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Brian Oliu

Brian Oliu is originally from Readington, New Jersey and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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Major ambitions for such a small book! Each brief meditation explores the daunting, existential task of searching (for you, whoever you are), and yet, with tender and earnest energy, retains a lover’s belief in the act of seeking.

– Lia Purpura, author of On Looking

Oliu’s book is playful, beautifully structured, filled with surprise and pleasure. Read it now, or you will miss out.

– Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

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So You Know It's Me

Manipulations of the World: On The Lyric Essay

07/15/11

For something that should not be tricky, non-fiction is tricky. Of course, there’s the issue of telling the truth — a contract that is signed the second that something is described as “non-fiction” or “memoir”:  that the author will not steer you wrong, that the story being told is as close as humanly possible to what actually happened, that the feelings felt are accurate.

This is what we expect from our non-fiction and it is why many protect the sanctity of the genre vehemently — the truth, simply, is more valuable. Horror films gain credibility and add an extra element of terror when the phrase “based on true events” is put before the cold open of a family peacefully eating dinner in a lake cabin. We are more emotionally stirred when we believe that someone has gone through something, has “lived to tell”, can speak from experience.

However, the concept of non-fiction is flawed in this way as well: thus the birth of the phrase “creative non-fiction,” which if you mention to anyone who is not in the writing community (I’m looking at you, family friends and clever uncles) they will believe it to be an oxymoron — that things that are true cannot be creative, that truth is the direct opposite of creating something new of value.

This, of course, is laughably false: even by providing a timeline or a list of facts one is presenting the truth in a scripted form — the choice of font, the decision of spacing, the way everything fits on the page. Yet at what point does the piece gain the distinction of being a “lyric essay”?

David Shields’ Reality Hunger has become the ur-book for the modern-day lyric essay: a blur of quotations and insights into writing, technology, persona, our relationship with the other with brief sprinkles of narrative intertwined. When we choose to enter a piece of fiction or when we read a poem, we are asked to suspend belief in order to find ourselves entranced in the language as well as the narrative:  we are certainly still in our chairs or couches reading, but we will allow ourselves to get caught up in what is being weaved.

The lyric does this as well — the reader is immersed in language and synthesis: the knowledge that what we are being told is true, yet the way we are being told these truths are masked in some sort of artifice — that instead of being immersed in narrative and plot, we are immersed in structure: what words repeat themselves, the speed of the language varying, phrases meant to express the intangible in a tangible way.

The beauty of the lyric essay is in its playfulness and manipulation of a world — it is play at its most primitive level: the idea of vertigo, in which sociologist Roger Caillois defines as “an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”

To me, the lyric essay exists in a lucid world but it is being presented in a way that one is uncertain of, in the same way when you have a dream about your house: you know it is your house despite it not looking anything like your house looks, despite having dead relatives and ex-girlfriends and people from across the country all living underneath one roof.

And yet it makes sense while you’re in it: you sit at the counter and eat a slice of pizza, you listen as faces melt into other faces, as the walls change around you. It isn’t until afterward you realize the oddness of it all: the craft and attention to strange detail the dream took to make you feel these things — sadness for those past, homesickness for a version of home. It might only be a version of the truth, yet it was presented so beautifully and honestly, you can’t help but feel and live it strongly.

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8 Comments

  1. Jordan Blum said on 07/15/11 at 7:33 pm Reply

    Excellent post. I agree that on the surface, “creative nonfiction” is confusing and perhaps an oxymoron. What I find funny is how, at least sometimes, fiction is based on truth. It’s based on our lives – people we know, experiences, feelings. It has to do with percentages I guess. If I’m discussing a real job interview but I change some of the details, it’s “creative nonfiction,” but if I create a boss who’s based on my real boss, it’s kind of the same thing. There’s “creative nonfiction” and then there’s “fiction inspired by reality.” And it can be a fine line between the two.

    Reply

    Brian Oliu said on 07/15/11 at 9:39 pm

    Totally agreed. And poets have it easy! No one even asks if it’s fiction or non-fiction. I might start asking.

    Dawn. said on 07/16/11 at 11:02 am

    In my experience, people don’t ask poets if their work is fiction or nonfiction because they consistently assume it’s all nonfiction.

    Rion Amilcar Scott said on 07/18/11 at 5:58 pm

    Interesting Dawn, I never ask because I assume it’s all fiction, but that perspective is changing in me.

    Chris Newgent said on 07/22/11 at 3:46 pm

    I think the Confessionalist movement really brought about the assumption that poems are generally about the poet. In my experience, most people (especially people trained to separate “speaker” and “poet”) assume poetry to be non-fictional in nature.

  2. brian warfield said on 07/15/11 at 11:57 pm Reply

    what comes immediately to mind is Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. i love this book because of its transformative nature. it depicts a reality but not the absolute factual reality of what “really happened.” it turns tragedy into poetry, and i think, for me, that is what writing is all about.

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  3. Dawn. said on 07/16/11 at 10:58 am Reply

    Lovely post, Roxane. Very interesting thoughts. I really don’t think most people realize how the memory actually works. We fashion our past into a coherent narrative, subconsciously assigning certain moments in our lives with more significance than others, creating cause-and-effect, enhancing conflict, providing tidy resolutions that may not have felt so tidy at the time. Our very perspective in the present alters how we recall the past, because we know things we didn’t then, so it’s like we’re casting our former selves in these almost literary roles anyway. We become our own narrators, in a way. If that makes sense, haha.

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  4. Angie Spoto said on 07/18/11 at 5:12 pm Reply

    I recently returned from a study abroad trip to Salzburg, Austria and decided to write some travel articles about my experiences. Writing these articles, in which I occasionally leave out elements that might betray a more accurate, but less interesting, view on reality , reminds me of what you’re talking about here. Travel writing is like creative nonfiction; how we remember events is not necessarily how they happened and, plus, most readers wouldn’t want to read 100% pure reality anyway.

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