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Meet the Teaching Artist: Obsession and the Lyric Essay with Jack Christian

by Writing Workshops Staff

A year ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Obsession and the Lyric Essay with Jack Christian

by Writing Workshops Staff

A year ago

We are thrilled to welcome Jack Christian, an accomplished poet and author, as a teaching artist here at Jack brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his newly designed class, Obsession and the Lyric Essay.

With a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jack has honed his craft and developed a unique understanding of the intersection between poetry and personal essay writing. His poetry collections, "Family System" and "Domestic Yoga," have garnered critical acclaim. Jack's work has also been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Conjunctions, jubilat, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, to name just a few.

In his lyric essay workshop, Jack guides students through the exploration of this captivating hybrid form that combines the personal essay's narrative elements with the evocative language of poetry. With an emphasis on introspection, research, and reportage, the lyric essay becomes a space where writers can delve into complex and nuanced subject matters, bringing their whole selves onto the page.

Jack understands that the lyric essay's promise can be both inspiring and daunting, as it requires writers to embrace obsession, anxiety, uncertainty, and passion. However, he believes that the most successful lyric essays offer readers the generous gift of experiencing someone else's thoughts and emotions, allowing them to join the author's brain.

In this workshop, Jack draws from a diverse range of exemplars, starting with Maggie Nelson's groundbreaking work, "Bluets," to inspire students as they design and accumulate their own projects. Through engaging discussions, collaborative feedback, and generative writing assignments, students are encouraged to embrace their obsessions, desires, and intuition, ultimately nurturing their craft and expanding their creative boundaries.

One of the significant benefits of exploring the lyric essay is its cross-training effect on one's writing practice. The form's multiple modes of expression encourage writers to experiment and sharpen their skills in various directions simultaneously, breaking free from rigid structures, tones, and narrative styles. It is a forgiving form that helps writers overcome writer's block and generate a substantial amount of writing in a short time. However, the challenge lies in the organization, deciding what to include and what to exclude, and determining the most effective order to present the essay's components. Jack's class offers a supportive community of writers who share and navigate these dilemmas together, creating a nurturing environment for growth and exploration.

Designed for students at all levels of experience, Jack's class provides weekly reading and writing assignments, as well as opportunities for sharing and responding to each other's work. While the class operates asynchronously, allowing students to work at their own pace, Jack also hosts optional Zoom meetings at the beginning and end of the session, fostering connections and dialogue among participants. Whether you are a seasoned writer or just starting your creative journey, this workshop promises to be an inspiring and transformative experience, offering a unique blend of poetic sensibility and personal essay writing.

Hi, Jack. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I'm a poet who has started writing essays more and more. I grew up in Richmond, VA, went to grad school and worked in Massachusetts for 10 years, and now have lived in North Texas since 2018. Out of college my first jobs were writing features for a few different newspapers. My current writing combines my work as a poet with my experience as a journalist. Right now, I'm main main writing focus is on a piece about recent roadtrip to the four-corners states, where I alternated between visiting national parks and immersive arts spaces like Meow Wolf. I'm also drafting a profile of my friend, the artist Kate Parnell whose project is called "Garfield from Memory," and a personal essay about seeing the band Modest Mouse play their 1997 album The Lonesome Crowded West live in Dallas on my 44th birthday (Dec. 7, 2022).

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

I wanted to teach this class precisely because it's about the blending of poetry and the essay that I've been doing more and more in my own work. To be a poet and a reporter at once has always been my pipe dream.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

The Obsession and the Lyric essay course will start off with some exploratory reading (including Maggie Nelson's BLUETS) and a few different writing prompts that we'll share with each other. In this first part we'll be coming together as an online community and looking to inspire one another. Next we'll move from brainstorming possibilities to focusing on more sustained lyric projects. By the end of our six weeks together, we'll all have drafted lengthier lyric essays and received feedback to spur their continued development.

What was your first literary crush?

William Faulkner!

What are you currently reading?

I'm reading John Williams' BUTCHER's CROSSING right now, and I just finished Timothy Morton's philosophical memoir, THE STUFF OF LIFE, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's THE MUSHROOM AT THE END OF THE WORLD.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

I've got two kids and a fulltime job (I'm a lecturer in the English dept at University of North Texas), so I stay on the lookout for events that bring together various tensions I'm interested in writing about. I mostly don't have time to follow a story as it unfolds (like a real journalist might,) so I look instead for moments when things come together. The Modest Mouse concert is a great example of this: A band I loved when was in college was playing my favorite of their albums, LONESOME CROWDED WEST, on my birthday, in my adopted hometown, Dallas, which sits on the edge of The West. This had it all: the passing of time, reckoning with middle age, feeling dislocated and at home simultaneously, ideas about American expansion, Manifest Destiny, alienation, late-capitalism, etc.

Once I decide I'm to pursue something like this, I make myself finish it. I fear that if I don't commit fully, I'll never finish anything. The out I give myself, however, is that a piece could become very short. For example, my Lonesome Crowded West essay was once almost 20 pages, but has recently shrunk back down to just over 4--in this instance, it's far better as short essay than I think it would've been as a longer one.

Where do you find inspiration?

Looking at art, listening to music, and, most of all, talking to other people.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

Two things: 1) write as if you are talking with a close friend, and 2) write toward the difficulty.

For the first, I find if I imagine myself on a walk with a buddy, it becomes very easy to pour out a first draft. Sometimes, I'll even go so far as to draft a piece as if it were a letter to someone I think would be interested.

For the second, I find writing toward the difficulty useful for pushing through difficult places without over-simplifying or shying away. To write toward the difficulty I try to explain why I'm feeling stuck, and what questions I have about what comes next. Sometimes these attempts to write toward the difficulty get erased in subsequent drafts. Sometimes they open out into important passages that up the stakes of whatever I'm writing.

If I do these two things it's almost impossible to have writer's block.

This advice sticks with me because I practice it myself, and I say it over and over again to my students.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

If it's gotta be a book I'm going with Mary Ruefle's collected lecturers, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY. Otherwise, any of Padgett Powell's writer's advice, in lectures, interviews, anecdotes, and whether earnest or otherwise, tends to get me going.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

As a teacher I aspire to be chill and encouraging. I'm much more interested in pointing out possibilities than I am in trying to "fix" a piece of writing. I try to help students figure out what's most important to them in their writing, and then to revise toward bringing those most important parts to the forefront.

Learn More About Working with Jack:

You can learn more about Jack's upcoming class, Obsession and the Lyric Essay 6-Week Class, and sign up now!

Instructor Jack Christian is the author of the poetry collections Family System, winner of the Colorado Poetry Prize, published by Colorado State University's Center for Literary Publishing, and Domestic Yoga, published by Groundhog Poetry Press. Jack is completing a third poetry manuscript titled "In Plain Air," that considers Impressionist and Post-Impressionist landscape paintings through a contemporary lens, and also a collection of essays about collisions of art, landscape, and money. Jack's poems have appeared in periodicals including Bennington Review, Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, jubilat, Mississippi Review, Verse Daily, and The New York Times Magazine. His essays and stories have appeared in Artforum, Cleveland Review of Books, Carolina Quarterly, The Collagist, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Slate. Jack holds an MFA in poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst, a Certificate in Documentary Studies from Duke University, and an MA in Creative Writing from Hollins University.


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