“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.