Writing in multiple genres – the Muse with Attention Deficit Disorder
Isn’t writing challenging enough? Isn’t it enough that we sweat and pray, bleed and cry, twist and turn in the dark like minor saints under attack by an imp, looking for a way to force those ideas and images to the surface and onto the page? Why complicate things?
Most writers identify themselves as poets or novelists or short story writers. We’re guided that way in writing programs and grant applications, in workshops and gatherings. After all, there is power in concentration, in doing one thing well.
By the time I was schooled that it was considered proper to have a single genre, it was too late. I’d been seized by words early in life and wanted to wrestle with them, race with them, lie beside them and listen to them snore.
Coming from common folks I didn’t know quite how to do that, but newspapering was a start. I started out with a journalism degree from WVU and a job writing for a small daily newspaper. That was a lucky and/or inspired choice. Journalists, especially the jacks and jills of all trades found at small newspapers, are as well-placed as anyone to see and hear and do the manifold things that will find their way into stories and poems. What give a piece of writing authenticity? The details of it, the sweat that rolls down your neck and wets your shirt, the mud that clings to the lugs of your Red Wings.
Now you can kick around from job to job, from fire warden to orderly to bridge painter, but there’s only a certain number of skills that any individual has and, in these days of downsizing and outsourcing, of 401Ks and IRAs, immigration issues and terrorist watch lists, not much interest in the unknown who blows into town and lifts the sign out of the diner window, “Short Order Cook Wanted.” But a curious and adventuresome journalist (and there should be no other sort) can get a taste of all kinds of other lives. Can get close enough to see the seams, feel the grit on their hands, smell the cooking, and then move on.
I agree with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his journal, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
I’ve had the benefit of gratuitous living, as a journalist. I’ve been three miles into the mountain in a longwall coal mining operation – where a machine hit a methane pocket and the power went out for 20 minutes as they cleared the dangerous gas. You don’t know dark until you’ve been inside a mine when the lights go out. And you don’t know that a mountain moans until the machines stop, and you hear it groaning against the hydraulic shields that hold it up until they creep forward and let the plundered rock settle into the gap behind.
I have seen the playing out of power and avarice in the most immediate way, not by viewing CNN but in watching small-town politicians manipulate and threaten to keep control over a small financial scheme.
I’ve sat in a wooden kitchen chair in the sheriff’s home, behind the steel door to the 100-year-old jail, and talked with his wife about the time a guy tried to force his way out through the residence and how she talked him into eating first and so he was captured.
I’ve had holes burned in my shirt from drifting embers at house fires, and seen the faces of firefighters as they slumped outside the apartment building where seven people died.
I’ve had my shoe sucked off in the mud of a construction site … petted llamas and learned about their latrine habits … handled a woodcarver’s tools … ridden in the governor’s limousine on potholed roads in a rainstorm and learned about the cost of fixing mountain highways … listened to people as they talked about having to move away from the town their families had founded, where there was no longer any water.
There was a lot of living in those stories, and a lot of energy and desire instilled in that writing – in making the stories of plain folk come clear – but still the itch returned. I wanted to write stories that came from deeper and more personal places. All the time as I was grinding out daily articles about city council or the water board, I was accumulating images and anecdotes, characters and insights. I just wanted to use them in new ways.
I thought I was to be a poet. I 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. 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. I was pulled in all directions by a muse with attention deficit disorder.
Then I ran into Fred Chappell. Ol’ Fred as he’s known in North Carolina, a writer of magnificent talent generously applied to fiction long and short, poetry epic and lyric. As a speaker at the West Virginia Writers statewide conference, he lured me into accepting the writing as the words came, and eventually into being a Carolina girl. 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. And I looked at his celebrated – and prolific – career and said, why not.
Gertrude Stein, usually though 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 multiple genre writing kept coming through those years – at a pretty good pace, too, because I was young and full of energy. Along the way I accumulated publications in every area except screenwriting and playwriting. A science fiction novel, later a mainstream novel, and another now preparing for publication. Three or four other novels completed and unsold or reconsidered – SF, fantasy, mainstream. A double score of stories. A hundred lyric poems, collected and recollected over 20 years, until one version finally caught. Three or four long narrative poems. Some criticism, travel writing, columns, and editorials. And of course, the daily newspaper articles.
Ultimately, however, journalism stimulates the imagination, but leaves little time and energy for writing – like wine that provokes desire and takes away the act. The pressures of the daily story push away the time for reflection and revision. So it was time to leave behind one of my genres. I would make the move first into editing and finally into teaching – each of which has its own mental and physical demands. Writing is plain just not easy, as we know.
So what are the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres?
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 learn different skills. Multiple genres each 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.
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 and weight loss. 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 learn to hear dialog in your poetry, and write with fine-tipped precision in your novels.
Working in various genres also eliminates the dreaded “I can’t think” or writer’s block – because if one thing isn’t flowing, you can work on something else. The 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.
The 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.
Of course, if there are pros, there must be cons. The most significant is that by working in many areas, you may spread your talents too thinly – and it could affect your career as a writer by diffusing your audience.
An anonymous literary agent blogging on Livejournal says it this way:
Think of three people who are close to you – Your significant other, a child you adore, and a best friend. Each of these people expects different things from your relationship. If you suddenly started telling your child all about your office gossip or the trauma with your significant other, they will clap their hands over their ears and cry. If you try to cut your best friend's hot dog into little pieces to make it easier for her to eat, she will stare at you like you're crazy… This is why, if you write in radically different styles, a pseudonym is a good idea.
Others disagree. An agent at Folio Literary Management says that it can be a good idea to switch between genres because it can broaden the audience – especially if the genres are in some way related, such as romantic suspense and mysteries. You can also get more books on the shelves without having them compete directly with each other. And, in a cyclical business, you can focus on the genre which is doing well at the time.
Pros and cons and expectations. But take heart from Ol’ Fred and Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Hardy and Brad Leithauser and many others – there is joy in crossing boundaries.
Vladimir Nabokov – whose writing was after all just a sideline of his lifework as a lepidopterist – said:
"There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a story teller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three - storyteller, teacher, enchanter - but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
Ultimately, what we do is a kind of echolocation. Like a bat, flying at top speed in search of prey we cannot see, we are trying to find the form 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.
Valerie Nieman worked for three decades as a journalist while honing her skills as a poet, novelist, and short story writer.
Her third novel, Blood Clay, set in Piedmont North Carolina, will appear later this year from Press 53. Her first novel, Neena Gathering, was a science fiction title that was also translated for the Brazilian market. Survivors was a story of loss and recovery in a Rust Belt town in the 1970s.
Her collection of short stories, Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press, appeared in 2004 with stories that first appeared in The Kenyon Review, Arts & Letters, West Branch, and other journals and anthologies.
Wake Wake Wake was published in 2006 and included poems published in two chapbooks; in journals including Blackbird, Poetry, New Letters, and REDiViDER; and in numerous anthologies.
She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University.