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  • The Lyric Invitation
  • Beth Peterson (bio)

Direct your eye right inward," Thoreau once wrote, "and you'll find / A thousand regions in your mind / Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be / Expert in home-cosmography." When I began reading and writing nonfiction, I—like many young students and writers—first equated literary nonfiction exclusively with memoir, that Thoreauvian ideal of becoming an expert at your own life, a scholar of your own cosmography.

This worked for me for approximately three pieces, which I used to complete the requisite 25-page nonfiction writing sample for applications to a handful of creative writing graduate programs. I did not consider that by the time I left my job and life and moved two-thirds of the way across the country to actually attend one of these programs, I would have run out of things to say. Within only a few months, I found that I was losing interest—at an alarming pace—in my own past as material or even as fodder. If I was going to write, I wanted to say things that mattered, but I also wanted to say them in a way that invited the reader to move beyond my memories and my meditations and toward their own interpretations and conclusions.

I turned to poetry instead for some time, but each of my poems kept becoming longer and less poetic. The telltale sign should have been when I titled my first short collection of poems "Rescue Scenes #1–20." Finally, the lovely person, poet, and professor Kate Northrop and I went for a walk in the Wyoming backcountry. With her bright black dog Clara loping in front of us in circular strides along the aspen-covered trail, Kate suggested that maybe it wasn't poetry I was after but a different type of nonfiction; perhaps I might try the essay. [End Page 171]

Kate was right; what I was after was a different kind of nonfiction, one that made room for gaps and silences, that did not impose narrative on non-narrative situations, one that called for, even required, participatory meaning-making. Most of all, however, I was interested in the sort of nonfiction that had an altered—and distinctly invitational—relationship to the reader.

This experience was not entirely unlike the oft-quoted realization John D'Agata had in the mid-1990s. When he wrote his mentor, Deborah Tall, with his musings on the kind of nonfiction he was interested in seeing, she famously replied, "What you're looking for is a kind of essay propelled not by its information but rather by the possibility for transformative experience. You're talking about the lyric. A lyric form of the essay." As he explains in his foreword to We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay, around the same time, D'Agata heard a talk by Anne Carson with the words "lyric" and "essay" in close proximity, then a talk about Anne Carson with the phrase "lyrical nonfiction," and soon he was subtitling his own work "a lyric essay" and editing a lyric essay section for the Seneca Review.

Of course, the best essays have likely always been propelled by the possibility of "transformative experience," and the same sorts of poetic sensibilities that are infused into so many contemporary lyric essays can be traced back to Matsuo Basho, Sei Shōnagon, and perhaps much older nonfiction writers even than these. This does not mean, though, that all essays have always been participatory, or to borrow Tall and D'Agata's term—since it is the one that seems to have stuck—lyric.

D'Agata and Tall are also not the only practitioners to try to define or at least describe the lyric essay. Martha Ronk has called the lyric essay "a constellation." Eula Biss has labeled it "organic writing." Brian Lennon compares the lyric essay to "negation." Dionisio Martinez terms it "a story with a hangover." Marcia Aldrich has written of the lyric essay,

[It] does not narrate a story so much as express a condition . . . it reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtapositions, tensing between the presentational and representational. . . . Associative, meditative, it abhors journalistic reportage. Its incompleteness is...


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