KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 12: Summer 2019
Craft/Lyric Essay: 667 words [R]

Consider the Lobster Mushroom:
Being a brief theory of the craft
of creative nonfiction

by Heidi Czerwiec

The lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infested a host mushroom in a peculiar symbiosis. The fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, typically attacks milk-caps and brittlegills, absorbing them completely and imparting the bright reddish-orange color and seafood-like flavor of a cooked lobster.

Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact. You become infected by an idea, a topic—open adoptions, fracking, the history of perfume—that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until you’re transformed, not the same person as before.

Or, you may play the part of parasite—cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form: an essay disguised as a list, a letter, an index, a diary. A hermit-crab essay. A lobster mushroom.

Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own. Think you’re writing about hiking? Nope, it’s about your ex-. A piece about the band Morphine and The Matrix’s Morpheus and the Sandman comics? Nope, your ex-. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobster mushrooms are much more valuable than the mushrooms they infect—about $25 a pound fresh, or $50 dried, at last check.


You should remember that both creative nonfiction and lobster mushrooms, like all fungus, feed off of dead matter, are in turn fed off of. You don’t always get there first. Sometimes appalling creatures have nested inside it—sometimes stuff you knew was there, sometimes stuff you forgot was there, sometimes unexpected stuff you uncover. You might be cutting through a mushroom when a centipede or earwig or worm crawls out of the hole it’s burrowed into the flesh. “Fuck!” you might yell, dropping the mushroom. Now you have to decide what to do next:

(a) Sweep the mushroom into the trash. Burn trash. Burn house. No mushroom, no matter how valuable it might have seemed, is worth this toxic invasion.

(b) Pick up the mushroom and examine the damage—how deep does it go? Has the nastiness laid eggs? Are there others? You may feel hesitant to give up on the mushroom, but sometimes you have to negotiate the value of the mushroom against how compromised it’s become. If there’s too much damage, go back to (a); otherwise, continue to

(c) Remind yourself of two things:

1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.

2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.

(d) Decide you have worked too hard for this mushroom. It is too valuable to let go. THIS IS YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOM. Find a way to deal with the damage:

1. Cut it out completely.

2. Work around it. Convince yourself it will be altered in the shaping/cooking of it anyways. Keep what isn’t too bad, what you can still use, what’s of value. If you can deal with it, so can everyone else.

3. Take a deep breath and swallow it whole, bugs and all.


But here’s the thing. The lobster mushroom, the parasitic fungus, has a super power: it infests mushrooms, matter that is otherwise inedible, possibly toxic, and makes it safe for consumption. Palatable. Even delicious.


Is this a craft essay infected by a lyric essay, or a lyric essay infected by a craft essay?


Author’s Note: See the websites of the Minnesota Mycological Society and of Alan Bergo’s Forager|Chef.

—Published previously in Brevity (21 November 2016) and reprinted in Heidi Czerwiec’s Fluid States (Pleiades Press, 2019); appears here with permissions from the author and Pleiades Press.

Publisher’s Note:

This book won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose last year, selected by Dinty W. Moore, who said, “Fluid States offers essays that are eclectic, unexpected, and entirely inventive. As the title suggests, the book flows briskly, a river infused with a keen intelligence and subtle wit, rendered in aromatic prose. One of the joys of reading is learning new details of our endlessly capacious world, and with her deeply-researched essays and enticing voice, Heidi Czerwiec delivers.”

I can say Amen to that, having happily read this collection myself, not once but twice. Among its most enchanting works: a unique hybrid first published in KYSO Flash (Fall 2016), the ekphrastic CNF/prose poem 5 by (N°) 5, an enduring favorite of mine.

Heidi Czerwiec
Issue 12, Summer 2019
is an essayist and poet, the author of four chapbooks, the full-length poetry collection Conjoining (Sable Books), and the recently released lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’s 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose. Recent work appears in River Teeth, Zone 3, Under the Gum Tree, and Nonbinary Review, and in the anthologies Nasty Women Poets and New Poetry from the Midwest.


Front cover of Fluid States, by Heidi Czerwiec
Pleiades Press (2019)

Ms. Czerwiec is also the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets (NDSU Press). She holds an MFA from UNC-Greensboro and a PhD from the University of Utah, and was a professor for twelve years before absconding to write and teach in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Poetry City, USA and for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

Author’s website:

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Perfume, Hybridity, Fluidity: An Interview With Heidi Czerwiec by Joshua Cobb at Pleiades Press (16 May 2019)

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