WEEK 2 | 9.7.16 | ONLINE The Art of Rhetoric in Lyric Essays: Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Rhetorical Devices and Emotional Honesty

The Art of Rhetoric in Lyric Essays: Finding Your Silence

Rhetoric is the art of discourse. In narrative, rhetoric transcends the basic ideas of the sophists and persuasive debate, and instead, encourages persuasion through engaging the reader’s imagination and response to scene, character, setting and arc in order to create this discourse. A socratic approach. Before seeking this rhetorical discourse, the writer must first practice and encourage “silence.” See the below video where D. F. Wallace speaks about silence and its importance in literary rigor and narratives, especially in the digital and “quick information” age. 



The Narrative Voice Versus the Writer’s “Message”

As literary writers, we must transcend our own personal objectives, “messages,” and moralities, and instead, encourage our readers to slow down, find silence and then think for themselves within the landscapes of our narratives. Whether these narratives are fiction, nonfiction, intermedia, prose, poetry, hybrid, etcetera, all narrative depends upon the writer’s ability to engage readers in this silent space so that a discourse can begin between the reader and the narrative.

Note that this discourse is with the “narrative voice” not the writer. The writer is merely the storyteller of the narrative. If the writer attempts to impress his or her own objectives, “messages” and moralities too strenuously upon the narrative then the narrative voice will present as “soapboxing.” The reader must always engage with the “narrative voice” and the narrative voice must give the reader room to think individually and critically. First person narration has the benefit of a biased narrative voice, but still, the writer must use this bias to transcend a personal writer-focused bias for the reader’s benefit and engagement. The writer’s intention must always be toward this objective end, regardless of fiction, poetry or nonfiction form.


Journalism Versus Lyrical Essay

Journalists focus on “subject” and “story.” Lyric essayists focus on “narrative,” and in this, the lyric essayist is very similar to the fiction writer. In fact, many fiction writers begin their narratives as lyrical personal essays. Where the fiction writer diverges from the personal essayist is the moment when the narrative takes on a mind of its own and the writer’s personal experiences are no longer needed nor applicable. The fiction writer is constantly looking for this point of divergence in the first draft. This point of divergence is when the fiction narrative begins to take shape and this shaping will then set the foundation for future revisions and re-sculpting of the narrative. Remember, all first drafts are merely an exploration of what the narrative wants to become. In the first draft, you are looking for the seed(s) of the true narrative.

The lyric essayist may diverge in subject focus but not from the focus on fact, though, for the lyric essayist “fact” is based in perspective. The lyric essayist understands that there is never one, absolute “truth,” but rather, many equally valuable perspectives of truth, points of view, emotional reactions, even multiple, logical speculations on what it all means to self and the world at large. The lyric essayist also knows how language can focus as much on rhythm and art as it does on information. The lyric essayist’s goal is to give the reader space to imagine and relate within the narrative landscape so that the reader can form perspective and knowledge for him or herself, much like a fiction writer or poet does in his or her craft. The goal is not to merely report information and facts, it is to give the reader an experience in which to feel, think and explore this information and facts.


The Connective Seeds of the Lyric Essay for Writers and Readers

When writing fiction, our protagonists are rarely a direct reflection of us, though, they will often have foundational roots in our understandings of “self.” The exceptions to this fiction rule lay in metafictional forms in which the narrator is self-aware and reflective of the writer. Lyric essays are similar to the metafictional form. We are writing from perspective, emotion, and many things journalists are supposed to minimize in their works, which makes the lyric essay very personal to the writer, and yet, we are looking for the moments of transcendence from self, the connective seeds of the essay, that make the essay applicable to a larger population of readers. We do sometimes call this “truth,” but in a non-absolutist way. Again, a critical thinker will understand and accept that there is no one truth, but rather many perspectives of truth. One as equally factual and important as the other. The literary writer will incorporate this into her/his craft.

Example: A woman looks up to the sky. The sun is behind a cloud and she says it is a gray-bored sky. A man standing beside her says, No, it is not gray-bored. It is Sunday-mundane blue. The woman and the man argue about why their views are more pertinent than the other’s view. The woman suggests that the gray-bored sky evokes a more global image of the absence of sunlight, the slow-drifting clouds. The man argues that his “Sunday-mundane blue” evokes a more personal and workaday connectivity to other people around them while considering the faith/heaven/sky relationships. Both the woman and the man are correct, factual and equally valid, and yet, they are using different languages to convey related and divergent meanings in lyrical ways. Through this narrative and the subjects’ rhetorics, the reader can choose for him or herself where he or she stands, and because there is more than one perspective offered, the reader feels the freedom to create additional skies, hues and metaphors. The rhetorical devices encourage the reader’s imagination, critical thinking and investment in the narrative.

One of the most seductive and cyclical effects of the writing craft, why so many writers return to it again and again, when the craft is so very unforgiving, is one simple addiction: through our writing, we better understand concepts of self, our perspectives of the world around us and how simultaneously connected and disconnected we all are. The lyric essay is an excellent form for this. This learning of self and others is a powerful addiction, and an addiction that smart readers share with us.

If our narratives give our readers space to better understand self and the world around them and how simultaneously connected and disconnected we all are, our narratives will become a sort of drug for smart readers. Utilizing the concept of chiaroscuro, again, what we leave off the page, can allow our readers to “fill in” the negative spaces. What we show in contrast can give our readers an opportunity to view more dramatically the elements within our essays while making up their own minds regarding the elements’ meanings.

Using the above “sky” narrative, what if we added a single small, puffy cloud that hangs so low the woman and the man feel like they can almost touch it. They stretch up their hands toward the cloud. Against the “gray-bored” and “Sunday-mundane” sky, this single, puffy, low-hanging cloud is lighted at the edges by the sun behind it. There is almost a magical realist element to it, and yet, the cloud exists this way in the woman and man’s perspectives as factual. It is “truth” and fact for them. Because of the contrast–the chiaroscuro, the lighted cloud and the gray sky background–this cloud becomes a focus and point of dialogue between the woman and the man. They cannot see the sun. The sun is a negative space in their narrative and viewpoints, and yet, they can speak about their viewpoints on the sun as it hides behind the cloud. The woman and the man both know the facts of the sun and so they can form equally valid “truths.” Perhaps the woman regards the sun as the hope, the future, a better tomorrow. The sun will eventually come out. Perhaps the man views the hiding sun as an irritation, a reflection of all that has been withheld from him today–a promotion, his lover’s body, the dessert he wanted so much at lunch but avoided. Both the woman and man are right and valid in their perspectives. They both hold equal and factual truths within the narrative. Where a journalist will merely write, “A man and woman stand and talk about life under a partly cloudy sky with a chance of sun,” a lyric essayist would write about the woman and man’s perspectives about the sky and the sun so to give the reader a narrative landscape in which to think critically and imaginatively.


The Flawed Narrator: On Being Emotionally Honest in Our Work

Smart literary readers want vulnerable and flawed narrators. They are not interested in reading essays from a voice that is “polite,” “successful” or “perfect.” We spend much of our adult lives interacting in “polite” society. In our readings, we want real and unflinching experiences in which we can connect on a human, vulnerable and flawed level. When considering topics for your lyric essay, think back through your life and consider moments when you were vulnerable and had to face a lesser part of yourself. Maybe you had to come to terms with your own helplessness and humanity. Maybe you had to do something to survive, something you haven’t yet confessed. This need not be a big, life-altering mistake. It could be as simple as a single afternoon when you stole a toy from your best friend because he or she was being mean to you and the stealing of that toy has haunted you ever since because it felt good to steal it and get away with it. You’ve not told anyone before and you find yourself returning to this moment the day your child took a toy from his or her friend. This moment, written in a lyric essay, can be humorous or serious, but must be EMOTIONALLY HONEST. Emotional honesty is the essential craft point of the writer. Emotional honesty is the seed of excellent lyric essays, when the flawed past meets the flawed future and the narrator must come to terms with his or her own perspective and coping. By offering a piece of self in our lyric essays, we present a rhetorical landscape by which our reader can consider for him or herself a similar moment and in this our reader feels less alone in the world. This is a key and essential attribute of excellent narratives, no matter the form: fiction, poetry, essay, hybrid, intermedia….


Using Rhetoric to Free Rather Than Direct the Reader’s Connection and Emotional Response

A harrowing aspect of rhetorical strategy within literary forms is the very real issue that we as writers cannot actively control the discourses between our narratives and our readers. Each individual reader will form his or her own discourse with each individual narrative and these discourses are fingerprints, each one unique from another, and they will never match our own discourses with our own narratives. Some readers may share similar discourses at points in our narratives, some may have wildly different discourses, but all readers will experience unique discourses within our narratives. So we must let our narratives live and breathe on their own. We spend a good deal of time developing and growing our narratives so they can stand on “their own two feet” once they’ve left our desks. Once our narratives leave the creative womb of our writing spaces, they must succeed or fail with each individual reader, agent, editor. There is no way for us to know all the unique reader responses to a single narrative.

Well placed rhetorical devices within narrative do not dictate the reader’s response but rather invite the reader’s imagination, thoughts, emotions and connections with an open-ended goal. Much of this has to do with the art of withholding information so that readers can form individual responses. The narrative INVITES reader responses with just the right amount of information, sculpted in just the right way. For literary forms such as the lyric essay, fiction, prose poetry, intermedia, this invitation can be created in a multitude of ways: withholding of one’s own moral compass so to invite the reader’s moral compass and response; using characters’ dialogues to present a rhetorical argument for the reader to consider, etcetera. Consider the following examples:

  • Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave“: Instead of telling the reader that students must be given room by which to think for themselves, even if the teacher can more quickly “impart knowledge,” Plato uses character dialogue to offer parables and questions so that the student/reader has room to understand meaning for him or herself.
  • Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Instead of the narrator calling her husband and society “controlling monsters,” she uses the negative space of this, leaves it off the page, so that the reader might deduce this meaning for him or herself, which creates a much stronger meaning and connection for the reader. This also allows a spectrum of reactions that can be controlled by the reader and thus will feel more connective for the reader.


A Short List of Rhetorical Devices

Below is a list of rhetorical strategies that ask the reader to “fill” negative spaces and create individual meanings within narratives. Many of these strategies you have likely already encountered and are using within your work; however, you might ask yourself how much time and focus you’ve given these individual strategies. Have you used them to their full potentials within your narratives and voice?

Notice how many of the below rhetorical devices are not only applicable in fiction prose and nonfiction prose, but also in poetry. Notice how the rhetorical devices employ not only contextual meanings but also linguistic constructions in order to create “rhythmic thinking.”

Example: What do salespeople often do to engage a prospective client’s interest and complicity? They will ask questions that encourage a yes response from the client. This repeated and simplistic yes response creates a rhythmic affirmation in the client’s mind and therefore will more likely encourage the client to respond in the affirmative upon the “big” question: do you want to buy my product? 

Writers of fiction, nonfiction, intermedia, etcetera, are essentially doing the same thing as the salesperson, but on a more complicated, discourse level. We are not looking for a yes response. We are simply looking for our readers to invest in our narratives and characters while thinking critically and imaginatively within the landscapes of our narratives.

Consider how your lyric essays, prose poems, intermedia and more traditional fiction, nonfiction and poetry use the following. How might you, as the writer, utilize these devices more successfully?

* Again, many of the below terms will likely be familiar. They are taught in early English and writing courses–i.e. persuasive essay and the more “formulaic” writing categories; however, we are going to consider these devices now as creative writers, with the freedom to use them how they fit best in our organic narrative voices. Please do not worry if some of these terms seem unfamiliar or a distant memory. I suggest that instead of feeling like you must know and retain all these devices at once, pick two or three that really speak to you and your voice then focus on them in your lyric essay this week. 

One of the most interesting aspects of rhetoric in creative writing is that rhetoric employs a sense of logic, even a mathematical logic, to what is very much a right brain art form. When we add left brain (logical) attributes to our writing, we transcend mere communication of thoughts and ideas and begin exploring relationships linguistically and contextually on the page. There is a great deal of benefit and even “critical power” in this right brain/left brain writing style and it is often best developed through revisions.

Remember, when you begin any draft, go with the writing approach that is most organic, meaningful and comfortable for you at this stage of your craft. As you revise and create new drafts, this is when you start looking at techniques and rhetorical devices that will help sculpt and enrich the original draft. The more you use new techniques and devices, the more they will become organic to your voice. Even the master writers are still building new techniques and devices into their organic voices. This is a lifelong process, a process to be valued and enjoyed.

If you like this list and would like to practice your memory regarding these terms, go to Quizlet. (Any secondary and post-secondary teachers working with beginning writers might find this Quizlet site link fun for your students, too!)

alliterationRepetition of the same letter or sound within nearby words. Most often, repeated initial consonants.

anadiplosis: The repetition of the last word (or phrase) from the previous line, clause, or sentence at the beginning of the next. Often combined with climax. Example: The love of wicked men converts to fear. That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both

anaphoraRepetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses, sentences, or lines. Example: This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,…

anastrophe: Departure from normal word order for the sake of emphasis. Example: Anastrophe occurs whenever normal syntactical arrangement is violated for emphasis. (Consider that this use of passive voice is not necessarily what we would consider solid linguistic construction, and yet, in creative writing, passive voice, when used sparingly and in excellent execution, can sometimes create an effective emphasis–i.e. we sometimes speak in passive voice and so our characters can effectively use passive voice in their dialogue. First person narration can also effectively utilize passive voice.)

anthimeria: Substitution of one part of speech for another (such as a noun used as a verb). Example I’ve been Republicaned all I care to be this election year. (Another fantastic and smart way to add humor to your voice.) 

antimetaboleRepetition of words, in successive clauses, in reverse grammatical order. This figure is sometimes known as chiasmus. Example: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

antithesis: Juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas (often, although not always, in parallel structure). Example: “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” —Abraham Lincoln

antonomasia (periphrasis): Substituting a descriptive phrase for a proper name, or substituting a proper name for a quality associated with it. (=periphrasis) Examples: You must pray to heaven’s guardian for relief. He proved a Judas to the cause. 

asyndeton: The omission of conjunctions between clauses, often resulting in a hurried rhythm or vehement effect. Examples On his return he received medals, honors, treasures, titles, fame. (This is a favorite modernist and postmodernist linguistic construction.)

chiasmusRepetition of ideas in inverted order; Repetition of grammatical structures in inverted order (not to be mistaken with antimetabole, in which identical words are repeated and inverted). Example: It is boring to eat; to sleep is fulfilling.

ellipsis: Omission of a word or short phrase easily understood in context. Example “The average person thinks he isn’t.” -Father Larry Lorenzoni The term “average” is omitted but understood after “isn’t.”

epiplexis: Asking questions in order to chide, to express grief, or to inveigh. A kind of rhetorical question. Example: Just why are you so stupid?

epistrophe: Ending a series of lines, phrases, clauses, or sentences with the same word or words. Example: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.” —Emerson

erotema: The rhetorical question. To affirm or deny a point strongly by asking it as a question. Generally, as Melanchthon has noted, the rhetorical question includes an emotional dimension, expressing wonder, indignation, sarcasm, etc. Example: Just why are you so stupid?

hypophora: Consists of raising one or more questions and then proceeding to answer them, usually at some length. A common usage is to ask the question at the beginning of a paragraph and then use that paragraph to answer it. (The Socratic Method would not answer the question directly, but rather, use a parable or scene so to give the reader space in which to answer the question for him or herself.)

irony: Speaking in such a way as to imply the contrary of what one says, often for the purpose of derision, mockery, or jest. (This, of course, is a cornerstone of excellent literature. Minimalists will often allow the ironies to unveil themselves the same we let metaphor unveil itself through the process of writing. Satirists will sometimes approach a writing project with the intention of a particular irony in mind, but this can truncate the work, rush it and miss a number of opportunities. It could be argued that the “great” works are those that employ irony and satire that the writer allowed to unveil through the process with patience and multiple revisions. “Impressing” writer-intended irony, satire, theme upon a work is often the quickest way to truncate it. Usually best to allow the ironies, satires and themes to unveil themselves gradually through the process of writing, revising, rest time and so on.)

isocolon: A series of similarly structured elements having the same length. A kind of parallelism. Examples Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)

synecdoche: A whole is represented by naming one of its parts (genus named for species), or vice versa (species named for genus). Example: Listen, you’ve got to come take a look at my new set of wheels. One refers to a vehicle in terms of some of its parts, “wheels.” In literature that employs pro or anti gender focuses, body parts are often used in order to represent the whole person. This can be used for critical dramatic effect and/or humor.

litotes: Deliberate understatement, especially when expressing a thought by denying its opposite. Example It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. —J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye 

metaphor: A comparison made by referring to one thing as another. Examples: “No man is an island.” —John Donne, Life is a beach. 

metonymyReference to something or someone by naming one of its attributes. Example: The pen is mightier than the sword. The pen is an attribute of thoughts that are written with a pen; the sword is an attribute of military action. (Synecdoche is similar to metonymy; however, metonymy is a broader or looser representation of the whole or the particular attribute.)

oxymoron: Placing two ordinarily opposing terms adjacent to one another. A compressed paradox.

paradox: A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless. Example: Whosoever loses his life, shall find it.

parallelism: Similarity of structure in a pair or series of related words, phrases, or clauses.

parenthesis: Insertion of a verbal unit that interrupts normal syntactical flow. Example: But the new calculations–and here we see the value of relying upon up-to-date information–showed that man-powered flight was possible with this design. (Notice that an em dash is used instead of the parentheses, which is often a modernized linguistic preference for literary prose and hybrid writers.)

personificationReference to abstractions or inanimate objects as though they had human qualities or abilities.

polysyndeton: Employing many conjunctions between clauses, often slowing the tempo or rhythm. Examples They read and studied and wrote and drilled. I laughed and played and talked and flunked. (Another favorite device used by modernists and postmodernists.)

schemes: A change in standard word order or pattern.

simile: An explicit comparison, often (but not necessarily) employing “like” or “as.” (Metaphor is more often the preferred comparison, but well-placed and rare similes can be effectively used. Some authors break this simile convention for effect.)

tropes: The use of a word, phrase, or image in a way not intended by its normal signification.

zeugma: Includes several similar rhetorical devices, all involving a grammatically correct linkage (or yoking together) of two or more parts of speech by another part of speech. Example: Fred excelled at sports; Harvey at eating; Tom with girls.


Readings: Lyric Essays

“Joy” by Zadie Smith

“Shipping Out” by David Foster Wallace (Folio)

“After Life” by Joan Didion (New York Times)

“It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” by Colin Nissan

“When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” by Édouard Levé (The Paris Review)

“James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” (Interviews as Short Lyric Essay Responses, The Paris Review)

The Seneca Review

“Why Dim Sum Makes Me Feel Tender” by Kim Adrian

“My New War Essay” by Paul Crenshaw

“James Earl Jones Eats Whoopie Pie” by Matthew Gavin Frank



Which of the above essays speaks most to you. Is it the language? The context? Be specific. How would you shorten the longer essays? How do the essays make you feel as you read them? Do they bring up personal experiences for you?


Writing Exercise: Using Rhetorical Devices, Poetic Devices and Emotional Honesty in Lyric Essays

Choose two to three rhetorical devices from the above list and use these devices in a lyric essay, no more than 1000 words. Because the word count is 1000, I suggest you keep the scope of your focus narrow. A single moment or scene. Two main subjects. Remember, a single essay need not give the entire “situation.” If you are unfamiliar with personal essay writing, I suggest that you write a first person essay on a moment in your life that has stuck with you. Be EMOTIONALLY HONEST about this moment. Do not try to impress your reader, instead be “real” with your reader. Often, the best lyric essays are about a moment you would rather people not know about you. Lyric essays are not about writing the better parts of self. They are not about trying to explain or justify the moment or the behaviors. Lyric essays are about being human, fallible, questionable. Readers connect with narrative voices that present themselves as vulnerable, flawed and human.

Your focuses for this lyric essay are: 

  • Emotional honesty and vulnerability
  • Repetition to form cyclical and lyrical language (as well as any other poetic device from the prose-poetry lesson you wish)
  • Two to three rhetorical devices from the above list
  • Word Count: 1000 words (There is a craft reason for this. Making you revise your essay to 1000 words requires you to make narrative and voice decisions. Your language will be tighter and smarter. Eventually, you will use this brevity and eye for tight language organically in your early drafts, but to get to that point, you must practice the tight form repeatedly. Even if you become primarily a novelist, you will use this art of brevity in your long works, chapters and scenes. Your language will benefit from it, regardless of form–fiction, nonfiction, poetry, hybrid, etc.)
  • Using perspective to express “facts” and “truths” according to your memory of them
  • Narrow scope. Again, a single moment in a day, two subjects, etc. Unless you are comfortable writing lengthy periods of time in short short form, make your job easier by focusing on a narrow span of time.
  • Allow yourself to focus on one item at a time. Write the first draft to merely get the moment on paper. In the next draft, focus on whether the perspectives are emotionally honest and vulnerable. In the next draft, focus on rhetorical devices then repetition as lyrical language. Next, make sure the word count is 1000 or less.. DO NOT write the first draft feeling a need to focus on all attributes. Give yourself time and space to let these attributes build and develop through several drafts as is organic and comfortable for your writing process. Remember: When approaching a first draft, simply get “behind the wheel” and follow the headlights. One idea at a time in the immediate space. The ideas will come as they come. You can flesh them out in later drafts and what you turn in during this course will not be the completed work you will develop months or even years later. Be patient with your craft and let your narrative develop in its own time. I’m not looking for perfection in your drafts. I’m looking for your investment in craft and risk-taking in your drafts.



  • DUE DATE: The following class session. Bring copies for each student plus Rae.

  • IMAGES: If images are being used for the assignment, they should be uploaded in jpeg, png or pdf format. For more information regarding uploading images to the Comments section, check out our FAQs. If you do not have a favorite image editing software that you already use, check out the easy, intuitive and free Pixlr. I use Adobe Photoshop Pro version; however, the pro version can be a bit much for new users and the online version of Adobe Photoshop doesn’t offer all the editing tools we need for this course. Within the Pixlr program, there is a Pixlr Help Menu. If you have further questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m happy to help.
  • CONTACT: Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. rae@raebryant.com. The fastest way to reach me is by text at 301-514-2380. The below Comments area is  for student and lesson interaction. I won’t be checking it everyday.