Not a Poem, Not a Story
by Jackie Sizemore
If I am being honest, I wasn’t even sure I knew what a lyric essay was. To me, it looked like an essay open to emotional tangents with a loose interpretation of sentence structure. The lyric essays I stumbled upon in online literary journals seemed to borrow from poetry, following rhythm and aiming for a feeling rather than a clear narrative. Confusion seemed okay, if resolved or brief. None of the lyric essays I read resembled anything close to my carefully plotted, dark humor fiction, or my structured, traditional personal essays.
The lyric essay seemed to come with a big red, “Do not touch” button throughout my MFA thesis year. I’d spent my first two years immersed in the fiction program, eagerly soaking up any advice I could get to ensure the completion of my thesis project. My attempts at building a writing life pre-MFA had been filled with self-doubt and a desire to perfect every sentence before I sent a piece out into the publishing world. Several people in my MFA community warned that the newness of a blank page, with a dash of inspiration, could easily lead me onto a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb trail through the woods and far from my thesis. I listened, and I pursued no other projects.
After three years of studying narrative, structure, and scenes, the idea of not only switching gears, but of tackling a new genre scared me. Was trying something new a sign that I wasn’t that serious about my fiction work? Or worse, that when deciding whether to apply to poetry or fiction MFAs, I’d made a mistake in abandoning my poetic pursuits? The more I thought about why I wanted to write a lyric essay, the bigger the task became.
After settling in my new home of Laramie, Wyoming post-graduation, I knew I needed to tackle the lyric essay. The sooner the better. Something told me that waiting for inspiration would not be a sufficient plan. With short stories, I normally began with a question, plotted out potential scenes on a pre-established structure, and then looked for places to add obstacles and additional strangeness. But lyric essays weren’t meant to fit into a plot pyramid. Since I am the kind of writer who doesn’t work well without a plan, I decided on time as the only constraint to guide my lyric essay process.
I set aside an evening where I knew I would have several hours to dedicate to this experiment. My objectives were to decide on a topic, and then write straight through to a full draft. I believed this would lead to productive, non-obvious tangents. If I had to work fast, I figured I wouldn’t have as much time to second-guess myself, or delete what I’d written.
With my hands hovering over the keyboard, I scanned my brain for themes or memories that had a depth of emotions. I decided I should write about an area of my life I hadn’t explored much in my writing. The three years I spent as a child living in Tokyo were foundational to the adult I later became, but the pain of losing this place and struggling to re-integrate into my home country hadn’t been something I’d felt ready to write about. I pictured the last time I’d felt homesick for Japan: Walking through a neighborhood in Boise, Idaho and catching someone’s afterschool piano practice, hearing the traditional Japanese song “Sakura.”
With this scene in mind, I wrote without consulting my analytical mind. I typically rely on this side of my mind to guide characterization, world building, and plot devices when I write fiction. To not listen to it felt like I was driving through Snoqualmie Pass in Washington with only a few feet of the white boundary line to guide my car through swirling snow. My fingers flew as fast as the thoughts occurred, and I resisted editing in-the-moment as much as possible. I wrote for an hour, and I stared at what I hoped was a lyric essay.
When I returned to the piece the next day, I read it out loud to myself and made minor edits. The sentences ebbed and flowed with a rhythm that I would have felt too nervous to attempt in a fiction piece. Rather than one clear climax, the story circled and climbed around multiple points, which seemed to more accurately capture my complicated relationship with the two cultures to which I felt so tied. The words I’d chosen for the most energetic high points felt right, but not too deliberate. It wasn’t a prose poem, and overall it told a story, but the end result was a piece that focused so completely on language that it didn’t look like any of the other finished pieces on my computer. Something told me that if I continued to sit on my lyric essay, I might edit the “lyric” right out of it. Within three days of the initial writing session, I submitted the piece to five literary journals: three competitive, one brand new, and one that only published lyric essays. The worst they could say was no. Two months later, I opened my email on my phone to an acceptance letter. I had tackled a new genre, with enough success to gain a publication credit.
Returning to a writing goal after a year of purposeful waiting proved to me that I had shed my pre-MFA writing persona. Using all the tools of my three-years’ worth of coursework, readings, and experience, I created a strategy that not only countered, but anticipated, my writing downfalls. Gone were the days when I approached each writing project with uncertainty and ultimately edited it to death. Writing and publishing my first lyric essay was physical proof of how far I’d come since the years before graduate school. This level of insight into my own writing simply didn’t exist before, and publishing my lyric essay made me feel that giving up all of the things I gave up to pursue a life of writing was going to be worth it.