Tell It Even More Slant

The lyric essay escapes its hermit crab shell to wander free

Whenever I teach my course The Lyric Essay, I start with Stephen Dunn’s “Little Essay on Form.” A single line—“We build the corral as we reinvent the horse”—makes up the entire piece and says it all, exemplifying what can be the reciprocal nature of form and content in creative nonfiction. I came across it in 2000, in an issue of Seneca Review devoted to the lyric essay, and the image has stayed with me ever since, that shape-shifting horse forever morphing in my imagination. 

I’ve been teaching lyric forms in creative nonfiction for more than two decades. In the early years, I scrawled Dunn’s credo on the chalkboard in my terrible handwriting; later, in barely discernable dry-erase marker (why are the markers in classrooms always about to run out?) on a whiteboard; then, projected as words flickering on a film screen that always took a bit too long to lumber down from its hidey-hole in the ceiling, in the light of a projector that always threatened to blink off at the barest touch. Now, in 2021, I’m showing the little essay on my Zoom share screen, while my students’ faces peer out from a strip of boxes running down the side. 

So this is how it goes. As my forms of teaching have shifted and evolved in rhythm with the transformations of the world, so too has the nature of lyric writing itself. “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.” At the start of my lyric essay course, I ask my students to consider this active metaphor, one that runs us a bit in circles. Which comes first: horse or corral? I imagine a horse—an ordinary horse—walking placidly within a small round enclosure. This horse, as they say, is “broken,” a term that’s always seemed a bit violent to me. This horse has learned to live by preestablished rules. 

And then a new horse canters in slightly bigger, a bit more rambunctious. Not broken, but proud. The kind of horse who knows it is stronger than you are, and whose spirit refuses to be contained in traditional enclosures. The horse whisperer approaches with gentle hands, and the two of them do a little dance. They nod to each other, the horse snorting, and the horse whisperer returns to the owners, who stand waiting, arms resting on the rails. “We have to build a new corral,” she says, shrugging. The owners ask what kind. She answers, “One that can be assembled and disassembled in an instant.” So they get to work. They watch the horse, breath held, as it moves in unpredictable patterns around a corral that becomes modular, agile, able to extend in every direction at once. 

As my forms of teaching have shifted and evolved in rhythm with the transformations of the world, so too has the nature of lyric writing itself.

When I first started teaching what we’ve come to classify as the lyric essay, many forms were novel to my students, such as the braided essay, the collage—writing that didn’t move in expected ways but relied more on fragmentation and juxtaposition. This associative style could lead the author into discoveries far beyond the horizons of their original impulse. My students often spoke of the freedom of these lyric forms, but they soon found that they did, indeed, need to corral these fragments somehow to make them cohere in a way that supported the creation of nuanced meaning. 

While I was teaching in those early years, I was also writing the textbook Tell It Slant with my colleague Suzanne Paola. I had come to see more and more creative nonfiction written in appropriated or “borrowed” forms; seeking an apt metaphor, I dubbed these types of essays “hermit crabs” in homage to those shoreline creatures that must burrow into found shells in order to survive. The hermit crab shell could be perceived as a corral to which the creature must adapt. The crab, in turn, animates this shell in its own way, trundles this carapace to new places in the tidal ecotone. As the hermit crab grows, it must abandon this shell and find another that better suits its new body (often grappling with other vulnerable hermit crabs for the perfect home). The term has since become part of the lexicon of creative nonfiction, and we see hermit crabs now as an established part of the genre. 

When I last taught The Lyric Essay to graduate students, in winter quarter 2021—meeting on Zoom, a year into the pandemic—I noticed that what had seemed new and startling in 1999 no longer felt so innovative. These students had grown up with shifting corrals in so many aspects of life—genre fluidity rising in concert with gender fluidity, for example, and disembodied online reading (and living) that often becomes hypertext, leading us from one thought to another and another with connective tissue stretched thin. We discussed whether the lyric essay even needs to be designated as a separate part of the creative nonfiction field; aren’t these divisions rather redundant now, unnecessarily divisive? 

Perhaps now we want to dismantle the corral altogether, cart away the logs and recycle them to more practical purposes. Let the horses roam free and find the greenest pastures that suit them. Maybe they’ll mingle with other species and evolve into animals we never could have imagined. I’m thinking of hybridity, the mingled parts of one creature becoming something wholly new, with powers that evolve as we need them. Look at those brilliant bodies, untethered, shining against the horizon. 

About the Author

Brenda Miller

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, including An Earlier Life, which received the Washington State Book Award for Memoir. Her latest book, A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form (2021), is available from University of Michigan Press.

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