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Lyric Essay Oconnor

Part I

I am an essayist. Ever since I started keeping a journal when I was eighteen, I’ve thought in essay, in narrative, in truth. My life is offered back to me in the mirror of creative nonfiction, in finding metaphor and art in life and fact.

*

Since that first river heartbreak:

Those late nights, when stars are the only

friends, I floated beneath

the surface of water.

The peace of silence.

Since then:

a poet.

*

I relapse into fiction once or twice a year (maybe like those younger-day mistakes I used to make during late nights when I drank too much and chased after the shadow of the moon).

When someone tells me a story and I think, I need to let that story wander where it may. And I will follow along. During those short windows, I explore invention, fiction.

*

The art of the empty stage: drama. A genre I’ve never studied. But the camera is so close, intimate, like falling in love, that first night. The hardest kiss. Or the night of the breakup. Nights alone.

Though I don’t know drama, I understand the feeling aloneness on a stage, a hot beam illuminating our essential aloneness.

*

Part II

I teach an intro level, multi-genre creative writing class at a small Vermont university. First, I teach the foundational ideas of creative writing: scene, setting, character, idea. Only then do I teach the four genres.

*

Definition: Genre is a category of writing based on shape. The four major creative writing genres include poetry[1], drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre in a One Act Play.

Setting: A stage filled with twenty desks and twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, walks across the stage.

Teacher: “Genre is a way to categorize writing based on its shape.”

Students nod their heads.

Teacher: “Creative writing has four genres. Can anyone tell me what they are?”

Smart Student: “Fiction …? Poetry?”

Professor nods his head.

Other Smart Student: “Drama?”

Smartest Student: “Oh, and real stuff.”

Teacher: “Yup, creative nonfiction.”

Classroom is filled with smiling, happy students and proud professor.

Smart Student: “How are the shapes of fiction and nonfiction different?”

Teacher: “Err. Some genres are based on shapes, like poetry and drama. But some deal with whether they deal with truth or fiction.”

Smarter Student: “So genre is either shape or truth/lack of truth?”

Students look confused.

Teacher wrings his hands.

Teacher: “Okay, let’s start over. We have prose, poetry, and playwriting. Those are our three shapes of writing. These are the shapes a piece can take on the page. Prose is any writing done in paragraphs. Poetry is any writing done using line breaks. Drama uses playwriting techniques.”

Students smile again.

Smart Student: “Wait, are poetry and drama true or invented?”

Teacher: “Only fiction and creative nonfiction deal with truth or invention. Poetry and drama just deal with shape.”

Smartest Student: “Why?”

Teacher paces in front of classroom.

*

Is this confusion between truth and shape within genre merely a problem for the random professor? Merely an issue in the classroom? No. For this writer, there are a plethora of problems with our current system of how genre seems to use both shape and truth as its defining characteristics, that tries to meld together these differing ideas on what genre is, that offer only false borders.

As a writer, I am stuck trying to explain my writing to editors, agents, readers, and publishers.

I write micro-essays that look like poems. What do we call that?

Creative nonfiction poetry?

Prose poems?

Lyric essays?

How will the reader know that these poem-like things are truths? How will they understand that truth is the heart of these pieces and the shape serves the truth I am trying to get at?

My friend, Julia, calls these hybrid pieces that span shapes Thingamabobs, which just highlights the problem. Julia and I, and so many other writers, are forced to create unclear terms to try to define something that should be easily defined. We are writers. We work with language. How is it that we have no language here?

And then there is the issue of bookstores. I read environmental and nature writing. When I go into a bookstore and search for nature writers, I look in the Nature Writing section. Easy enough. Unless I want environmental poetry. Then I need to go into the Poetry section. Here, I’ll find nature poets like David Budbill and T’ao Ch’ien kissing covers with lyric poets like Ezra Pound and ultra-talk poets like Mark Halliday and confessional poets like Sylvia Plath. These poets are lumped together for their reliance on line breaks, on their shape. This organizational system of gathering likeminded things together might tell us to call a house and a cardboard box the same thing since they share the same rectangular shape.

Also, the reader often has an unclear understanding of what they will be receiving from the writer. Is that poem true, invented, or something else?[2] What is the small paragraphy-thing? A prose poem? A lyric essay? What is the difference? We can be more clear with the reader. We can tell them exactly what they will be holding in their hands. Genre, or shape, is normally easy for a reader to see just by examining a piece of writing. Most poems clearly use line breaks. Most fiction and creative nonfiction clearly use paragraphs. But truth/fiction is not something that can be seen. It can only be told to the reader. Once the reader knows what they are reading (genre and truth/invention), then they can decide on how to use that information or if that information is even important. But right now we often don’t provide that information to the reader.

Finally, as writers, we have been taught to write truth or fiction in prose, to often ignore truth or fiction in poetry and drama, and to see creative nonfiction as only prose. These are artificial limitations. These constraints hem us in for no reason. A poem can be true. Creative nonfiction can use playwriting techniques. Fiction can use historical information and fact. Drama can be true or invented.

*

Etymology of Prose: Prose is birthed from the Latin word for straightforward. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and traditional uses of punctuation.

Etymology of Poetry: Originated from the Latin word for poet, poetry originally meant maker or author or poet.

Etymology of Drama: Drama comes from the Greek words for to act, to perform, to do.

Etymology of Genre: Originates from the French word for kind, sort, style.

Part III

What is genre?

We saw the definition and etymology above, but let’s start here. We have four genres:

  • Creative nonfiction
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Drama

That’s pretty simple.

Before we visit with genre, let’s examine how the use of (or lack of) truth affects pieces. Maybe truth will offer clarifying ideas. Here’s a simple chart looking at truth in our genres.

Truth/Invention in Our GenresTruth/Invention
Creative NonfictionTruth
FictionInvention
PoetryUnclear
DramaUnclear

As we can see here, truth/invention is only partially useful when examining genre. Truth/invention works great with creative nonfiction and fiction but doesn’t work at all for poetry and drama. So truth doesn’t clarify enough for us. It leads to more confusion.

Next, let’s examine the keys to figuring out what makes a genre a genre.

GenreWhat Makes It a Genre?
CNFTruth + Paragraphs
FictionInvention + Paragraphs
PoetryLine Breaks
DramaPlaywriting Style

Though this chart is simple, it’s also confusing.

Two of our genres deal with truth or lack of truth (fiction and creative nonfiction) plus shape (paragraphs).

Two deal with shape (line breaks or playwriting).

So we are no farther along. Genre is unclear (because two of the genres focus on truth and two focus on shape) and truth is ineffective because two of the genres don’t care about truth.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre and Shape Overlapping, a Two Act Play (Act I)

Setting: a stage empty expect for twenty desks filled with twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, stands at the board looking at his diagram, which he has labeled “Illustration of Genre and Shape Overlapping.”

Teacher: Points to illustration. Looks confused. Tries to explain how genre and form works. Sputters. Erases work.

*

Thesis:

  • As a professor, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to students.
  • As the writer of a textbook, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to readers.
  • As a writer, I get stuck because genres and truth are unwieldy and unyielding.

What if I want to write creative nonfiction in poetry form?

What do we call that? Essay? Memoir? Poem?

If we call it essay, we wonder about shape.

If we call it poem, we wonder about truth (or lack of truth).

I could go on and on.

[See confusing illustration above.]

*

Part IV

We need to move to a system that offers rational borders and removes the false limitations that have been set on our genres. What is the solution to this overlapping confusion of genre and shape?

Let genre teach us only the shape of a piece since the term genre originated to mean style and never was meant to include fiction or truth. Maybe this problem originated with the invention of the term “the fourth genre” for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is not the fourth genre (and fiction isn’t the third genre). Rather, prose is the third genre but before creative nonfiction became popular, fiction was seen to equal prose. Now we see fiction and creative nonfiction as genres rather than as types of prose.

Once we have moved to three genres (poetry, drama, prose), then let us create a new category that deals with truth or invention. I propose veracity.

Definition of Veracity: The observance of truth, or truthfulness, of a thing, something that conforms to truth and fact.

Etymology of Veracity: From Latin, meaning truthful.

So we will have two (or three) veracities. Veracity only teaches us about the truthfulness or invention of a piece.

VeracityWhat Makes a Veracity
Creative NonfictionTruth
FictionFiction
Hybrid[3]Inhabits truth and fiction

And let us have three (or four) genres. Genres will only teach us how a piece will look on the page.

GenreWhat Makes a Form?
ProseParagraph Form
PoetryLine Break Form
PlaywritingPlaywriting Form
HybridMultiple Forms

*

Dichotomous Key to Veracities:

Nonfiction:

Habitat: Lives in areas of sunlight populated by truths, facts, memories, and speculations.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: Carries the appearance of the writer’s life or the life of those who the writer has studied.

Times: When the writer wants to examine the factual, the truth, the real in a moment.

Fiction:

Habitat: Lives in caves populated by invention.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: A changeling. Can appear like the writer, like other humans, or entirely unlike humans at all.

Times: When the writer wants to create something new, when the writer longs to invent.

*

Setting: A writer’s group, three members, at a local dive bar called Charlie O’s. Practicing a new way to view genre and veracity.

Jess: So what would you call Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay?

Jess and Julia in unison: “Hybrid/hybrid.”

Julia: “What about Moby Dick? It’s fiction and nonfiction and it is prose.”[4]

Jess: “Catcher in the Rye is fiction and prose.”

Jess: “Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle? Nonfiction/Prose.”

Sean: “The ancient Chinese poets, like T’ao Ch’ien? Creative nonfiction and poetry.”

Jess: “In Cold Blood?”[5]

*

What does this new system allow that sees genre as poetry, drama, and prose? That offers a scale for veracity of a piece?

One: It makes the teaching life easier. This simpler view on genre and veracity is easy to teach. Every piece of writing is:

  • Either true, invented, or something hybrid (veracity).
  • Either poetry, prose, drama, or something hybrid (genre).

We can go back to calling a cardboard box a box and a house a house.

Two: It allows writers flexibility to conceive of how they should write on the page. Writers may no longer need to feel constrained by genre and veracity because we’ve separated truth and fiction from genre.

Choose a genre(s).

Choose a veracity(s).

Write.

Three: This system allows publishers a way to clearly articulate what they want. Again, just choose a genre(s) and a veracity(s) and the writer will know what to submit.

Four: This new system instructs the reader more clearly on what they will receive. The contract is clear between writer and reader. Veracity teaches us about truth/invention. Genre teaches us about shape.

*

I am an essayist. But I see my truths, attempts, tries at understanding life not always in the long paragraphs of prose. Sometimes my brain, heart, hands need, yes, other forms.

To tell

my truths through poetry.

I don’t want

to be

constrained by form.

Let my words, like the waters

of my life, wander.

[1] There exist hundreds of definitions for poetry. Most offer major flaws in how they categorize poetry. The only definition I have found that doesn’t have major holes (because of its simplicity) is that poetry, almost always, uses line breaks to determine the shape of the poem. Except when it’s called ‘prose poetry.’ And once again, the professor looks confused.

[2] My friend Karen just said that she reads most poems as “real” or “based on the writer’s life.” I read most poems as invented by the writer. We, the reader, have no idea if a poem is real or invented.

[3] Hybrid texts intentionally blend fiction and nonfiction, play with fiction and nonfiction, or have fiction and nonfiction share space. We can continue to work to decide where the hybrid boundary begins and ends, but it seems that the hybrid space could be reserved for pieces that mix or play with truth and fiction.

[4] We decide on fiction and prose because the heart of the novel is about the invented story not the nonfiction on whaling.

[5] We’d still need to work out some kinks (like where to place In Cold Blood), but the kinks are smaller and on the edges of the borders. So rather than dealing with major issues in how our genres and shapes overall and confuse, we’d have to deal with smaller borderland issues like Is IN Cold Blood nonfiction or hybrid.

Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.

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Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction

Named for intersections, and for the heart of the matter, this series will publish literary nonfiction by diverse writers working in a variety of modes, including personal and lyric essay, memoir, cultural meditation, and literary journalism. Books are intended for general readers, including writers, teachers of writing, and students, and will be both intelligent and accessible. Engagement with the world, dedication to craft, precision, and playfulness with form and language are valued. As the series develops, it will include non-American writers and experiences.

Edited by John Griswold, the series aims to publish two to four new titles annually. Griswold is an assistant professor in the MFA program at McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of A Democracy of Ghosts; Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City; and Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life: Collected Essays (Georgia). He has written extensively (as Oronte Churm) at Inside Higher Ed and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Our online submissions manager and submission guidelines are available here.

Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

More than fifty short-story collections have appeared in the Flannery O’Connor Award series, which was established to encourage gifted emerging writers by bringing their work to a national readership. The first prize-winning book was published in 1983; the award has since become an important proving ground for writers and a showcase for the talent and promise that have brought about a resurgence in the short story as a genre. Winners are selected through an annual competition that attracts as many as three hundred manuscripts.

Winners of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction include such widely read authors as Ha Jin, Antonya Nelson, Rita Ciresi, and Mary Hood.

Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction: compelling, groundbreaking memoirs and essay collections that embrace real subjects and true events through literary techniques more commonly associated with fiction or poetry. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a nonprofit organization of writers, teachers, colleges, and universities. The creative nonfiction competition is open to all authors writing in English regardless of nationality or residence. Winners receive a $2,000 cash honorarium from AWP and publication by the University of Georgia Press.

Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South

The South that could be reasonably termed the nation’s number one economic problem in 1938 is no more. Today, the South with its runaway economic and demographic growth, political clout, and influential cultural exports is arguablythe most dynamic region in the United States.

With an eye toward understanding the struggles that have shaped the newest New South, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth-Century South offers interdisciplinary historical studies of the region’s social, political, and economic transformation. This series presents the best new research on a range of topics in recent southern history, including the long battle for equal civil rights for all citizens, partisan political realignment, suburbanization and the rise of car culture, changes in gender and sexual cultures, the rise of theocratic politics, industrialization and deindustrialization, immigration, and integration into the global economy of the twenty-first century: fresh scholarship that investigates new areas and reinterprets the familiar.

Early American Places

The University of Georgia Press, New York University Press, and Northern Illinois University Press announce a collaborative book series supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Early American Places focuses on the history of North America from contact to the Mexican War, locating historical developments in the specific places where they occurred and were contested. Though these developments often involved far-flung parts of the world, they were experienced in particular communities—the local places where people lived, worked, and made sense of their changing worlds.

By restricting its focus to smaller geographic scales, but stressing that towns, colonies, and regions were part of much larger networks, Early American Places will combine up-to-date scholarly sophistication with an emphasis on local particularities and trajectories. Books in the series will be exclusively revised dissertations.

The collaborating presses’ responsibilities are divided geographically. Georgia will focus on the southeastern colonies, the plantation economies of the Caribbean, and the Spanish borderlands. NYU will cover the northeastern and middle Atlantic colonies, and French and British Canada. Northern Illinois will cover the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi Valley, and the Great Plains.

Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

Published in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History.

Emphasizing comparative and transnational approaches, Race in the Atlantic World, 1700–1900 focuses on the development of, and challenges to, racialized inequality in Atlantic culture, with a particular focus on the Americas. Books in the series explore the evolving meanings of race, slavery, and nation; African identity formation across the Atlantic world; and struggles over emancipation and its aftermath.

Studies in Security and International Affairs

The University of Georgia Press in collaboration with the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security and Department of International Affairs created this series to publish outstanding scholarship on some of the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century. This series grows out of the dramatic internationalization of the University of Georgia: the creation of a new School of Public and International Affairs, the establishment of a new Department of International Affairs, and the continued growth of the Center for International Trade and Security and related programs.

We are particularly interested in work that presents important new perspectives on the crises in American foreign policy and global governance; democratization, civil society, and the rule of law; rising powers and regional hotspots such as the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America; new security threats, including terrorism and responses to it; defense policy; postconflict reconstruction; multilateralism and international institutions; and the U.S. role in the world. Books in this series draw from the fields of comparative politics, foreign policy, international relations, and security policy. The series crosses disciplines and attempts to bridge gaps, including those between the academy and government and between nations and “civilizations.”

The South on Screen

Though the American film business initially took root and flourished in the industrialized northeast and the west coast, filmmakers in this new medium soon became preoccupied with cultural questions and themes that resonated with the South. The South was then promoting itself as “new” and underwent, on a smaller scale than the North, the urbanization that made for a marketplace suited to the exhibition of the “picture shows” whose popularity and profitability were continually expanding in America’s cities. From its earliest moments onward, the movie industry catered to southern audiences and on southern themes. Indeed, the South has inspired a number of cinema’s landmarks, ranging from historical epics (The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind) and big-budget Hollywood adventures (Cold Mountain, Deliverance) to intimate dramas (Sounder, The Color Purple) and small-scale independent tales (Matewan, Nightjohn), from sober documentaries (Harlan County U.S.A.) to hilarious comedies (The General, O Brother, Where Art Thou). In the 1960s, as television became increasingly prominent, CBS created a series of popular sitcoms (The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction among them) with distinctly southern orientation. Whether produced for theatrical production or as television series, then, the moving image has shaped and been shaped by the South and its inhabitants.

A Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book

The Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book imprint is dedicated to informing and educating general readers about the unique natural environments of the Southeast and the pressing need to preserve them. Started in 2004, the imprint is generously supported by the Wormsloe Foundation.

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