Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Relevance of Lyric Journalism


The difference between lyric journalism and journalism is a component that allows for lyric journalism to be contemplative about the “bigger picture” and come to some kind of conclusion about the components of life. For example, it’s the difference between saying that the Romanticism Movement was was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.” (thanks Wikipedia) and saying that it was the time where extreme fondness over one’s country and appreciation towards the land it inhabited was born. This in turn complemented other ideas circulating around the time, such as manifest destiny and transcendentalism. Can you tell I’m a fan of Romanticism? 🙂

Then the question arises of how someone can deliver a news story without embellishing it to some extent. Is it possible for someone to give an unbiased definition or fact, without them losing the impact that the story was meant to convey? My answer is that in the political climate that we live in today, with such polarized news sources and thoughts of news becoming fake or an  “alternative fact”, one has to be very careful. If one is meaning to come to a central conclusion or idea, as many examples of lyric journalism do, they must have equal representation of both sides of the coin. Romanticism sadly can’t play a part in this, because it would favor one side. 🙁

Another obstacle that faces lyric journalism is that of whether or not the idea that is being pulled out is the idea that was intended to be emphasized.

An example of making a story more than what it was would be the scandal in 2015 with Brian Williams being suspended for embellishing his story, so as to make it seem more interesting to listeners:

I find myself guilty of this, as I focus on only one thread of a story, so as to not bore anyone or create a general, sweeping narrative. In this way, a braided essay might do more to  encapsulate the entire story in terms of writing style. I think that as students interested in the creative non-fiction craft, we should be especially careful in making sure that whatever we intend on saying in our lyric journalism essays are also doing justice to what actually happened. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk addresses this in her speech, as she warns viewers about the dangers of a single story, and how it impacted her development as a child. She speaks of reading European children’s books in her homeland in Africa and noticing their tendency to not include diversity in the cultures they portrayed. (If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so! –> )

So to tie in all of the things I’ve thrown around, lyric journalism is a way to turn a news story into something of an introspective informative essay. But one should be careful not to embellish the story so as to make it sound better, and to not fall into the trap of a “single story”, and do more to include more holistic aspects of the subject matter. With lyric journalism, we have the power to reiterate a story, but in a way that can capture the reader’s attention.


“In the Defense of Facts” and Lyric Journalism

The term “lyric journalism” is a rather fresh term in the world of creative non-fiction, and like other subgenres, carries with it controversy regarding what comprises “fact” and “fiction.” Creator of the term, Peter Trachtenberg, is an associate professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, and is dedicated to instructing his students on how to detect the difference between true and false stories in all genres of writing and communication, including creative nonfiction, fiction, and even politics and the media. Trachtenberg defines lyric journalism as, “work that combines hard research and reporting with a fluid, associative narrative.” Lyric journalism embodies a fusion of facts, as found in traditional public essays, and story, as found in more descriptive, personal narratives.

Knowing this, how much liberty does lyric journalism allow a writer when addressing fact? In other words, how does the lyric essay handle the role of fact?

To tackle this question, I turned to criticism of the work of John D’Agata and his work itself, including a reading for this week, excerpts from his piece “2003,” which directly speaks on the lyric essay. The controversy surrounding D’Agata’s work can be seen quite plainly in the article “In Defense of Facts” by William Deresiewicz, which asserts D’Agata “misrepresents what the essay is and does, [and] falsifies its history.”

To D’Agata, the lyric essay is the push we need to exit postmodernism, and is what happens when “an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.” He introduces an intriguing argument that the true role of creative nonfiction should be to focus not on the “knowing”—not on being simply “a delivery system for facts” as it has been in the past—but to focus on the “unknowing”—“in uncertainty, imagination, rumination; in wandering and wondering; in openness and inconclusion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). In D’Agata’s definition of the lyric essay, the emphasis is placed on blank space, on what the writer doesn’t know, as opposed to what they do. D’Agata questions truth; “what, we ask, is a fact these days? What’s a lie, for that matter? What constitutes an ‘essay’…”

D’Agata’s perspective, which seems to turn our commonly-accepted definitions of what creative nonfiction does, receives flak from critics. The role of the basal nonfiction essay is not to simply relay and preserve fact, as D’Agata asserts, but to develop an argument, critics say. The argument can find support in fact, can rely on it, but can also turn to other forms of backing, such as “anecdote, introspection, or cultural interpretation…what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform,” according to Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz further argues that the genre of nonfiction is much more flexible, broad, and limitless than D’Agata is allowing for in his definition.

Deresiewicz also takes offense in D’Agata’s claim to the definition of an essay–far from the traditional sense–and argues that readers should be warned of the falsity of the lyric essay prior to reading, so that they are aware what they are reading is not an essay, but a trading in of “fact, argument, and assertion” (Deresiewicz, “In Defense”). Accordingly, the fact that the word “essay” is in the title of the subgenre itself is a problem.

However, it seems as though both D’Agata and Deresiewicz are arguing broadly a similar point—creative nonfiction is capable of taking on many forms and serving many purposes, and is, yes, limitless. It can embody D’Agata’s lyric style that reaches into the depths of our unknown thoughts, or lean more towards Deresiewicz’s argument-based narrative, or any combination there between. The controversy comes, then, in the role of creative nonfiction–not its physical appearance or definition–and therefore, the concept of truth.


D’Agata, John. The next American Essay. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2003. Print.
Deresiewicz, William. “In Defense of Facts.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10
Dec. 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.
“Peter Trachtenberg.” Peter Trachtenberg | Writing. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

Braiding Identity and “A Short Essay on Being”

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, the braided essay is “broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one ‘thread’ to another.”

I find this definition limiting, especially due to the fact that our primary reading from Stephen Church, and a new piece I’ve read, “A Short Essay on Being” by Jenny Boully, do not fit into this form. Both of these essays do not attempt to spatially remove themselves from other parts of the narrative on the page: rather, this happens in the prose. In Boully’s essay especially, the braiding happens not only in different paragraphs but also throughout sentences, due to the almost stream-of-consciousness pacing of the piece.

Like the narrator’s identity, this braided work is a hodge-podge of confusions and contemplations on identity, and is as complex as the abstract concept itself. This “Short Essay on Being” seems to tell us that being is not as simple as it sounds, especially when you are a minority in the United States where prying people try not only to coax you to reveal where you’re “from,” but also try to tell you about your identity after they’ve heard the answer they wanted.

The essay moves in between narratives of the own narrator’s understanding of her Thai identity, which is frequently compared to her knowledge of pot Thai. The piece starts off with the etymology of the English word, “pad,” and Boully spells out for us that: “A pad is something you can write in, as in sheets of paper bound together. It is also what you bleed on when you first start.” Her grad school friend corrects her pronunciation of “pot Thai” to “pad Thai,” and the Thai-raised narrator “thanked her for correcting me,” as is the Thai way.

We don’t learn until later in the essay that the reason the narrator pronounces pot Thai in this way is because for her, “The quick and sharp way that you say ‘fried’ in Thai is more like ‘pot’ when spoken quickly in English than ‘pad.’” Yet, as seen through various threads in the essay, friends and strangers are constantly trying to explain to her the right way the right way to be Thai, and the right way to pronounce her own culture’s food.

This piece is braided because it works with the complex and messy trappings of the narrator’s identity: one that is constantly fluctuating between what she knows about her identity and what others are telling her, juxtaposed between insider and outsider narratives, like the comparison of a Chicagoan Thai shop owner to the grad school friends that speak of Thai tourist traps as if they understand the culture. The essay moves between the foods and the flavors of her and her mother’s home cooking, to the syrupy, artificially-crafted food narratives of “Thai” restaurants in Brooklyn and the oft-feigned dietary needs of grad school friends. Like the narrator, the essay lives in many different worlds, but coexists formally in one experience.

“A Short Essay on Being” shows us how form can, truly, be an extension of content. The way that this experience is formalized in one piece, with multiple threads running into each other with varying levels of pacing, sentence structure, and mood, shows how we ought to not limit the ways that we envision a braided narrative. Like our lives, a multifaceted narrative on identity shouldn’t constrict itself to the limitations of “sections” and purposeful “white space.” In Boully’s essay, the squashing together of a dozen narratives about a narrator’s life, some of them her own and some of them from others, shows an identity crafted from the inside and outside. It gives us insight on the sublime nature of our complex and human identities, and just how blurry an “identity” can be.