Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay

by Tyler Mills

What is “plot” in a lyric essay? As I worked on “Home” (AGNI issue 83), I kept thinking about this question. Why? My process involves piecework. I handwrote scenes in a notebook, typed them up, and moved them around.

A half hour here. An hour there. Forty-five minutes in the dark early light of October.

Primarily a poet, I’ve always been tentative about plot. But I’ve always kept a notebook. Words, phrases, scraps of description—these are the things that the plot of the lyric essay must transform. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes,

“our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’… we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

The lyric essay must transform our “erratic assemblage,” moving them into meaning like the night sky that turns toward morning. The constellations change positions, and we pick out their patterns from the chaos of darkness. The crisis that spins everything toward the main thing is realization. Realization is what the mind does with these observations. Realization is what the mind does with the world. Realization is the heart of the lyric essay—what makes it move, what makes all of its light-riddled parts hold together.

As a poet, I like to give the reader an image and step back. It’s like presenting someone you love with a painting. They take it, live with it, interpret it. When I’m writing a lyric essay, I must paint the canvas and also find the perfect room—or stairwell, or attic, or loft—where I can hang the paintings and then order them by color, form, and image so they communicate something as a whole in that space. I’m creating an installation, and I do the work of connecting the ideas in it. The reader needs to feel like the room is all there is and that it will make you see something new about the world and its maddening realities.

“Home” started when a dog followed me in my new town in the Southwest. But throughout the many months “Home” grew from the germ of an idea into notes and into handwritten paragraphs in my notebook, the essay became a way for me to record my anger at being harassed on the street again and again. I began thinking about the body. I began thinking about the word cunt. What does that word do?

My mind turns ideas like stones in a river. Sometimes slowly, sometimes not at all. I’ve been told I think in patterns that sometimes remain unseen by the reader. I’ve been told that I don’t think linearly. The lyric essay can fail in a mind like mine. The lyric essay’s risk is the risk of not being understood, of a child drawing a scene you can’t understand. The dragon is the house, and the people are fish, and the world is strange but based on this world in a way that is so personal to the artist that you can’t find your way through it. The lyric essay invites this kind of thought in, but it requires something else—something particular to it, as a genre. Time.

When I was writing “Home,” I played with verb tense: moving a scene into future tense to suggest that the simple past narration I was using was not so simple. I wanted the narrator’s voice, the “speaker” as we poets like to say, to have a fluid relationship to time. I wanted the future to feel like the past, and the past to feel like the present. Isn’t that what life is like, anyway?

But isn’t that a poem does with time?

Yes and no.

In mathematics, plot refers to the visual representation of data. Two or more points of data become a line. Isn’t that what the human eye does to the stars? Star. Star. Star. The lines make a box. Big and Little Dipper. The lines make figure. Waist and legs. Cassiopeia.

In the lyric essay, data points of a life create a pattern in time—what prose can suggest so well. Prose can take your narrator through the room, out the front door, and to the trashcan. Prose can help you open the lid and drop the plastic bag of orange rinds into it. The lyric essay takes language out of the impossibly eternal utterance of the poem—the voice that breaks the present with its evocation of memory—and drops it into the graph of time. The lyric essay connects the points into diagrams we read as patterns.

When you are writing a lyric essay, it can seem like you’re braiding a delicate rope, each major strand made up of smaller strands that keep tangling together. Silk. Cashmere. Spider web threads, if you’re into the impossible. And you have to leave enough room to tie it off at the end.

The lyric essay ends in realization. The “I” finally sees something. The reader finally does, too.

The form comes together. There it is—

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Tyler Mills HeadshotTyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013). Her poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Copper Nickel, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. She is editor-in-chief of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought and assistant professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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2 thoughts on “Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay

  1. Pingback: On the Lyric Essay: AGNI Blog | Tyler Mills

  2. Terrible

    Thanks for this.

    I’ve been thinking much about what might be called “structure” in non-fiction film and the most useful metaphors I’ve come across – the ones that offer the most possibility – are spatial. Alice Munro once spoke of structure as a house – similar to your thoughts here. I’m also reminded of a division in visual arts: between the landscape and the portrait; where portraits seem inadequate, landscapes offer more “space”, a context for figures (or their absence).

    R.

    Liked by 1 person

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