by Kate Devine
For as long as I can remember, I’ve attempted to make sense of my life by arranging words on a page. Sometimes, a poem appears. Other times, it’s a longer, narrative piece. But where I especially like to dwell is the space between poem and essay, or what is called the lyric essay, or an alternative form. Alternative to what? To chronology, to the idea that in order for a story to be successful, there should be a plot, or a beginning, suspenseful middle, and a conclusive end.
One of the first things I tell writers enrolled in my Personal Essay class is that the word essay means “an attempt” or “to try.” Which to me, may also mean “a possibility.” There are countless ways to attempt to understand. With this in mind, here is an imprecise list of possible forms your personal essay can take.
I’ll let essayist Randon Billings Noble start us off. “Lyric essays rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than they answer.” Other elements that make an essay notably lyric are rhythm, cadence, and musicality of language. If you write poems and feel yourself leaning into essays, the lyric essay might be for you. Noble continues, “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).”
For examples of lyric essays, see “Each Breeze Began Life Somewhere As a Little Cough” by Christopher Citro and “Two Lyric Essays” by Chen Li.
Hermit Crab or Found Form
The hermit crab essay borrows an outside form as its structure. For example, this essay may be in the form of a how-to guide, or a playlist, prescription information, a resume, a dating profile, a syllabus, the label of a shampoo bottle, an insurance policy. The adopted form should work with the content of the essay. Often, hermit crab essays emerge from difficult material that needs a bit of protective armor (the form) to hold it. Using a found form can be an exciting way to reapproach your material.
The braided form weaves together two, three, or more narratives or ideas, accumulating energy and revealing meaning slowly. The braided essay may switch back and forth between a scene from childhood and one from adulthood. Or perhaps, there’s a certain film, novel, myth, or song that captivates you, that makes a significant intersection with your personal story. One strand of the braid might be about this outside media, another strand might be your personal story, and another strand might be something else altogether. Jessica Hendry Nelson and Sean Prentiss write “The braided form suggests the ways in which our experiences color other experiences, the inextricably woven shape of human consciousness. The past informs the present. Ideologies intersect with emotions.” The braid circles the writers’ curiosities, exploring
them through multiple perspectives.
The collage essay, much like a visual collage, juxtaposes seemingly disparate ideas, narratives, or sections, side by side. Through juxtaposition, meaning is created and amplified. The difference between the collage and the braid is the collage does not have to return, as the braid does. The collage is boundless, it may contain a variety of narrative elements, it may break into poetry, a Q&A, a list, a journal entry. Of course, all of the elements relate back to the writer’s central question, whatever the essay is seeking to explore, but the collage reveals nuance in the spaces between.
For an example of a collage essay, read “Son of Mr. Green Jeans,” by Dinty W. Moore.
Poignancy is often found in the smallest spaces, like a single strong resonant image. Flash is mostly defined by word count. It’s a brief read, maybe under 500, 750, or 1000 words, that packs a punch. It circles one central image or scene, mining it for meaning. The flash essay is bold and brimming. Every word must be necessary to push the narrative forward, with energy, cadence, and surprise.
For examples of flash essays, check out Hippocampus Magazine’s Flash section and “7 Flash Fiction Stories That Are Worth (a Tiny Amount of) Your Time,” Electric Literature, October 2018.
Want to learn more?
Experiment with the personal essay format in Kate’s Personal Essay: Lyric & Alternative Forms class.