I teach an online course for creative nonfiction lovers called “CNF Outliers.” Half the time I think of myself as “instructor” – the person who worries about learning outcomes, assigns readings and writing exercises, and facilitates discussions. The other half of the time I’m in the privileged role of “story excavator” – someone who pays close attention to emerging stories and helps writers move past fear so they can share the truths they long to tell.
I discovered what I call CNF’s “outlier forms” a few years ago. I was looking for innovative ways to approach old material – and yes, to work past some fear – so I could turn my memories into stories. I took an introductory course on the lyric essay and fell in love with the form. Before I wrote CNF, I wrote poems, and this hybrid form appealed to my passion for poetry and prose.
As I attempted to write those first lyric essays I realized the generic personal essay hadn’t been the right fit for my work because I easily felt overwhelmed by my own material. I would start a draft and keep writing out, chronologically, what happened, but I couldn’t figure out how to shape my work. Everything felt important, weighted with meaning and significance. I didn’t know what to include and what to discard; I’d get tired and walk away.
Structure is key to the lyric essay; sections of text are divided up by asterisks, a numbered list, or a series of subheadings. Structure acts as a kind of constraint, defining a story’s parameters. When the structure emerges for a lyric essay in the drafting process, all at once I know how to focus, and it’s much easier to trim what doesn’t fit and organize my material.
Constraints can inspire greater innovation. In the case of the lyric essay, I discovered I had the freedom to collage together memories and scenes, jumping backward and forward in time. I could discard lengthy passages of narration I would have felt obligated to include in a linear personal essay. With the lyric, structure can provide context so the reader can make the necessary associative leaps. Writing becomes playful, more experimental – perhaps more brave. Even when I broached sensitive material I had fun writing the lyric essay.
From the lyric essay it was a short leap to the other outlier forms – each with their own inherent constraints. I discovered the hermit crab essay, a subgenre of the lyric that invites the writer to insert a personal narrative into a found structure, as Jill Talbot does via her course syllabus in “The Professor of Longing”. I also was intrigued by what a writer can do working within an extremely limited word count. It’s amazing how much is conveyed about two people in Brenda Miller’s 290-word flash essay, “Swerve”.
It’s been awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling to watch my students excavate their own stories as they start writing into these forms. I’ve seen tentative writers courageously approach material they’ve wanted to write about but have avoided. When fear comes up, I point students to the hermit crab essay and prose poem – two ideal containers for stories that may feel too dangerous, raw, or vulnerable to write about.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the four CNF outlier forms – the flash essay, prose poem, lyric essay, and hermit crab essay – and how you might use them to approach your own stories.
The Flash Essay
“Think of it as orange juice from concentrate. The consumer gets all the nutrition and sweetness in a regular carton of OJ, packed into a condensed space.” ~ “Four Techniques of Effective Flash Nonfiction Writers”, Donna Margara, The Artifice
Example: “Eavesdropping” by Susan Lilley
- generally no longer than 1000 words but often shorter (<500 words)
- can be presented as an uninterrupted block of text or segmented in paragraphs
- the story focuses on one image, idea, or experience and leads to a “flash” of understanding
- Dinty W. Moore, Founder of Brevity magazine describes “tight language, vivid description, strong nouns and verbs, and a sense of urgency” as the essential ingredients of flash nonfiction
Benefits: When you can only write 1000 words or less, you’ll make tough decisions about what to cut and what to include early in the draft process. Flash nonfiction forces you to be highly selective, paring your piece down to bare bones. The form essay is also versatile; I’ve seen flash-length braided essays, list essays, collage essays, and hermit crab essays.
Tips: Use flash to write about a pivotal moment in your life. Start in the middle of the action and write toward a point of change or transformation – that flash of understanding your entire essay leads up to.
The Prose Poem
“Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” ~ Peter Johnson, The Prose Poem: An International Journal
Example: On the Day that You Were Born the Angels Got Together by Mary Ann Samyn
- most often presented as a block of text without line breaks, although some are segmented
- asks questions, weighs possibilities rather than presents a straightforward narrative; prose poems are often meditative, following the thoughts of a meandering narrator’s mind
- incorporates poetic devices (alliteration, assonance, rhythm, image, symbol, metaphor) as well as CNF techniques (compression, fragmentation)
- embodies a tension of opposites, veering between the real and the imaginal
Benefits: The prose poem offers CNF writers the freedom to write about personal experiences without relying on a strict retelling of the facts. Prose poems are often fragmented, jumping from crisp observations described in concrete detail to abstract associations.
Tips: Use the prose poem to explore a personal memory that left you with some questions. You could start writing your prose poem as a micro flash essay that moves between the concrete (imagery) and the abstract (thoughts). Include a few poetic devices; use fragmentation.
The Lyric Essay
“The lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically – its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme.” ~ Deborah Tall, Former Editor, The Seneca Review
Example: Vietnam Four Ways by Anne Panning
- the essay is segmented into sections separated by white space, numbers, symbols, or subtitles
- may be assembled as a series of interconnected images or associated ideas
- circles an idea or experience before it arrives at an insight, epiphany, or resolution; alternately, there may not be a clear resolution, leaving the reader to create meaning
- uses rich language, poetic devices (image, symbol, metaphor) and techniques (juxtaposition, fragmentation)
Benefits: The lyric essay allows writers to explore memories and experiences in a playful, collage-like way. Released from chronological storytelling the writer is free to make intuitive connections, letting the chosen structure provide order to the piece.
Tips: Brainstorm associations, recurring images, or themes around a personal experience. Try focusing your writing around an object (e.g. the bikes in Iris Graville’s “Cycles”, the rake in Susan Olding’s “A Rake’s Progress”) to anchor your story and unify the collaged pieces that make up the whole.
The Hermit Crab Essay
“This kind of essay appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace—material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.” ~ Brenda Miller, Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction
Example: “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss
- composed inside a “found form” – a recipe, course syllabus, song list, horoscope, Craigslist ad, field guide
- the form conveys as much meaning as the content, becoming, as Brenda Miller says, “part of its metaphorical significance”
- may be written in second or third person, allowing the writer to step back from an experience to safely approach raw, vulnerable subjects
- requires the writer to surrender to the form as a starting place, allowing it to suggest the story that “fits” the structure
Benefits: The essay’s found structure can pack a significant punch, adding depth to the meaning of a personal narrative. Once you find your form the work of assembling your essay becomes much easier. This is the perfect form for containing difficult material (e.g. Brenda Miller’s series of rejection letters).
Tips: Make a list of stories you want to tell but aren’t sure you should. Look for possible “shells” at work, at home, and out in the world. You might be surprised at what may at first seem an unlikely possibility, but may actually offer the perfect means to tell a difficult story.
I hope learning a bit more about the creative possibilities of CNF’s outlier forms inspires you to excavate your memories, move through any fear, and start telling those powerful, hidden stories that want to be told.
Have you tried writing into any of the four CNF outlier forms? What has been your experience working with limited word counts, a found form, or other constraints?