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How to Refresh Your Writing with a Poet’s (aka Lyric) Essay by Cody Pherigo

Posted Tue, 1/29/2019 - 9:55am by  |  Category:

Want to celebrate the coming spring by sprucing (yes, that’s a nature pun) up your creative nonfiction skills? Been interested in but intimidated by the luminous “lyric essay?” Simply looking for an engaged literary discussion group that favors genre theory and experimentation? Then my eight-week class Language Renovation via the Lyric Essay is custom-built for you! Bring your curiosity, opinions, and poetic sensibility. Expect a moderate amount of challenging but fun homework, peer workshopping, and strange writing prompts.

Here are a few ways you can refresh a stuck piece, start something completely new, or simply practice what I like to call “writing calisthenics”:

1. Play with the form.

For me, the most exciting aspect of writing, and specifically writing creative nonfiction, is the infinite number of formal possibilities. A lyric essay begs us to incorporate the tools from many genres and styles, which can yield a refreshing way to experience the text.

Think of all the ways we make lists, and how that can translate into the form for an essay (e.g. numbered, alphabetized, etc.). Choose to incorporate aspects of several genres, or design your own: the result could be an original symphony. Here are a few ideas to play with: a series of journal entries, letters, epigraphs, fragments, a scientific report in the form of a play.

2. Choose a thing and obsess about it.

Take a 360-degree view and pick at it from every angle, as if you were a human kaleidoscope. Research your one thing, then factor in personal reflections in concert with your analytic points of view. Writer Maggie Nelson does this in her genre-defying book Bluets: her object of obsession is the color blue.

I find lists to be an incredibly potent and satisfying method to obsess about something; it helps me free-associate and dump out my brain onto a page. Visually, it’s a treat to see a string of oddities clumped together, and often the juxtaposition will spark surprising connections between the entries.

3. Remember that an essay is an attempt.

Find a spell for letting go of the need to know where you’re writing to, and take your clues from the text itself. Easy to suggest, difficult to execute. But, it can be quite relieving to remember that this genre (cross-genre, mixed-genre, trans-genre) in particular requires you to be of service to the writing. And to abandon perfectionism.

4. Make a map, drawing, or instructive piece of visual art.

I know we’re all wordsmiths, and some of you might moan, “but I can’t draw for s***!” Listen: it doesn’t matter what your art looks like, it’s about the process of crossing over into the far side of that peninsula that is the wild root of your writing and offering up whatever you have cupped in your hand/heart. In other words: get out of your comfort zone and attempt (remember #3?) to do something that feels awkward, weird, ugly, strange, etc.

Here’s a personal story that illustrates the point:

About two years ago, I received some very frustrating news about a former best friend, news that brought up a lot of anger and feelings. The thing that helped me through this the most was what I now call art therapy: I ripped up a book of poems this friend had given me, and then glued choice pieces back together into a mosaic of poem titles, text excerpts, and drawings. The outcome was a transmutation of feelings into one of my favorite pieces of writing art.

If anything, making visual art can exercise supportive tendons in your art-brain, and help you access new dimensions of your writing.

If this piqued your interest, sign up for Language Renovation via the Lyric Essay! The class begins Monday, February 4, and we’ll explore numerous ways to lift up your writing practice with the playful zeal of a poet, while grounding it in the structure and long-form prose of an essay.


Cody Pherigo is a queer writing animal whose studies at Bent Writing Institute and Goddard College convinced him that poets uproot politicians. He was a 2016 Ruth Stone Poetry Prize finalist and 4Culture Artists Grant recipient. Cody has self-published two chapbooks: Blue Thunder Children (2011) and Animal’s Sabbath (2013). He is a writer-in-residence with the WITS program at Seattle Arts & Lectures. Born with meconium stuck in his throat, he has been extracting it ever since.