Ways Toward Lyricism

Dithered over that title’s preposition and decided that opting for the positive would help everyone in the mess that’s to come.

If good students are the ones who enter every class full of passion and curiosity, Joey’s been one of my best. The other night we had a Twitter exchange he covers clearly and in full in a blog post that you should go read if you’re the type who likes watching writers dicker with themselves in public about writing problems (and if you aren’t: hi, Mom). In essence:

Sardonically, I tweeted: “Sorry Paul Harding, you only get to use the word ‘eerie’ once in a novel, not once every three pages.” Dave Madden, my former professor, responded: “But he got that novel published & won the Pulitzer for it, so clearly he got to use the word ‘eerie’ as much as he felt he needed to.”

Turns out I was wrong about which Harding novel Joey was referring to, but I stand by my argument all the same.

And I stand by Joey’s. Writers grow by reacting against published work and letting this reaction push their own writing elsewhere. The danger in this, though, is in thinking of good writing as writing that’s gonna wow the shit out of your workshop peers. And from where I’ve been and where I’ve taught, nothing wows a workshop more than a well-placed word in a novel sentence such that something sonically beautiful happens—i.e., lyricism.

I trust that this stuff can wow an editor, too, but I imagine editors are looking for work that’ll wow readers who aren’t necessarily other writers. Sure: non-writing readers can love good lyricism, but the NWRs I know, when asking about a book, are more curious over what it’s about than what formal work it does on a sentence level.

As proof I offer up what few book reviews still exist in the mainstream print media. Summarizing a book feels—I know from experience as a student and teacher—like tedious work for a student writer. It’s also tediously helpful, particularly if a long-term goal for a student is the writing of a long work. How else to put under scrutiny a book’s enormous mess?

As the night got later I kept tweeting thoughts that occurred to me about what I’d diagnosed behind Joey’s dismissal of eerie‘s overuse: lyric aesthetics’ creeping control over the way writers in the academy assess writing.

“Starting to feel that lyricism … is a kind of totalitarianism,” I began. “Something one’s expected to submit to.” Totalitarianism is about control, and an obsession over the sentence as a compositional unit is an obsession with short things a writer can always, always be in control of. Whereas art in general, and long-form writing specifically, is a mess so often unmanageable on the sentence level. It is scary not to be in total control of one’s own work, but to me the whole idea of total control is even scarier.

Harding’s overuse of eerie, I wanted to suggest to Joey, was a reasonable mess. One that a Lishian/Lutzian lyricist would never accept. Paul Valéry’s complaint that he could never write a novel because he’d have to negotiate sentences like, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock,” is the complaint of a lyricist. More importantly, it’s a kind of short-sightedness I worry about my students coming down with in the course of their educations.

The best way I can explain this right now is dimensionally.

If we don’t make up our own words, our fundamental unit of creative writing is the word we choose at every moment. Our diction. This is writing in the first dimension, the line segment on a plane (which resembles the painter’s brushstroke in evocative ways I like here). With our syntax, we put those words together to form sentences the way line segments connect to form polygons. We writers can make some beautiful polygons with our diction and syntax; they are the main elements of a writer’s voice. But there’s a third dimension that spheres circles and connects polygons to make solid objects, and this feels like what happens when sentences progress to form paragraphs. For lack of a better term, call it our argument.

Lyricism fetishizes the sentence as fundament, which attitude lately has begun feeling like doodling in two beautiful dimensions. The writing takes shape, sure, but not depth. Worse, what such fetishizing has done is leave the aesthetics of the paragraph to composition theorists. If, as Lutz says, the sentence is a lonely place, the paragraph is a ghost town.

These are, once again, ideas I’ve written about before. To get better at the promise of this post’s title, I’ll tell a little story. During a job interview this winter I was asked what I, as an applicant for a position teaching NF, thought of the lyric essay. It was a question I’d expected if not exactly prepared for; the lyric essay is the hottest thing to burn through academia since, perhaps, the rise of CNF journals in the Nineties. I said that I’d published a couple of things that could be called lyric essays and that I continue to write them. “But I’m more interested in the lyric as a mode,” I added. “Not a genre.” I got nods and, eventually, the offer.

Writing an essay that’s lyric prevents that essay from being narrative or expository. Whereas writing in a lyric mode forces me to figure out why I’ve opted for that mode given the content of the piece, and when and how I’ll need to shift modes later. Maybe writers publish whole books in a single mode; I’ll never be one of them. But as long as I have students looking to write book-length works, I’ll keep lyricism in its proper place. Not an art, but a tool for art.

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