From the Archives | Child’s Play: The Lyric Moment by Deb Vanasse

Spring is in full swing across much of Alaska, full of reminders that the world is rife with beauty and detail to apprehend. While the season presents so much to observe, it can also be a time when slowing down to reflect becomes harder as we shift into summertime go-mode and rev our photosynthetic engines. This post from Deb Vanasse, with cameos from a few fantastic writers who have taught and presented in the past for 49 Writers, first appeared here four years ago. It’s a helpful reminder that rich lived experience and lively written language can be two sides of a coin, complete with a great writing prompt. Thanks, again, for this nugget, Deb! ~ Jeremy 


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, pronto!) 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. 
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