The modern renaissance of the lyric essay occurs in an age distinguished by increasingly interrupted experience
Sarah Menkedick ‘s work has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Oxford American, Amazon’s Kindle Singles, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and The Common, among other publications. She is the founding editor of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction writing by women.
Creative nonfiction has long relied on fiction in order to define itself. It emulates fiction’s forms of truth-seeking, artfully burying its skeleton of facts beneath a rich layer of novelistic mulch, which sprouts bright scenes and florid characters.
Its mandate is “show, don’t tell”; the “telling” — those rare moments when we are reminded of the writer’s presence and agency — should be brief and potent. This relationship presupposes the significance of stories: stories as sense-making; stories as the complicated, full-bodied fleshing out of facts; stories as a natural revelator which needs only a smidgen of the writers’ overt consciousness to frame and ground it. Stories, in other words, are our salvation from randomness.
My husband is a photojournalist. He is paid to witness. With light, exposure, angle, he will craft a story from setting and scene. But his job is being rendered obsolete, bled of its significance and absorbed into the constantly roiling sea of random imagery. Cheap and widely available digital cameras have made us all witnesses. They have made witnessing the premier act of our times, more than living, more than thinking. Narratives are shaped by random acts of witnessing, by inadvertent patterns: the man in the white hat and the man in the black hat at the Boston Marathon, captured by this iPhone, captured by that cell phone, ten to twenty minutes before the bomb went off. The chaotic randomness of the bomb countered by the random witnessing, which led to capture, sense, story, the waving of the American flag in triumph. A constant and perpetual surveillance of our own lives, in which we willingly participate. The act of witnessing as triumph, giving us a sense of our own importance, our lives as worthy of perpetual observation: here is what I had for dinner.
The lyric essay is all-telling, all the time. A snippet of image here, a stray bit of dialog there, nested in the telling: the logic of the traditional story reversed. It purposefully avoids a steady progression towards meaning, a predictable arc of exposition, climax, revelation, and denouement, preferring instead allusive, anecdotal, and abstract swipes at an opaque theme. In their introduction to the Fall 1997 issue of The Seneca Review, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata christened and defined the lyric essay. It “forsake[s] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation…It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film.” It is, in other words, a mash-up: borrowing from all, beholden to none. It likes to betray the genres from which it borrows, making wily little jabs at their most dearly held conventions. It mocks creative nonfiction in its manipulation of facts: sometimes reinventing them for the sake of “art,” sometimes subverting their claim to objective truth by repeating or removing them from context. It mocks fiction in using these untruths, these distorted or altered facts, not as story but as dry, lyrically stylized information .
Jerry Yang and David Filo founded “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” a hierarchically organized directory of websites, in 1994. On March 1, 1995, they incorporated the guide as Yahoo.com.
In July 1994, Jeff Bezos incorporated Cadabra, an online bookstore; the site went online as Amazon.com in 1995.
In 1985, Quantum Computer Services was founded by Jim Kimsey; the company offered online services first for Quantum Link computers, then Apple computers. In 1989 the company’s name was changed to America Online, or AOL. By 1996, AOL had 10 million subscribers.
In 1996, Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began a research project to find a way to rank websites by analyzing the relationships between them; they developed a search engine based on a technology they called PageRank. On September 4th, 1998, they incorporated their company as Google.com.
All of this information is available on Wikipedia.com, launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger.
By the year 2010, less than twenty years after the first web browser went online, there were approximately 2 billion Internet users worldwide.
I have a Post-it on a bulletin board above my computer reading, in bold, anxious letters, “NO INTERNET BEFORE WRITING.” The coffee seethes in the Moka, my book of narrative nonfiction awaits in an open Word doc, and I am on Facebook: just a peek. Gmail: a quick check to see if I’ve gotten an out-of-the-blue offer on my book in the night, a letter from a German friend, a comment on an article I’ve written. But if any of these reveal themselves, I hesitate to open them, I dangle them instead at the end of this stretch of writing, because I know that if I indulge I’ll be looped into a destructive cycle of distraction, guilt, regret, and further distraction. Every writer I know has such a finely calibrated and contentious relationship with the Internet. There are the sweeping maxims, the Post-its stuck front and center, but it takes but the slightest hesitation, breeze of what-if, moment of doubt, to sweep them away. And then again, the maxim, and then again, the instantaneous dissolution of resolve. Zadie Smith uses the downloadable application Freedom to block the Internet entirely while she’s writing. I use Self Control, an app with a pirate flag as its symbol that blocks only select, particularly dangerous websites: Twitter, Gmail, Facebook. And when I am finished for the day I go on great binges of information, skittering from one tidbit to the next, reading in quick gulps. At once, I’ve downloaded six episodes of Mad Men and tweeted a review from The Millions and updated my status and liked and commented and shared. It’s as if, having checked temporarily out of the great rush to witness and represent oneself online, and having spent instead a number of hours in the thick of imagination and the summer heat of my living room, I now have to scramble back into that perpetual heaving of information lest I disappear, irrelevant. To prove my worth, and to participate in this ongoing communal construction of narrative, I have to bear witness to my own sensibility, presence, and consumption, and I have to do this via a bombardment of collagistic information. And yet on the page I want to move forward step by step and scene by scene, developing my characters and building a story not of fragments but of a continuous line, a complete vision. Are these two spheres, two ways of being, increasing antithetical to one another? Can they coexist?
The lyric essay, Judith Kitchen writes, “generates its meaning by asking its readers to make leaps, to make a kind of narrative sense of the random and the chance encounter. It eschews content for method, and then lets method become its content.” It is composed of bits, fragments, collagistically compiled and accumulated. Its form is as easy to consume as a Flickr slideshow, as successive sound bites on CNN, although in its language and content as a whole it intends to be difficult and tries for Barthesian jouissance, breaking established literary codes and forcing the reader out of a familiar subject position. It reproduces dozens of famous and wildly disproportionate political apologies out of context, as in Eula Biss’ “All Apologies”; it zigzags from cancer to suicide to TV as in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely; it aligns the walking of Atlantic City’s streets with the playing of a game of monopoly as in John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens.” It jolts the reader out of the complacency of what Robert Olen Butler has called the “continuous dream” of fiction, and of nonfiction imitating fiction, and yet it also – unintentionally, unconsciously, I want to say – replicates the pre-eminent way of experiencing the world in the digital age, and in this is familiar, even conservative.
In August 2010 at precisely 11:12 GMT, Neil Burgess, the former head of Magnum Photos in New York, declared photojournalism dead. That September, the photo-sharing website Flickr reported that it was hosting more than 5 billion images. John G. Morris, a former executive photo editor at Magnum, declared in a 2009 interview with The New York Times, “There have never been more images out there, and we need more help in sorting out all the information.” Sorters, cataloguers, curators, might be replacing photojournalists. The problem is not people who can produce the content: out of the 327 million people who photographed the royal wedding on digital cameras, one was bound to get a workable shot. Contrast this to the situation in 1981: “Half of the photographers missed the iconic balcony kiss [that year] at (Prince) Charles and (Princess) Diana’s wedding because they were changing film.”
The problem is finding those with the discernment and experience to wade through and make sense of the random, finding the revelatory angles and the right kind of light amidst so much pixelated information. Wayne Koestenbaum writes of studium and punctum in his foreword to Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: oppressive studium is “the zone of the readily apparent, the sanctioned, the digestible. The heroic punctum was an accident, an insignificant coruscation, triggering a perverse chain reaction of bliss.” The contemporary heroes are those who uncover the punctum among the studium: photographer Michael Wolf’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” a collection of images pulled from Google Street View showing falls, fights, and other random captured moments, won a 2011 World Press Photo Award for “Contemporary Issues.” The punctum is the personal, but the personal is not the manifestation of a unique imagination – the self making sense of or projected onto the world – but rather a detached individual act of witnessing: the randomness of one person at one particular node in the informational web, and the artifact produced by his or her point of view at that moment. The studium is the web itself, the context of millions of potential snippets from which the punctum is distilled. The latter, a “heroic…accident” and a highly celebrated contemporary art form, is not so much an act of creation, forged from life experience and insight, but from curation, the artful juxtaposition of random fragments.
Here is what I learned from my time working as an editor for an online travel magazine: Paragraphs should never be more than three sentences long. Readers want digestible blocks of text. Use colorful images that zero in on one particular detail: no abstract landscapes. Use pull quotes. Use white space and big font. The text, particularly online, is as much a visual object as a literary one. It is consumed like an image, words as pixels.
USA Today, founded in 1982 by Al Neuharth, is the newspaper with the widest circulation in the United States and arguably the country’s most popular daily. It has 1.8 million subscribers, and is distributed by a number of major hotel chains and airlines. The paper is color-coded by section: Money is green, News is blue, Sports is red, Life is purple, and so on. Stories are short and simple. Until the time of his death in 2013, Neuharth wrote a column for the paper entitled “Plain Talk.” Articles are often in blurb form, or are pure information: there are “snapshots” that feature statistics relevant to a particular section, and small summaries of AP headlines from all fifty states. Communication professor Kevin G. Barnhurst has called the paper neo-Victorian in style and sensibility. “The Victorian newspaper,” he writes, “was truly multi-vocal, but its multi-vocality was profane. The many voices of the marketplace shouted down the lonely voice of the political arena. Consumer freedom seduced readers away from politics, now recast by the news as a dismal realm of tawdry spectacle, idiotic discipline, and inevitable misgovernment.” USA Today picks up this tradition with its easily digestible micro-summaries and snippets of decontextualized news, its bright colors, its simple spectacles. It is, Barnhurst speculates, perhaps more an almanac than a paper. “The almanac, a hybrid form combining tabular material and raw listed facts with a miscellany of more narrative content, makes its distributor a practical authority, and gives him or her a textured and recognized voice.” It is the bland, cheery, not-going-to-offend-anybody-here-folks voice of the USA. It is no one’s voice, the voice of the news announcer, the voiceover. It is the voice of the banal gloss, never profound enough to have a noticeable perspective, all plain talk about plain truths: orange, green, purple, red and blue. As such, it is the ultimate representation of the fiction of objectivity the American news business still insists on. Its ongoing success in view of the demise of so many other newspapers speaks to the American desire to believe that plain talk and bland platitudes equal political neutrality and common sense. Amidst the feverish subjectivity of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, USA Today is a soothing balm of seemingly untainted facts: witnessing made pure again, no curation, no spin.
Barthes was a fan of the fragment. He often organized his work by numbering and the alphabet, eschewing any larger structure that might impose more deliberate meaning. In the forward to A Lover’s Discourse, Wayne Koestenbaum writes, “At heart [Barthes] was a creator of linked miniatures, each devoted to the play of an unspecifiable, reluctant nuance.” A Lover’s Discourse was published in 1978: in the thickening stew of postmodernism, just before identity politics would flood the public and political realm, fifteen years before the first web browser, twenty-six years before the advent of Facebook. In these heady times of mythology-debunking, when postmodernism must have seemed more refreshing than nihilistic – the Situationists, just 10 years earlier, were writing “under the paving stones, the beach,” on the walls of the Sorbonne – the embrace of irrelevance or near-randomness must have seemed revolutionary. Barthes, Koestenbaum writes, aimed “to reach the anodyne state where nuance displaces topicality, where irrelevance outshines pertinence.” In the 21st century, we have realized the latter mode of being to a degree Barthes could never have imagined. What would he think of a meme? Of the constant accrual and dismissal of irrelevant information, organized in only the most perfunctory of ways? We live by the fragment: the blurb, the blog, the text, the tweet, the status update, the email, the three-sentence paragraph. “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” reads a 2010 Onion headline.
David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto is a lyric essay flexing aggressive socio-political muscle, challenging given definitions of authenticity, authorship, genre, and of course, “reality.” The book is composed of more than 600 numbered fragments: some quotations from famous authors, some taken from Shields’ work, many lifted from sources unknown to the reader. None are cited. Shields expresses a wariness of the “whole,” of the linear narrative or storified story with its beginning and middle and revelation and end: a position that seems innate to the lyric essay and that can be traced back to Barthes. Shields writes, “Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though – standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the Web – flies at us in bright splinters…” And because so many of these splinters are unreal, because there are so many of them and their bombardment is so ceaseless, we hunger for reality, which ironically takes the same fragmented and context-less form but is redeemed somehow, reclaimed. It finds aegis in the clearly subjective curating of the writer, who is no longer writer but rescuer of relevant bits, charged with creating an exhibit from a million drifting pieces of unreal information. To attempt a traditional narrative in this climate of dancing YouTube cats and viral GIFs and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is to seal one’s message in a bottle and sink it to the bottom of a murky lake of anachronisms. What counts is not the singular perspective, the reality that pretends to be a whole and complete generator of meaningful lives, but “the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal media.” Books can only keep their authority, he writes, if we physically “wire texts into the library.” In other words, the only way to get the kids to read Joyce is to throw a catchy quote of his on a vibrating GIF and have them craft tweets in response. Or, as Wendy Rawlings shares in her review of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, to have students craft Haikus as text messages and send them to relatives. “My colleague loves to relate this pedagogical triumph. The nature of the triumph? In one sly move, just by giving the nod to the students’ technology, he got their attention.” The path to attention is paved in fragments, in so many easily digestible itty-bits.
The vast majority of Facebook status updates are positive. In an essay for The Atlantic, Stephen Marche points out that on Facebook we construct our perfect selves: promotions, book deals, marriages, moments of cooing cuteness, exquisite meals, loving pets, powdery cotton beaches, wide-mouthed Saturday night cavorting, adorable mishaps fit for the romantic comedy. Social media allows for perfect control of our own narratives, our own lives: our digital selves are our best selves, and our mistakes or failures are cut or shaped so that they fit the uplifting quotes we make into GIFS and post on Tumblr. The essay offers a similar prospect of perfection, as Zadie Smith points out in her review of Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. “…essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection. Novels, by contrast, are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no telltale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack.”
From a conversation published in Creative Nonfiction’s Female Form issue:
[Elissa] BASSIST: “…When the feelings are firing and the chair is beginning to get warm and the words are positioning themselves, what I’ll do, without hesitation, is check my email. If someone died each time I checked my inbox, there would be no one left.”
[Cheryl] STRAYED: The whole planet would be dead if someone died every time either one of us checked our email.
In Fourth Genre, Wendy Rawlings writes, “In a graduate nonfiction workshop I taught last year, all of the students chose to write more than one lyric essay, and most shied away entirely from all forms of literary journalism. Students strongly preferred writing in forms that favored the fragment and the lyric utterance over the kind of storytelling that creates a strong narrative arc. I agree with Shields about the right voice and the inner life and the historical moment. Sometimes, though, when I’m reading a certain kind of lyric essay, I fear the author has forgotten that the writing isn’t just about rendering the inner life. It’s also about the historical moment that connects the reader’s inner life with some agreed-upon or at least recognizable representation of an outer life.” How dreamy for the beginning writer: a string of magically connected – or magically unconnected, because story is so passé! – “lyric utterances” that flutter like ribbons from the ever-central “I.”
The new Post-It reads “No intrusions, No distractions,” a decree discovered on the website brainpickings.org in a post about Henry Miller’s writing commandments. Perhaps if I don’t directly mention the source of all distraction, I will be less tempted to indulge. Just a puff, a quick inhale, just the teensiest glance at the inbox. The Post-It taunts, yellow and stuck with tacks to my bulletin board, so static, so dull. It can’t hurt, just a glimpse. I am weak, but for a while I obey. I adhere to antiquated story, built scene by scene, showing not telling, my character developing like a snowball rolling steadily downhill, borne by the outmoded devices of plot and narrative. Then I fail, and fall back on the ol’ standby: Self Control. Two hours before I can take another hit of reality. No intrusions, no distractions, just this complete, messy world apart on the page – and when I finish, in the brief spell before I delve into that stew of random, fragmented information, the world seems real again, graspable even, cohered more than dissipated and felt more than witnessed.