10 min read

Lyric Essays for Life’s Uninitiated

I imagine the lyric essay is liberating to the writer, unburdened by citations or counter-claims. But for readers, especially first time readers like myself, it’s disorienting. It’s like I’m invading someone’s thoughts—someone’s consciousness.
Lyric Essays for Life’s Uninitiated
Some house in San Antonio, TX

I started this piece on January 8th, 2023. This post marks roughly three months of slow (and inconsistent) writing to finally complete it. I wanted to do the lyric essay justice but I couldn’t quite find my stride. My words often fell flat and ostensibly novel ideas came out banal. So I set the piece aside and promised myself I’d return when I could.

However, the responsibilities and worries of life expanded, as it often does, enough to fill the space I sequester for writing and reading. Grief and anxiety smothered the ground where awe and hope normally laid. I tried pulling at them, like weeds, but with roots so deep and sprawling I damaged the ground too. So instead, I tended to them, letting the ground settle once more, for weeds are just as much plants as orchids are.

In time, there was enough space for the lyric essay to tug at my attention, reminding me to return to the page. And eventually, I did. Slowly at first, a few hours on the weekend, thirty minutes before bed. During the gradual return, I waited to be inundated with creativity but it never came. No sparks or waves of  inspiration, but I kept at it.

After three months, this piece was written and I’m proud of it. This is the origin of the lyric essay in my life and I hope that this could be yours too. Without spoiling it too much, there’s the non-linearity of emotion and life that the lyric essay allows writers to explore and it’s almost poetic that the experience of writing this piece felt quite the same.

So here we are. After bouts of creative doubt and nights under a single light, I pecked away at piece until I felt confident enough for its release.

I hope you enjoy.

My coworker, and friend, introduced me to lyric essays at a company holiday party. Amidst potlucked meals and gift wrapped board games, she asked me if I liked to write. Maybe she was strategic with her choice of words. Do you like to write, rather than are you a writer? Because of course I wasn’t a writer, obviously not a full-time one (we worked together on several occasions), but maybe part-time? No—aspiring at most. Maybe that’s what I would’ve said, with a smile too wide hoping that modesty, not yearning, seeped through the gaps of my teeth.

But she spared me with the former. Do you like to write? I did—creative non-fiction mostly. Oh, like lyric essays?


In What’s Missing Here? A Fragmentary, Lyric Essay About Fragmentary, Lyric Essays Julie Marie Wade opens with:

“Perhaps the lyric essay is an occasion to take what we typically set aside between parentheses and liberate that content—a chance to reevaluate what a text is actually about. Peripherals as centerpieces. Tangents as main roads.”

Wow! How can such a sub-genre exist? I’ll be honest though, I don’t get lyric essays. Like poetry, the medium feels entrapped in sophistication only for the full-time writers to understand. The few I’ve read appear to meander around subjects and weave aimlessly through time. Reading them feels like communicating to a foreigner in a language you barely used to know. You can sparsely recognize words, sentences maybe, but how it all connects to what the foreigner is saying is lost. So you nod your head, smile, and ask them to speak slower, but even then, there’s a phrase or a conjugation that has no equivalence in you memory bank, so you’re left confused. That is the lyric essay.

If you’re still uncertain about what a lyric essay is, that’s okay. Even Purdue Online Writing Lab says, professional essayists aren’t certain about what constitutes a lyric essay, and lyric essays disagree about what makes up the form. Fantastic! Perhaps we should stick to main roads as main roads.

It’s tempting to rely on other writing conventions to understand the lyric essay. In argumentative writing, as a writer, there’s an overarching claim to support and as a reader, there’s a point of view to consider. But what about the lyric essay?

The lyric essay is not thesis-driven. It’s not about making an argument or defending a claim. You’re writing to discover what you want to say or why you feel a certain way about something.

I imagine the lyric essay is liberating to the writer, unburdened by citations or counter-claims. But for readers, especially first time readers like myself, it’s disorienting. It’s like I’m invading someone’s thoughts—someone’s consciousness. The writing disobeys the flow of time and contiguous ideas range from a few paragraphs to a single sentence.


Take Wade’s lyric essay for example. While she helps readers contextualize the lyric essay, the effort seems almost secondary to her following the trail set by her memories. Her piece reads like a reflection—the kind that deliver both pangs of grief and warm contentment—the way she navigates freely through time. One moment we’re reliving a university lecture, the next we’re staring up at the bottom of an empty swimming pool at age ten, or perhaps nowhere in time, thinking about old loves and shared moments.

“Lyric essays are often investigations of the Underneath—what only seems invisible because it must be excavated, brought to light. We cannot, however, take this light-bringing lightly.”

When I was ten years old, my parents told me they were going to dig up our backyard and replace the long green lawn with a swimming pool…

Eventually, the hole was finished, the dirt covered over with a smooth white surface. I remember when the workmen said I could walk into the pool if I wanted—there was no water yet, just empty space, more walled emptiness than I had ever encountered before. In my sneakers with the cat at my heels, I traipsed down the steps into the shallow end, then descended the gradual hill toward the deep end. There I stood at the would-be bottom, where the water would someday soon cover my head by a four full feet. When I looked up, the sky seemed so much further away. The cat laid down on the drain, which must have been warmed by the sun.

Perhaps, being unencumbered by time is one of the form’s greatest strengths. Like a wandering mind, the lyric essay links together memories, like multicolor beads on a string bracelet, across time. However, disobeying time is not the intention—it’s the result. It’s the result of the essayists memories that are not connected by logic, but by the emotions that give them weight and color.

The high concrete pool walls and sky overhead bear no physical similarity to the lyric essay. Yet, for Wade, the allure and satisfaction she felt years ago matches the emotional profile lyric essays invoke today, and so in her uncovering she wrote:

I didn’t know about lyric essays then, but I often think about the view from the empty deep end of the dry swimming pool when I talk about lyric essays now. The space felt strange and somehow dangerous, yet there was also an undeniable allure. I tell my students it’s hard work plumbing what’s under the surface. We don’t always know what we’ll find.

We don’t always know what we’ll find. Wade’s message to the essayist writing to explore emotions through time. But what about the essayist writing to escape them?


In The Pain Scale, Eula Biss massages the form to exist nowhere in time, but seemingly everywhere in thought. In contrast to Wade, who anchors readers within her timeline, and only occasionally entertaining tangents, Biss unleashes her readers to the torment of her meandering mind as she explores numbers and her chronic pain.

At night, I ice my pain. My mind descends into a strange sinking calm. Any number multiplied by zero is zero. And so with ice and me. I am nullified. I wake up to melted ice and the warm throb of my pain returning.

Grab a chicken by its neck or body — it squawks and flaps and pecks and thrashes like mad. But grab a chicken. By its feet and turn it upside down, and it just hangs there blinking in a waking trance. Zeroed.

Reading The Pain Scale, you’re not much of a reader, really, you’re a spectator. If reading Wade’s lyric essay is akin to playing back a mental reflection, reading Biss’ is watching as thoughts float to the surface of her consciousness. Ice alleviates her pain. Zero errases numbers. Ice zeros her pain until the morning. A chicken turned upside down is zeroed.

Stating each fact alone diminishes the artistry and the analogy becomes devoid of impact. But in Biss’ form, there’s a rhythm between the white spaces and punctuation. A rhythm that elevates seemingly disparate thoughts into cohesion.

“But grab a chicken…By its feet and turn it upside down…and it just hangs there.. blinking in a waking trance…Zeroed.”

Meandering, yes, but certainly not without intention.

The form is strange—unconventional, but it feels right. In what other medium can we get chickens and the zero identity property to express pain alleviation?


Perhaps, the reason there is little consensus on what defines a lyric essay is because its form can’t be generalized by literary techniques. Lyric essays are not essays that take liberty in jumping through time or darting between ideas. However, they can if they so choose.

The lyric essay’s form is to serve the writer. To explore tangents as main roads, excavate our emotions, or unveil the world around us—the manner in which the writer does that is secondary.

There is nothing to get with the lyric essay, I now realize. If the lyric essay uncovers forgotten memories it has meaning; if the lyric essay alleviates pain or grief it has meaning; if the lyric essay sprouts fascinations with the world it has meaning.

The meaning of a lyric essay is derived by the writer in the same way we can view life’s meaning as derived by the individual. As Allan Watts puts succinctly, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

I won’t pretend to know if that philosophy is true, far smarter people have debated this for centuries and found little consensus. Yet, for me, and for now, that explanation works just fine. Meaning is derived from within, for life and the lyric essay.

Given so, it’s not shock that Wade writes, “The hardest thing you may ever do in your literary life is to write a lyric essay—that feels finished to you; that you’re comfortable sharing with others; that you’re confident should be called a lyric essay at all.”

Even without the lyric essay, I still struggle deciding between creative choices in writing. I get caught up picking which approach or word choice is best. Best for clarity, best for rhythm.

When I write, I read my choices out loud, pick one, and move on. Occasionally, I revisit the choice and make edits, other times, I scrap it and start over.

This extends to beyond pen and paper. I often worry if I’ve made the the best life decision or if I committed a blunder I will regret years later. Writing, a tentative and iterative process, is magnitudes smaller. The simile that could’ve been a metaphor is unnoticed to the reader after the piece or chapter is read. But life, on the other hand, is more grand. So, when I’m writing my story at the same pace as others are reading it, it’s hard to just pick one and move on.

So perhaps the hardest thing anyone will ever in their life is to write a life that feels finished, one that once it’s time to peel their fingers from the keyboard, allows them to smile and know it was a life worth writing.


The lyric essay befuddles me because it challenges what I know. The lyric essay doesn’t follow a thesis it follows your emotion—and to the willing reader it shares that emotion. I too often rely on thesis driven writing with one main argument, sub-claims, evidence, and counter claims. I also rely too much on thesis driven living, but this time the argument can’t be clearly defined, no matter how many hours I spend revising a single line.

I’ve adopted a motto of sorts recently and it goes: have fun or do good. That is, everything I do should be to enjoy the life I’m living or help others do the same (it’s best when it’s both). Of course, it’s more of a pretense of purpose. It’s not false, I do wish it to be true, but it doesn’t fully encapsulate all of life’s experiences either.

It doesn’t encapsulate the mundane—imagine the hours spent cleaning or traveling by car. It doesn’t leave room for mishaps, since of course it’s impossible to live a perfect life (and irrational to believe you should). And it certainly doesn’t let in suffering, like grief, which is often only recognized because you felt the opposite.

Living to only have fun or do good is living to defend a thesis. A thesis that places life on a binary scale, a folly I commit too often.


To Wade, the lyric essay brings her back to the bottom of the pool at age ten. I’ve yet to live enough years for the lyric essay to string my memories in the same way. So for time being, the lyric essay, still in its infancy, brings me to now—the current me. The me who is trying to grasp the point of the lyric essay the same way he tries to grasp at his purpose. The me who is discovering that like the lyric essay, life too is non-thesis driven.

But years from now, where will the lyric essay take me? Will I meander through thoughts, travel through time, or challenge the form even further? And despite the overuse of the saying: only time will tell.

In the meantime, like the lyric essay, I’m trying to live not by a thesis, but by discovery, by serendipity. Within the non-binary. And if that means exploring life’s tangents as main roads or cracking open moments between hard shelled parentheses and liberating that experience, that emotion…then so be it.

Thanks for reading!  If you liked it, please share it with a friend! If you didn't, I'm sorry. :(

Please leave a comment if you would like, I'd love to keep the discussion going. Or email me (openthoughtblog@gmail.com) and let me know how I did or if you have any critiques, comments, or recommendations. If you liked this or any other post, please consider subscribing. :)