On the Segmented Essay by Montserrat Andrée Carty

As with other hybrid forms, some of these terms can feel a bit elusive—the lyric essay includes a hermit crab, or is a hermit crab its own form? In any case, the segmented essay is defined by essayist Randon Billings Noble, in her anthology of Lyric Essays A Harp in the Stars, as follows: “Segmented essays are divided into segments that might be numbered or titled or simply separated with a space break. These spaces—white space, blank space—allow the reader to pause, think, consider, and digest each segment before moving on to the next.” As Noble notes, segmented essays are also known by a handful of other names: Fragmented, Paratactic, Collage and Mosaic. Braided essays, too, fall under the segmented umbrella, but have a repeating pattern setting them apart. In this craft essay I will briefly touch on two pieces from Randon Billings Noble’s delightful anthology A Harp in the Stars and then, discuss how the segmented form can be used in full book form, with examples from Sonja Livingston’s memoir Ghostbread and Sejal Shah’s This Is One Way to Dance

A Harp in the Stars is an anthology for writers, with the introduction including definitions of various types of lyric essays. Even the craft essays are structured as segmented, a helpful tool in showing the variety of segmented possibilities in individual pieces. In Sarah Einstein’s essay titled Self-Portrait in Apologies the author shows us a full story by way of apologies to people in her life (i.e. “Apology to a Friend with a Difficult Love Life” or “Apology to a Man I No Longer Love”). The content for these apologies is laced with humor rather than sincere apologies (“Apology to the Spider I Killed in the Bathtub”) but reading this made me think the form could be a way to deal with a difficult subject matter, too. 

One of my favorite essays in the anthology was The Boys of New Delhi: An Essay in Four Hurts by Sayantani Dasgupta. This piece consists of four segments, numbered and titled (1. Because I Was Twelve 2. Compatibility 2. Winter Coat 4. Kimbutkimaker). Each fragment could easily be its own piece, but here, the power of the final essay lies in combining them. At the end of the anthology, each author meditates on the lyric essay, as a form. About her piece, Dasgupta writes “I had written the four sections of ‘The Boys of New Delhi’ as four stand-alone flash essays...Ultimately, it made sense to club them together...They are fragments, with no memory of what happened the day before or after, existing merely in the singular moment of their creation.” We often assume it necessary to have an intro and outro to give shape to a piece, but after reading Dasgupta’s essay, I am rethinking the need for those formal elements. I like the way the author isn’t spelling out the connection between the pieces or giving us a tidy ending. 

In Sejal Shah’s This Is One way to Dance, the author echoes the fragmented content of her stories (living between cultures) in form. As noted in the introduction, Shah writes “I don’t subscribe to the notion of fixed genres” and her collection reflects this. Shah uses a variety of hybrid/segmented forms including triptychs (even pointing to the form in one of her titles “Matrimonials, A Triptych”), letter (as in “Thank You” where she addresses an ex-boyfriend’s child she had never met: “You will never know me, will never know your father once professed...”), and lists (as in “Things People Have Said: An Essay in Seven Steps”). While these essays are linked, they each have a distinct style. For instance, her essay “Married” features short sentences, less interiority and more factual writing with only a few simple—yet weighty—personal thoughts peppered in (i.e. “I thought about all the unspoken things between people. Not everything needs to be said.”). In another piece, an ode to a former mentor, she includes a visual element—an image of a poem picked apart by her former teacher. Another, a piece about what food has meant in her life, is segmented by numbers—each representing a place she’d lived (“Kinship, Cousins & Khichidi”). In “Street Scene,” she writes in a braided form, addressing the painful loss of a friend to suicide against the backdrop of Paris. This was one of my favorite essays in the book and I think that’s because of the way she uses form to handle a heavy subject. “LeeAnne isn’t here to tell me where she stayed in Paris. When I think of her, I see us talking in my backyard, splashing in the pool, Upstate New York summers. It surprises me. She was never there, but I can see it: the blue pool...As I walk through Paris, I keep expecting to catch a glimpse of her, vanishing into some narrow street.” These words come in the second paragraph of the piece, and they are setting up the heart of it. The first graph is telling us she is in Paris, visiting another friend. Facts the reader needs to be grounded, but this is not the story. She uses the braided form to move through brief scenes in Paris, scenes of her childhood, her friendship with LeeAnne and her tragic death. A few devices she uses that make the piece successful include speculation (“she was never there, but I can see it...”), metaphor (“I was looking at a painting. I stood shaking in front of flowers: dull flowers, heads bent. I knew she had been happy. I knew nothing. She is gone. What do we really know about anyone else? Or their sorrow? The flowers were alive and painful to gaze at...”), foreshadowing (she drops hints at the cause of LeeAnne’s death throughout, but it isn’t until the very end she uses the word “Suicide”), and looping (she begins the piece with an imagined scene of her and LeeAnne as children at her parent’s pool, and the final paragraph begins “We should have been two girls, swimming.”).

Ghostbread by Sonja Livingston is another memoir that uses segmentation but in an entirely different way. There are 122 “chapters” but each are tiny in length and stand alone. They aren’t connected to one another in an obvious way outside of the overarching themes of the memoir (growing up in poverty, nomadism, religion). The transitions never feel jarring. Perhaps that’s because Livingston’s voice remains consistent throughout, and when I finished the book I felt I had read a complete story even though they were fragments of one. The way she describes her emotionally turbulent mother was effective, with lines peppered throughout like “My mother’s face was red, and though she was looking right at us, she did not seem to see.” Her one-line paragraphs between lengthier ones provide a pleasant rhythm (i.e .“We moved.” Three paragraphs about the move, and then fourth graph: “Another move.”). She doesn’t use any titles for each piece. Instead, the first line often sets up the piece (i.e. “My mother was crazy for birds.” Or, “I hated Peg and Leroy.”)

I’m drawn to the segmented form—in reading and my own writing—for the way that it can span time and subject matter. While of course this is possible to achieve in more traditional forms, I think the segmented form is a natural way to play with the flashes of one’s life. I have heard of a caution about segmented essays: sometimes writers might use the form as a way to avoid the work of connecting various threads. I keep this at the back of my mind as I sit to write, and read them. The question to consider: is the reader able to leap across those gaps and feel the connection? In the hands of Randon Billings Noble, Sonja Livingston, and Sejal Shah, yes, we do.

Montserrat (Montse) Andrée Carty is a writer and visual artist. In addition to writing and making photos, she hosts the podcast Musings of the Artist and is the Interviews Editor for Hunger Mountain. Montse is named after a mountain just outside Barcelona, Spain where she spent her early childhood. She is currently a MFA in Writing candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on a hybrid memoir on home and belonging.