Craft Essay: Does lyric essay start with essay? Or does it start with music?

by RL Gonzalez Del Valle

Does lyric essay start with essay? Or does it start with music?

I have to write two thousand words in six days, a lyric essay on the lyric essay. I work in spurts so there’s no point dividing it up, how many words each day, a trope anyway. Did I use the word trope correctly? I’m not sure. Some words lack meaning for me. Phrases, concepts, styles, they change over time.

I chose to do this, attend graduate school in creative writing. I want to write a really good book of stories about my work as an ER doctor and the people I knew and my stories about me. Always me. Me, me, me. Like an opera singer. Meeeeeee Meeeeee Meeeeeee, self-referential. Meta? Do they actually gargle with raw eggs before they sing, like my mother said? My mother and aunt listened to opera every Sunday on WQXR, the radio station of the New York Times. That was my first introduction to a form like lyric essay, opera. Or maybe the lullabies my mother sang?

Yes, Phillip Lopate. An Italian sounding name, link to opera, essay. Where is his book? I purchased it after attending a seminar a few years ago with a professor, a young woman extraordinarily competent and kind. I read some of this book she recommended. Where is it? Maybe I can reference it? Sound more educated? More like a scholar? Use Lopate’s definition of essay, and then add someone else’s on what makes an essay lyrical?

The bookshelf is huge, four of the largest Ikea shelving units placed side by side in this huge house next to the huge swamp where I now live. My prior abode on the beach was old, old as me, built in the same year, full of leaks. Leather would rot and metal rust in the salted, humid air. I loved living there. The air-conditioning units here work so well nothing gets moldy, one advantage of a newer house near nowhere.

In front of the scores and scores of books, including a set of rarely opened, claret colored faux leather-bound Encyclopedia Britannica my husband purchased in the pre-Google era, is my collection of travel trinkets. Lopate is behind a Nepalese wood carved frame in the shape of the window frames in Katmandu, where I bought it. It holds a photo my first husband took of me holding his big, black Nikon. I’m wearing a checkered long-sleeved shirt I wore as a student in Belgium, surrounded by turbaned Indian men. It was taken about a million years ago, when we traveled in India and Nepal for a month and a half. I look happy. And pretty. The men are smiling at me. Philip is hiding right behind us all. I wonder if he’d notice the mix of cultures in front of him. Young people I meet now don’t seem to travel as much as we did back then. Is it funds? Fear? I had no money, but I traveled. Maybe it’s the world situation. But that makes no sense either—there’s always conflict, isn’t there?

I notice I had placed my bookmark, an ad for another book, on page thirty-six. Are you kidding me? Lopate’s book is seven hundred and seventy-seven pages. I’ll never be a scholar. I can’t think of any book I’ve enjoyed after page four hundred. Nothing should take that long to explain, except maybe biochemistry, the bane of pre-med students. A point in favor of lyric essays, length—they tend to be short. The anthology we’re currently reading in class is close to five hundred pages. Maybe my attention span is improving. Or maybe these authors are more interesting to me than Lehninger was.

Lopate quotes Montaigne, “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Wow. I totally relate. Like The Talmud says, one life saved saves all of mankind. Not only am I taking this class to learn how to better express myself, I used to try to save all of mankind! Can’t beat that, right? And aren’t I a symbol of the entire human condition? Meeeeeeeeee.

I’m sick of writing about me. My mother, my messed-up family, my aversion to weird, my life long quest to be normal, just a regular person, nothing unusual. A blond, bleached, even. Size eight shoes, not elevens. Complaining at the kitchen table I have to do this assignment and I don’t want it to be about me, again, my husband suggests I write about my dogs. “Everyone likes dogs and you’ve had many. Loved them, and now you hate them. Lots of dog stories, like when Jenna called to say Bruno died and you thought it was your father.”

We are on vacation, Wrigley Field, just as the baseball game is starting, so much noise. My husband loves baseball and I go along with it, part of my search for normal. Why not? It’s fun, American, and I love eating that stadium junk food. When my cousin Jenna (who is taking care of my very elderly father Rudy while we are away) calls my cell phone, all I hear is “He’s dead,” I think it’s my dad. She repeats, “Bruno the DOG died.” I scream for joy. “It’s the dog, not Rudy. Bruno’s dead! Thank God!”

People around our seats are looking at me with disgust, like I’m crazy. How can I explain? And I loved Bruno, a one hundred-and forty-pound Rottweiler Shepard mutt my kids rescued, just not as much as I love my father. Now, since my splenectomy following an accident, I am fearful of dogs. They carry a germ that can kill me in hours. I won’t visit my cousins’ homes because they all have pet dogs. I cross the street to avoid dogs. I complain to grocery store managers when I see a visually intact person with their dog sniffing at the floor.

Or food. I could write an essay about that, strident, not lyrical. I did send an email to a medical website, but no one reads those postings. I’ve heard it said in class it’s best not to kill dogs in stories. How about people with dogs? I go nuts in airports when I see dogs. Is there anything I can do about financially driven corporate acquiescence to selfish adults who endanger others who are, immunosuppressed for a variety of causes—cancer treatments, HIV, sickle-cell disease, splenectomies, a myriad of other valid medical reasons? These self-interested people who take their dogs on airplanes because they are supposedly afraid to fly, not disabled but surely neurotic. Or cheapskates? Liars? Difficult to find the right words.

Lopate states his purpose in writing his book is to “put forward and interpret a tradition: the personal essay.” My intention is to present and interpret a newer tradition: a lyric essay on the lyric essay. The word hubris comes to mind. I discuss with a classmate the trouble I’m having writing this. He suggests I write about the story of two drowned girls I presented in another class we took together. Actually, I presented a story about one drowned teenaged girl I personally took care of out of a total of four drowned teenagers, boys included. A small detail, not important given the scope of that tragedy, but it brings up the question of veracity of facts in lyric essays, and also, what people remember. It’s wonderful we can be creative, be loose with the truth and not worry about accusations of fake news or fabricated information. It worries me, though. If lyric essays can slant the truth, even with wonderful artistry, are they essays? Not to me. I read an essay and assume it is factual, correct, could be peer-reviewed and found accurate. Not that I always find essays so interesting; stories, fiction, amuse me more. Lyric essays do free up the imagination, however, something quite enjoyable. Perhaps the definition or name of lyric essay should be changed—lyric essoid, like factoid, appearance of truth.

I’ve published three scientific papers. The first research paper was published after I spent a summer doing research in a med school lab, recommended for the job by my college professor. I did much of the manual labor involved, dissecting endless guinea pig, rabbit, cow, and human sciatic nerves (obtained through the VA system during the final years of the Viet Nam war). Every micron of central and peripheral nervous system tissue was precious. I was diligent though horrified throughout this memorable summer. The lead researcher and author, a well-known neurologist, was kind enough to recognize my efforts and put me down as second author. He advised I go to medical school, not study for a PhD, as I had originally considered. He thought med school was easier, as a person had to be “really smart” to do research, and physicians’ incomes were better, even though medicine was basically pattern recognition, not real thinking. On my letter of recommendation, besides acknowledging my reliability, he wrote “She wears short skirts to her best advantage.” I think he meant it (and I took it) as a compliment. It was a very long time ago, and he was right; I wasn’t really that smart, but my legs were pretty good back then. Expectations and norms change. Whatever. I won’t dare discuss the intermix of politics and science…

The second two publications were my ideas, my research, and I believe useful to emergency management of those conditions at that time. One paper concerned management of acute asthma, configuring medication choices like a Chinese food menu, one from column A, one from column B, etc. It was a medically sound approach, logical, up-to-date, and easy to remember.

The other idea came from bad experience—realizing we were misdiagnosing and mistreating children who presented with acute myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart which often leads to death. That paper has been cited many times in other medical publications. I believe publishing that paper saved lives by recognizing diagnostic errors we and many other pediatric emergency physicians were making, leading to more rapid and effective treatment. Fortunately, the great majority of kids are healthy. There is something to say for focusing on the joys in life, not just diseases.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write anything that changes more lives than that paper. Maybe I can make people aware of some things, maybe make people laugh a little, if I improve my writing skills and someday publish the book I’m working on. Maybe studying lyric essay will add some music, some beauty, to my writing. I’d like that.

Lyric essays permit artistic freedom, inserted drawings, photos, unusual formats and fonts. How wonderful to have a literary form that welcomes combinations of art forms. Some of these permissions are effective, improve the overall presentation and understanding of the piece. They get published. One can assume those works which don’t succeed with these techniques don’t get published. Has anyone used scratch and sniff, cinnamon, orange, baby powder scents? My kids had books like that. Or maybe include a patch to touch, sandpaper or velvet? Or taste—lick me lyrics, like the paper on those old-fashioned rolls of pastel-colored sugar dots, or sheets of compressed fruit rolls? Flavored papyrus? What comes next?

I’d love to include some photos in my works. I have very few of myself as a child, almost none. My mother took all the photos when she and my father divorced. It is a sadness for me to have almost no documentation of my childhood, not one classroom picture from elementary school, no videos, nothing. I’d include a photo of my very handsome grandfather, and my kids when they were making funny faces in front of a display of pigs’ feet and ears at a Parisian butcher shop. I’d include the photo of my younger son holding a starfish, my older son holding his son, my first grandchild, in our swimming pool, aqua water and eyes that match. He is holding his naked baby, warm, soft-skinned, wet and firm like a dolphin, looking all the world like each other when they were the same age. My granddaughter in ballet class, her rose-cheeked face an Impressionist painting. That would make it expressive, emotional, lyrical, not just a dry, literary effort.

Can the development and acceptance of the lyric essay as a literary form be traced to an expectation of more freedom in other areas of our lives? An open choice of gender, expression, the definition of family, methods of procreation, religion? Writing throughout the ages has reflected societal norms. Do the powers that be, readers and the publishing industry, now allow for more variation in writing styles in tandem with other social advances?

In addition to amusements such as livestock competitions, games like whack-a-mole, delectable grease-filled sausages, and space ice cream Dippin’ Dots, the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair has displays of children’s art work. Some of those paintings are so beautiful, I would hang them proudly in my home if they were for sale. Many samples of artwork done over the years by our children are on display in our home—clay creatures to fine ink drawings. But as wonderful as they are, is art work done by children, albeit talented children, as good as that done by professional artists? More sophisticated art work, even if primitive, simple at first view, uses techniques, color, various materials, with craftmanship, references, perspective, that are lacking in most of the children’s work I admire. It takes more than talent, more than potential, more than a good idea, to create a masterpiece. Literature that by definition is not well-defined, that is less limited and more accepting than the classic literature readers are accustomed to, and can perhaps be too easily passed off as lyric essay, a literary equivalent of a child’s work of art. And if we judge, are we setting a standard of rules, perhaps a danger to the freedom that lyric essay provides?
At the conclusion of a lyric essay, the reader is often left wanting more, the essay hopefully provocative, stimulating, delightful, delicious. I too want to end on a sweet note. As I write now, right now, I am in the mood for dessert. Forever on a diet, forever trying to control my nature, instead of running out to buy a cake, I am making a list of favorite desserts and trying to decide which ones I will mentally devour, which come closest to an artful pleasure.

My childhood favorite—a chocolate malted milkshake served with a long, thick stick of salted pretzel taken out of a glass jar with a silver lid and a little silver ball on top, almost like an automobile decoration. The malted tastes best if one sits at the Formica counter on a tall stool that spins around slowly when pushed with one foot on the foot rest and the other grounded either on the linoleum floor, or, if you’re still young and short, your hands against the chrome trim of the counter. It is prepared with a spoonful of powdered malt, chocolate syrup (preferably the brand U-Bet with the yellow label) in a blender with a large, chilled lidded metal container that holds a bit more than the serving glass. The counterman will pour that last bit into your glass if you are polite and don’t whine to your mother and make her mad.

Charlotte Russe is next on the list, a simple concoction held in a flat-bottomed cone of white paper, the disc of sponge cake on the bottom, then filled with thick whipped cream, and topped with a cherry. Not a chemically enhanced bright red cherry but a slightly alcoholic tasting preserved cherry, dark red, often with a stem. It exists now only in memory by those fortunate enough to have feasted in the Bronx or Brooklyn a half century or more ago. Google under “Lost foods of New York,” a web site that documents gustatory extinctions.

Seven-layer cake—seven thin layers of sponge cake with mocha filling and a thin layer of dark chocolate frosting in a wavy pattern, not thick, not milk chocolate, and a dash of some sort of green speckles, like the green part of a stale petit four crushed and sprinkled. It must be sliced thinly, many times, if you are lucky. Even Miami Beach’s gourmet shop Epicure, now closed, made the chocolate frosting too thick, too much of a good thing.

A chocolat merveilleux, which I have eaten only in Brussels, completes this list. Purchased at the bakery on Rue Stassart, the street that led to my third story walk-up one room apartment on Rue Keyenveld, with unreliable heat during the long, cold, damp Belgian winters. The neighborhood was safe but disreputable because at the end of the block, at Place Stephanie, high-priced prostitutes waited for customers in fancy cars—Jaguars, Porches, etc. The guys in school with me in Brussels joked they would be willing to pay the women just to drive their cars for the hour.

I rented that apartment because it was inexpensive, within walking distance to school, and it had a private WC, convenient for ladies of the night, one of whom lived in the building. She was attractive and would politely nod hello to me when on the rare occasions we passed on the staircase, our working hours quite different. As broke as I was and as much as I tried to live like a European, I couldn’t bear to share a bathroom with strangers. Inexpensive apartments back then had shared facilities, usually on the hallway landings between floors. I didn’t have a telephone, a refrigerator, or a view, but I had my own shower. Probably in part due to the fact I wore glasses, dressed rather conservatively, my hair never well-coiffed, and I carried an armload of textbooks, I was never harassed when walking, at times with my infrequent treat of a chocolat merveilleux in a little box tied with a string. Police would occasionally ask to see my identity card, enforcing a law originally enacted by the Germans during the Occupation to track the movement of citizens and non-citizens.

A few buildings down Rue Keyenveld was the house where Audrey Hepburn lived as a child, a solid bourgeoise neighborhood back then and currently an up and coming area, close to upscale shopping streets.

The marvelous dessert itself is simple, a rondelle of merengue topped with whipped cream and curls of dark chocolate. I ate it at my desk, my only table, savoring every morsel, while listening to the program Radio Crocodile hosted by Marc Moulin, whose voice and music I was in love with.

The end, a preposition, which lyric essay allows.

RL Gonzalez Del Valle graduated from the Florida International University MFA program in Creative Nonfiction after a long career practicing emergency medicine. Working in an inner city hospital for over two decades under her maiden name, Reina gathered stories of the patients she cared for and the people with whom she worked. After her career ended unexpectedly, Reina discovered the blessing of time, learning to put down in writing what she had experienced. She is currently working on a linked memoir. Reina lives in South Florida, midway between the ocean and the Everglades. 


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