Musical Structures in Creative Nonfiction

The following is a guest post by Will Cordeiro, whose poetry appeared in issue 17 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

_______________________________________

Recently, I’ve noticed a development in creative nonfiction to use structural modes appropriated from music. Or maybe a musical analogy can capture these under-recognized structural modes by way of shorthand. Here’s a smattering of such musical structures with an example or two to help define them:

Covers – In the anthology After Montaigne writers compose “covers” that re-voice and update Montaigne’s classic essays in their individualized voices and in a more contemporary key.

Sampling – Wayne Koestenbaum irrepressibly drops literary quotes, film references, and pop cultural memes in his work like a sound engineer samples recognizable titbits of songs or beats.  

Lip-synching – David Shields’s Reality Hunger uses quotes which are not identified as quotes; he “lip syncs” the quotes as if he were saying them himself.

Remixes – Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me could be considered a remix of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Coates references Baldwin in his work yet also differs more widely from his original—thus, a subtle if not exact distinction between a remix and a cover. Similarly, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage remixes the literary criticism of D. H. Lawrence.  

Litany – Joe Brainard’s “I Remember” follows a pattern of minimalist repetition like a Philip Glass song: each sentence begins “I remember…”

Lament – Aisha Sabatini Sloan describes her operatic essay “D is for the Dance of the Hours” as a “lament.” But, like opera, Sloan’s essays make use of the whole emotional range deployed by arias, mad songs, motifs, recitative, and overtures, too, even as they often reference pop music and divas.    

Riffs and noodling – Luc Sante has described his entire writing process as “noodling.” Likewise, we might hear many of Elena Passarello’s pieces in Let Me Clear My Throat as noodling around or riffing on a subject more than obeying any other structural paradigm.

Shredding – Indulgent, face-melting virtuoso feats of showmanship with squealing whammy bars, pyrotechnics, distortion effects, acrobatics that inflict self-harm and, just maybe, eating a live bat’s head: among essayists, Sir Thomas Browne and D. H. Lawrence are “shredders” as are Ander Monson and Giannina Braschi. 

Improvisation – In Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah Saterstrom uses rituals and trances to improvise writing, not unlike the methods of free jazz.

Études – The locus classicus is Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness, but short essays as études (or small practice exercises) are very much alive today in a work such as Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly.

B-sides – We might think of the double essays in Albert Goldbarth’s The Adventures of Form and Content or Michel Tournier’s The Mirror of Ideas as B-sides: alternate versions of the same groove, often flipped around.

Ambient/Noise – Conceptual writers such as Tan Lin and Sophia Le Fraga have experimented with ambient literature and what might be described as “noise,” that is, books or installations that collect scraps of cultural detritus, internet drivel, and bureaucratic textual ephemera. Much like noise music, the appreciation of such writing depends on a taste for interference patterns, weird juxtapositions, the breakdown of technology, and a healthy stomach. 

The emerging rhetorical logics of these musical and performative techniques—as they both pull against and play among traditional structures such as personal storytelling and, lyric forms, have engendered a new energy and direction for today’s creative nonfiction.     

_______________________________________

Will Cordeiro’s work appears in AgniBest New PoetsThe Cincinnati Review, Palette Poetry, Threepenny ReviewTypehouse, and elsewhere. Will’s collection Trap Street won the 2019 Able Muse Book Award. Will co-edits Eggtooth Edition and is grateful for a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Currently, Will teaches in the Honors College for Northern Arizona University.  

Leave a Comment