ornamentation. You can braid fibers into a basket to carry something or into a rope to tie something. Maybe it’s something you want to hold fast. Or maybe it’s to tense a kite against the wind—to fly.

Hermit Crab Essays

origin Middle English: from Old French hermite, from late Latin eremita, from Greek eremites, from eremos ‘solitary’

origin late sixteenth century (referring to hawks, meaning ‘claw or fight each other’): from Low German krabben

Hermit crab essays, as Brenda Miller named them in Tell It Slant, borrow another form of writing as their structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell. These extraliterary structures can protect vulnerable content (the way the shell protects the crab), but they can also act as firm containers for content that might be intellectually or emotionally difficult, prodigious, or otherwise messy.

In life hermit crabs aren’t hermits at all; they’re quite social. And in a way hermit crab essays are too, because they depend on a network of other extraliterary forms of writing—recipes, labels, album notes—and what we already know of them.

I’ve always thought that a hermit crab’s front looks like a hand reaching out of the shell, a gesture that draws the onlooker inwards. Instead of needing a shell that protects, the contents of a hermit crab essay might lie in wait—like the pellets in a shotgun shell or a plumule of a seed—ready to burst beyond the confines of the form and take root in the reader’s mind.

But some of these forms overlap. A lyric essay can be many things at once—flash and braided, segmented and hermit crab—the way a square is also a rectangle, a parallelogram, a quadrilateral. One shape, but many ways of naming it.

Orpheus’s lyre accompanied him through all sorts of adventures. It traveled with him as deep as the underworld and after his death was sent by Zeus to live among the stars. You can see its constellation—Lyra—in the summer months if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter months if you live in the Southern. This feels like an apt metaphor for the lyric essay: The stars are there, but their shape is what your mind brings to them.


A version of this essay was published as the introduction to A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays.


Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019 and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, was published by Nebraska in 2021. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity, and Creative Nonfiction. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art and teaches in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low Residency MFA Program and Goucher’s MFA in Nonfiction Program. You can read more at her website, www.randonbillingsnoble.com.