Thinking about writing in multiple genres

I thought I was to going to be a poet.

First publication: sixth grade, a poem about peregrine falcons and Pavlova, of all things, neither of which I’d ever seen. By the time I was in college, however, “All the President’s Men” had turned my fancy toward journalism, along with the promise of a steady if modest paycheck.

I wrote, off and on, and had some poems published and took part in a poetry group. But I also wanted to write novels – insane, surely, because by then I was homesteading a West Virginia hill farm along with covering city hall. So I began writing a science fiction novel – and short stories too, why not, and the poems were still coming, and long poems that were stories in verse. My muse, it seemed, had ADD.

Then I ran into Fred Chappell, a writer of magnificent talent generously applied to fiction long and short, poetry epic and lyric. He lured me into accepting the writing as the words came, and eventually out of West Virginia and into Carolina. By that time I had heard it was a species of bad manners to write in too many forms, but Ol’ Fred said, write what comes. All of it.

Gertrude Stein, usually thought of as opaque and difficult, had this straightforward approach to writing:

"Write without thinking of the result
in terms of a result, but think of the writing
in terms of discovery …

It will come if it is there
and if you will let it come."

So what are the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres?

First, consider it as cross training.

Maybe you are a poet and you have been thinking about a novel. In sports terms, that would be a sprinter deciding to take on the marathon. Before she could do that, she would have to change her training and develop new muscle sets and learn different skills. Multiple genres train a somewhat different part of the writing mind. For me, it feels physically different when I write a poem compared with times when I am working on a novel. And doing both at the same time lets me breath and opens up space for new writing.

Cross-training combines exercises for various muscle groups and parts of the body. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses. Jogging is great for endurance, while Tai chi adds flexibility. Weight lifting builds muscle and increases upper body strength. You end up with good overall fitness, more strength and stamina, less chance of stress or damage.

And the same with writing – different forms not only challenge your mind to master the techniques, but also liberate your writing mind by freeing it from the treadmill of repetitive motion. You hear dialog in your poetry, and write with a fine-tipped brush in your novels.

I liked what Marge Piercy had to say about the sensation of writing in different forms. “Poetry feels as if I transcend myself while working on what is often very personal material … the “I” is less intrusive, less present, than at any other times except deep meditation.” She points out that in meditation, however, you are seeking to clear the mind, while in writing poetry, we invite in all the images and allusions and thoughts of a busy mind.

We also find different kinds of work in different places, I think. Piercy, again, said that poems come from “memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed, from cooking, from writing itself, from disasters and nuisances, gifts and celebrations. They go back into daily life,” she points out as we employ them at occasions or put them on the refrigerator.

I agree with her when she says the desire to write fiction comes from the part of our minds that want to eavesdrop, to hear gossip, to hear how the stories come out. “I am a nosy person,” she says, and it is this characteristic that made me a good journalist, and, I hope, a good writer of fiction. We want to take control of the threads of numerous lives and make sense of a chaotic world.

Another point in favor of writing across genre lines is that this can eliminate the dreaded “I can’t think” or writer’s block – because if one thing isn’t flowing, you can work on something else. The Olympic athlete can’t complain that the pool is closed so he’ll just go eat potato chips. There is always the track or the weight room.

Former poet laureate William Stafford wrote: I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance... One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing... You should be more willing to forgive yourself.”

So you do what you can, and don’t beat yourself up over it. If you revise a poem, that’s progress – words addressed, even if the novel is on hold.

Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves novelists or poets or multi-genre writers, what we do is a kind of echolocation. Like a bat, flying at top speed in search of prey we cannot see, we are forming an image of the world in the dark.

Richard Wright wrote:

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

And so speak – shout – and write. If that peripatetic muse leaps from chair to desk and onto the window ledge, all you can do is shrug and follow.

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