Child’s Play: The Lyric Moment

What one seems to want
in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its
creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. 
~Elizabeth Bishop
Moments that are self-forgetful, concentration that’s
perfectly useless. None of that sounds tough, or even important. But these are the
moments we write toward, whether we know it or not.
“My intent is always to reach some unbearable moment where
time slows down and the sensual and psychological details compress and the
language always reaches into the lyric register,” says Steve Almond in Honey, This Won’t Take but a Minute.
“The rest is just chewing gum and string.”
Almond’s stories often end with such a moment. Here, the
final paragraph from “The Evil B.B. Chow”:
“Instead, I wander the
docks, the old schooners burdened under ornate masts, the colonial cemetery
dressed in gravestones, names and years in elegant rows, and roasted garlic
everywhere, everywhere tourists in their pink summer legs and dusk on the
bricks, rain gutters fat with pigeons and rooftops sprigged with antennae, the
sediments of beauty, I mean, and the widows on their stoops, done with the
suffering of men and silent before the soft click of bocce balls. There is so
much time in this life for grief. So many men lying in wait. And here, tonight,
there is a harvest moon, which hangs so heavily yellow above the sea it might
be God, or my heart.”
What makes such moments unbearable? It might be sheer pain, or
it might be sheer beauty or truth. These are the moments in which we feel most
alive. Dani Shapiro calls them moments of being, those small and deeply internal
moments embedded within our usual state of non-being, moments that in our
writing we hope to capture in their deepest emotional purity. They’re important
moments, but they’re not self-important – they’re real.
Too often when we reach for the lyric moment, we speed up (Important! Important! Got to get there,
) in exactly the places we should slow down and allow the moment to expand
on the page. Or sensing the importance of the moment, we overwrite it. The
lyric moment is not meant for striving.
Consider the way children play, suggests Mark Doty in The Art of Description: lost in the
present, entirely occupied. “In lyric time,” he explains, “we cease to be aware
of forward movement; lyric is concerned neither with the impingement of the
past nor with the anticipation of events to come. It represents instead a
slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the
interior landscape of reverie. This sense of time originates in childhood,
before the conception of causality and the solidifying of our temporal sense
into an orderly sort of progression.”
Though musicality is implied, lyric moments don’t demand a
certain style. In these moments language and truth and time intersect in what
Doty describes as “an unpointed awareness, a free-floating sense of self
detached from context, agency, and lines of action.”
To get at these moments, Shapiro suggests we access the
specific and dig deep. We all know how, because we were all children once. We
latched onto something – a toy, a rock, a stick. We forgot about time and went
in deep and where we landed was that landscape of reverie, the place where
children and writers abide.
Try This: “There are
road signs to beauty,” David Vann says. “Hearing the sentences of great writers
in your head enlarges your register.” Identify lyric moments in the work of
your favorite authors, moments that step away from the forward momentum of the
narrative, moments of full, deep awareness. How do language and time work together
with truth in these moments? Then look for such moments – or opportunities for
such moments – in your own work. Have you allowed time to slow? Have the sensual
and psychological details compressed? Is the language reaching the lyric
register? Wherever you sense such a moment approaching, follow Shapiro’s
advice: access the specific, then dig deep.
Check This Out: You
can only get it from two sources – the author and the Harvard Book Store – but
Steve Almond’s Honey, This Won’t Take but a Minute is worth ferreting out.
Think of it as a take-no-hostages update to Strunk and White in which the
advice to writers isn’t on style but on something a lot more elusive: truth. As
a bonus, this slim little volume delivers flash fiction that proves Almond
walks what he talks. 

Deb cross-posts at

1 thought on “Child’s Play: The Lyric Moment”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great definition and examples of the lyric moment–all so clear and helpful it makes me want to dig into my library and find favorite examples. And I second the recommendation for Doty's Art of Description, which is specific about craft but also manages to read like a great creative essay (with lots of poetry in there, too).

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