Nonfiction is often told in nuggets, in “river teeth,” these tiny little memories and moments in time. These are the things that stick with us over years. We don’t remember what we had for breakfast that day, but we remember (perhaps erroneously) what we were wearing, a turn of a phrase, the look on a person’s face. Sometimes it can be hard to create a narrative out of these because they’re complete within themselves. Instead, these nuggets can be juxtaposed with each other to create their own truth, and in the end, the sum is greater than the parts. Thus the lyric essay is born.
This exercise is a way to scaffold students unfamiliar with lyric essays in the writing of their own lyric essay.
A basic introduction to lyric essays and the use of metaphor in nonfiction is needed for this exercise. My class examined Suzanne Roberts’s “Hawks and Other Flying Things.” Each memory or section has a flying thing in its heading, such as Hawk, Gull, Firefly, Airplane, and Angel. The conflict is introduced immediately when the narrator texts “your” husband to say that she is broken inside. We don’t know for sure that the “you” is his wife and the narrator’s best friend for several more sections, and we don’t learn that she died from brain tumors until halfway through—the section was “Gull,” and it was about the narrator and her friend on the beach and seeing a gull as the friend curses God for doing this to her. “Airplane” is when they fly to her funeral, and in “Angel” the narrator puts angels on her Christmas tree while thinking that if she keeps talking to her friend as if she’s still alive she’s not fully gone. This story of grief is told through a list of flying things. The essay is examined closely in the first half of class, teasing out the conflict and the metaphors.
Other possible essays told in this form are David Shields’s “42 Tattoos,” about ownership and identity, and Dorie Bargmann’s “Thirteen More Ways of Looking at a Blackboard,” about dealing with racism.
The students read these and discuss the metaphors, the “takeaway” of the essay, and possible reasons for the type of list presented. Before moving into writing, I present a few other examples of possible lists and what they could portray.
- A list of jobs: showing expertise gained
- A list of lipsticks: showing the search for style or independence
- A list of songs: the progression of a relationship
- A list of scars: showing the strengthening of character
This is followed by brainstorming on the board with the students’ other possible lists. After several minutes of that, the students pick a list they would like to use and spend a short amount of time (around three minutes) writing as many items on the list as possible. The final section of the exercise is a seven- to ten-minute freewrite about one of the items on the list.
- Present an essay that is told in list form. Discuss the list headings, the order, and the possible “takeaway.”
- Brainstorm on the board possible lists. Some things to start the list could be songs, recipes, cars, jobs, houses, plants, or exes. Spend about three minutes coming up with as many as you can as a class. Afterward, going through the items on the board, discuss what a list like that could show.
- For about three minutes, have students pick something they will make a list of and brainstorm items on that list. Have them aim for ten to fifteen items.
- Ask students to spend seven to ten minutes writing about one of the items on their lists. This should just be a free-association writing exercise—writing whatever comes to mind about this item. They should not worry about structure or shape at this point.
- Have students read through and underline words, phrases, and details that they like.
Example of the Exercise
Drug of Choice
by Alexandra Gettman
The journey to stability begins, at age twelve, when I enter the psychiatrist’s office with my mother. My mother tells me nothing is wrong with taking medicine if need be. I talk with my mother in the room nothing too deep just basics like I am sad, suicidal, my mind controls me and I can’t eat in public for some reason. He tells me we will start off with the basic antidepressant, Zoloft. The worst part of it is that I feel nothing, no control, no happiness not even sadness this is how it would be if I wanted to be a robot. I don’t want to be a robot. I still want emotions but is this what antidepressants do? I hate this. I don’t want to take these anymore. So I stop periodically and then get back on them when my parents found out and yelled at me for not taking them. I tell them how I feel and they tell me to wait till the next appointment. I had to deal with this feeling for months until it was time for my next appointment with Dr. K.
Here I am again, thirteen, with Dr. K. Discussing other medicines I could take instead of the robot pill. He asks me if any pill sounds familiar as he lists them, I stop him at Prozac because that is what my father takes. He says we can try this one and see how you feel. Is this just a guessing game? I’m not in the mood to play games with medicine I want to be happy. You have to try them until you find one that fits you, everyone tells you this when you start antidepressants. Months go by and I feel angry, I want to hit things and I get in fights with everybody. I go to Dr. K and I tell him that my anxiety and depression are lower but my anger is out of control. We lowered the dose and started it in a combination with Bupropion. Bupropion is the antidepressant my mother takes. On these I feel more control over my brain instead of my brain having control over me. How interesting that I need a combination of both my mother and father’s best antidepressants.
I’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disk disease, fibromyalgia, and possible lupus by the age of fifteen. I don’t know how that would make other people feel but it made me hopeful and scared. These autoimmune diseases have no quick fix or healing process, my body just attacks itself. The same way my brain attacks my self-esteem and energy. I was hopeful because there was finally a reason to why I have been in so much pain my whole life when everybody just blamed it on growing pains, which I am sure just worsened the autoimmune diseases. Rheumatology and pain management clinics are full of older people, 45 could possibly be the youngest I saw in there besides me. Each time a new doctor walked in they started discussing with my mom before me because they assumed she was the patient. When they figured out I was the patient their immediate response was “You’re too young to have all these, you should be out having fun.” I would roll my eyes and laugh sarcastically. Like I haven’t heard that before! Just help me to be in less pain so I can enjoy my life. They put me on Lyrica, the forgetful pill I like to call it because I can barely remember anything from the three months I took it. I am not even sure if it helped my pain to be honest. They took me off and wanted to try lidocaine injections but my insurance doesn’t cover that so I just never went back.
Sophomore year I am sixteen, and my best friend walks up to me and hands me a pill and says take it. I do. I have taken six different pills prescribed to me and none of them kept me sane/happy. So why not see what this pill does. Here is where my addiction to unprescribed medications began. It started with just one pill and moved to six and then to eight. Six pills made me feel like I was on top of the world, I could literally do anything I set my mind to. By eight pills I had overdosed in the middle of my school at seventeen years old. Cops, principal, the disciplinary school, my mom and sister where all in the nurse’s office with me. No one knew I was taking drugs. So my mom assumed that it was a mixture of all the new medicines I needed to take for my depression and autoimmune diseases. So I just was sent home and on three day suspension. I slept the entire 72 hours. No one came to check on me, out of the seven people that live in my house they all assumed I was just hanging out in my room.
After my overdose I stopped taking that many Klonopins, instead I thought it was a good idea to mix drugs. But before I ever took different medicines together I made sure to google that they in fact could be taken together and my heart won’t just stop. As much as I wanted to die, I wanted it to be on my terms not with these little pills. These pills helped me to escape my life. No more drama with stupid people at school. I could not feel the bullshit my mom would throw at me, whether it was name calling or legitimately throwing stuff at me. I didn’t take them responsibly, I hung out with the wrong people and had done things for them that I am not proud of. These three things messed up my life, ruined friendships I had, family trust was broken when my mom caught me bared out (phrase used when someone takes more than one Xanax bar) and videotaped me. She blackmailed me threatening to take me to an inpatient clinic and or rehab and show them this video. She told me there’s no way they will turn away a “doped up whore”. I used to take hydro’s with my bipolar best friend and we would shoplift. Two people with bipolar disorder going through their lows at the same time should not be doing stuff like that together. But neither one of us cared we finally felt happy and free. I felt only one emotion every time I took a pill that was not prescribed to me, happiness. Every medicine they had been forcing down my throat never felt half as good as these did. By the age of nineteen I finally took my last pill, Percocet, before a party and I took too many and drank too much I ended up throwing up in every trash can walking back to my dorm. The next morning I decided to get clean.
Anuenue. Is Hawaiian for rainbow but it is also my second middle name. My whole life the rainbow has been my thing and those six colors were my favorite and each one meant something. Usually the colors express emotions but mine express experiences. I once heard a quote similar to you cannot have a rainbow without a little rain. Which is true because a rainbow is a reflection while the rain is your struggle to grow. So when I looked into the mirror and saw my reflection at first I saw dark clouds and rain, I did not think anything would get better, I looked down on myself and thought negatively. But then I chose to live and to stop abusing drugs and finally my rainbow appeared. Never take for granted what life has provided you with. No matter how hard it gets you can’t take the easy way out, you have to work for it and learn from your mistakes in order to grow. And you cannot grow into the amazing person you are without a little rain.
Valerie Wayson is a writer and teacher who’s taught in Iraqi Kurdistan, Madagascar, and Texas. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and is pursuing a PhD in creative nonfiction at Texas Tech University.