Taking the lyric essay for a walk

bare feet in autumn leaves

“We turn to the lyric essay – with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language – to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.”

– Deborah Tall, Editor and John D’Agata, Associate Editor for Lyric Essays, Seneca Review

We had a special guest in the lab today. Mattie Sempert is an acupuncturist and creative non fiction writer (and PhD candidate) in our school. She shared her esssay ‘Navel Gazing’ with us and discussed the ethical issues involved with writing about ‘real’ patients. Having said this, ‘Navel Gazing’ actually features an entirely invented character, yet other pieces contain stories of potentially identifiable people. Georgia sad that she wanted to know more about the mother figure in the story and Mattie replied by saying that she doesn’t give all the answers, or tie up loose ends – the reader has to do a lot more more with the lyric essay.

We talked about the processes Mattie uses to write her lyric essays – she says that she likes to ‘smear everything on the wall’ and see how it looks. The mosaic-like quality of the lyric essay allows for all kinds of seemingly divergent material to be included: scientific, medical, spiritual, philosophical anecdotal, to name just a few. Much of the art is in the organisation of these seemingly unrelated ideas – what is it that links them all together?

Personally I found the discussion of Mattie’s writing process exciting as she has a non-linear, open-ended way of approaching her essays which is quite far away from my own practice. I hope it opened up some intriguing possibilities for you too.


4 Rs of Reflection

In our last conversation, Annie asked us: ‘what is the difference between reflexivity and reflection?’ We said quite a lot about reflexivity and writing but we didn’t discuss reflection much.

Reflection is something that you have to practice when writing your diary entries this semester.

I have stolen this post from Yoko’s blog because it offers some useful thoughts about reflection (thanks Yoko!)

Reflection moves from surface to deep, from self to others (visualise a cone)

Self > peers

Self > peers > sector

Self > peers > sector > society

The reflection don’ts (common pitfalls)!

  • just description of what you did

  • a ‘personal journal’ (emotional and rambly)

  • ways to get ‘easy’ marks (eg. it’s honest and admits to making mistakes)

The 4 Rs:

1.Reporting and Responding: Report what happened or what the issue or critical incident involved.

  • These ‘critical incidents’ can be a challenge, a curiosity, a surprise, a shock, a realisation, a confusion.

  • Try and observe it and note it down. Why do you think its relevant?

  • Respond to the incident or issue by making observations, expressing your opinion, or asking questions.

2. Relating: How does it relate to you?

  • Make a connection between the incident or issue and your own skills, experience, feelings, aspirations  and your research topic.

  • Have I seen / felt this before, or is it a radically new thing? Why?

  • Were the conditions the same or different?

  • Ask if you have the skills, knowledge, experience or emotional capacity to deal with this, and explain why. What does this tell about yourself?

3. Reasoning: Highlight in detail significant factors underlying the incident or issue.

  • Explain and show why they are important to an understanding of the incident or issue.

  • Refer to relevant theory and literature to support your reasoning – what have others said about something similar? Consider different perspectives.
    (anything/readings from the course eg: site visits, guest speakers, links to reading on brief, anything we have shared, anything you have found eg case studies etc.)

  • How would a knowledgeable person perceive / handle this?

4. Reconstructing: Reframe or reconstruct how you will do it differently next time.

  • What might work and why? Are there different options – can you see them?

  • Ask, ‘what might happen if…?’ Are your ideas supported by theory / readings / other people, and if so how? If not, why? (refer to red note as above)

  • Can you  make changes to benefit other students / peers / people?

  • What understandings have you challenged to create new ways of understanding something? What’s changed about the way you think now?

An example of a stage 4 reflective piece:




Bain, J., Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., and Mills, C. (1999). Using journal writing to enhance student teachers’ reflectivity during field experience placements. Teachers and Teaching, 5(1), 51-73

Write like a Mother@#$%!

Hey there lab people,

It’s week 4 and its now dawning on us that one third of the semester has already happened. Today I asked people to say whether they were aiming to submit a first draft for bonus points in week 7 and roughly half of you are (at this stage anyway). Past experience has shown that there is a correlation between submitting a first draft early and a very good end result (ie. a brilliant, fully realised project!)

While we are trying very hard to crank out words, we are also making time to read other ‘good’ writing, like Annie Dillard’s Total Eclipse essay that we discussed today. As Sam says, it is a very unsettling piece of work, largely because it attempts to narrate the author’s temporary madness in the face of an eclipse.

Just found this amusing quotation the Creative Non Fiction magazine about the tendency to complain about how hard writing is:

“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write…Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”


Writing into the void

Now that you’re back with your noses to the grindstone, so to speak, I have detected a certain gloominess in the air. Could it be the wintry weather, depressing current events, concern about honours projects: all of the above?

As Stefanie said today, sometimes it feels like you’re writing into a void, without enough feedback from others. In an attempt to address this lack, we’ve made a plan to read each other’s work and offer comments in class next week. The work needs to be sent through no later than Saturday to give your peers time to read it, along with 2-3 questions about the piece you would like answered.

The plan is to spend around 15-20 minutes on each piece of work to ensure that everybody gets a reasonable amount of feedback. The writing can be as rough, or short, or messy as you like; it just needs to show the readers something about what you’re doing and provide the basis for (helpful) discussion.

Today, we attempted our first entries in the diary that needs to be submitted at the end of semester. Diary-writing offers a chance to write down all your feelings about the honours journey; the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ll be doing this in the lab every week to keep up the momentum.





Countdown to Ceres

The last week of semester but not the last week of the lab. Speaking of which, I’m wondering if a later start time might be better in semester 2, as Monday morning seems like a tough time for some of you! Could you participate in this online poll to finalise a time that would suit most people?

On Monday began with more stretches (thanks Will!) and decided to forgo our planned presentation practice since most people were focussing on the 2nd lit review due on Wednesday. It was useful to talk about lit reviews and their function in terms of your overall projects. Sam observed that she wanted to write her lit review in the lyric essay style of her project so that it fits into the whole more seamlessly. The 2nd lit review assessment offers an opportunity to the most relevant literature from your chosen field/discipline in the mode of your final project whether it is reportage, memoir & so on. Ideally it could be written in such a way that it can be slotted into the body of your project at the end, without too much revision.

Once the lit review is done you’ll be able to hunker down and get on with writing/practicing your presentations. One concern that was raised yesterday was the brevity of the presentation, with only 30 seconds for each slide. Obviously you can’t get into too much detail about your creative practice but you should be able to outline the problem you are interrogating and the methodology you will be using. We joked that photographers have it easier in some ways as their work is able to be shown with very few (or no) words!

Feel free to get in touch if you have any last minute jitters before Monday.

See you there!


Bending & stretching

This week we warmed up with some stretches, beginning with my personal favourite downward dog (if you’d like to try it at home, follow this video) Then Will took us through a few of his best stretches. We decided that we would do this in every class till the end of the year because it felt so good!

Your presentation plans have come along in leaps and bounds. On Monday each of you took turns to say what shape your talk might take. It seems that it’s important to state three things quite clearly: the problem you are working on; the discipline you are working within and the methodology (how you are approaching it).

Next week we will have a practice run for Ceres (with or without slides). As with yoga, the more you do it, the better you’ll be!

Telling (real) stories

photo 2-1

After some engaging recollections from the week just past, today’s session began with a writing exercise to get the thoughts flowing. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here are the options we chose from:

  • Describe a memorable event, positive or negative, and how it felt to you, but do not name the feeling. Instead, tell how it felt in your body (damp hands, metallic taste, tight throat, wobbly knees etc)
  • Describe a significant place, allowing the details to reveal why the place matters. Describe it from a tree or rooftop or forma  hawk’s point of view. Describe it form the height of a dog or a turtle.
  • Write the map to where you live. Start as close or as far away from your home as you wish.

Some lab members shared their writing responses, or described them at least – Bella talked about her physical response to the news of her dog’s death; Annie shared her panicky feelings at a train station; Stephen told us of his see-saw mishap as a child. We then reflected on the ways in which we shape our often inchoate experiences – panic attacks or epileptic fits for example – into a fairly straightforward narrative that can be understood by others. The homework is to put this writing up on your blogs – if not the whole text, then a reflection on the process of writing about this experience.

Our second exercise was to return to the questions we wrote in relation to David Shields’ Reality Hunger and to see if we would answer them differently now. Nimity observed that she is still wrestling with questions of attribution – whether it is right to take others’ work without citing it properly. We talked about the fact that subsequent editions of the book do not contain the work ‘manifesto’ on the cover, possibly indicating that this word might be a turn-off for potential buyers.

While we won’t be discussing Shields explicitly for the rest of semester, as our focus moves to more pressing matters, I hope that his provocation has forced us to think about the blurry line between fiction and non-fiction. Annie’s doodle of ‘reality’ during class shows that it’s a word which comes up repeatedly in our discussions!

Homework summary:

* put your piece of writing up on your own blog and/or a reflection on the process of writing it)

*bring along a skeletal outline or WBS of what you will present at Ceres (we will be doing a rehearsal of your talks in Week 12)







Mind mapping

photo 1-3Hey there – hard to believe it’s week 9!

Today we spent some time checking in, chatting about where you are at with your research and what ‘artefacts’ you might make for the precursor 2 assignment.  We talked about the importance of documenting your process along way, as this is a significant element of the assignment. So start recording yourself with a dictaphone, or taking selfies or making notes on your practice as you go. Last year an ibook called material poesis: fragments towards was made from the non fiction lab submissions for the precursor 2 assignment . If you are keen we can try doing that this year. How nice it would be to see your names in print!

We had a go at mind-mapping using materials from the RMIT learning lab site. This process was partially successful, as it forced us to put down in writing the things we are trying to investigate and to order them into groupings. We decided that it isn’t useful in all contexts but it can be helpful, especially the brainstorming element of it. If you missed the class, maybe you’d like to have a try at home and share the results with us next time?

What the heck is WBS?

photo-5 photo-4

On Monday we experimented with the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) system as a way to help us tackle complex tasks. Since you are all in the middle of a particularly complex undertaking – the Honours project – this seemed like a good idea.

First we decided what jobs we needed to do in order to achieve a certain goal and write each of these on separate post-it notes, with times included (preferably in small chunks of time like 10-15 minutes) Then these post-it notes were arranged into a pyramid shape (although they didn’t all turn out that way) with jobs to do first at the bottom, jobs to do next in the next layer and so on, until the goal at the top of the pyramid is reached. One problem some people encountered was the difficulty of coming up with pragmatic tasks – sometimes this requires extra thought to figure out, especially if you have a relatively vague idea of what you need to find out/explore.

Once each task has been completed you can tick the note and add the time it was done, to give you a sense of achievement. When all the tasks have been done, the notes can be taken off the wall in order and kept as a record of your progress. When working on a big project, it’s great to feel like you are getting somewhere, however slowly.

Some of the things we learned while trying out the WBS: post-it notes don’t stick on the wall of our classroom; WBS shapes aren’t always like pyramids; tasks should be do-able (rather than abstract); estimation of time needed for tasks can be tricky but gets easier with practice.

Next week we will experiment with mind-mapping due to popular demand. Please come up with a subject/topic that might lend itself to be being mind-mapped – or you can always make one up on the spot!


Lego play


We had so much fun with lego in the lab yesterday. What a great way to reflect on our feelings about honours projects. The exercise was inspired by David Gauntlett’s collaborative lego projects with people from various sections of British and Norwegian society, to investigate their notions self identity and their relation to media. If you want to find out more you can check out his website. I look forward to reading about your constructions in your blog posts. There were many amazing ones to choose from but I’m including a picture of Will’s here because I especially like the way depicted anxiety as a black vehicle bearing down on him!


We can revisit the lego later in the semester to see whether your thoughts and feelings about your projects may have shifted (or stayed constant..)

Don’t forget to choose a key point/phrase/chunk from the p, q, r sections of Reality Hunger that speaks to your own research for discussion after the mid semester break.

Do hope that you can find some time for play over the non-teaching period.