Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Novelist, The Short Storyist, The Dramatist, and The Poet

As a student, I have been involved in what seems like an infinite number of workshops--both fiction and poetry. In these workshops, it seems like the question of genre always came up. "Here is how poetry is different than a short story, which is different than a novel" type of conversations. I've struggled with professors and other students over the question of genre and whether or not one author can master all of them.

The original conflict came up in a playwright class where the textbook itself said that writers could not mix genres successfully. Another professor compared the genres to sports (and I'm paraphrasing here): Poetry is like ballet and Novels are like football--one person can have some ability in both but will only master one.

That is, of course, bullshit.

The genres aren't like different sports (and I can't believe I'm using a sports analogy here), they are all like swimming. In swimming you have four main competitive strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Each may look different, requiring different muscles, and then the different events require different distances. But the basics of swimming are universal. You will never qualify for the Olympics in any of these events if you don't know the basics of streamlining, buoyancy--and if you can't move a lot of fricking water.

Writing is like that. Sure, you may have to use dialogue tags in fiction and name-colon in drama to indicate who is speaking, but if you have command of the language, that's no big deal. It's about flexing different muscles, and if you're in good shape and train then switching off is no big deal. Yes, you will probably determine that you just want to write poetry. Fine. Novels? Go for it.

But if anyone steps back and tells you that writing in different genres can't be done (and those of you in grad programs are probably under the most threat, sadly enough) tell them Shakespeare wrote poems and plays, he's legendary for both. Hemingway? Short stories and novels--equally brilliant. Oscar Wilde? Plays, poems, and one spectacular novel. Percy Bysshe Shelley? Brilliant essayist and poet.

But...but...but...they're geniuses you say.

Which came first? The genius...or the practice/work/training/immersion in language by using the different genres?

6 comments:

  1. Yes indeedy. Of course, I can vouch first-hand that switching from one to the other requires a lot of effort and purposeful re-thinking of how to go about things (like kicking with both legs together vs. with them individually).

    Going from short stories to a novel was really switching gears and it took some time to do it. In the end though, I now have a better understanding of how to tell different types of stories, which means a better understanding of storytelling itself. It's all to the good.

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  2. I agree whole-heartedly! I think that specializing in a particular genre is less about having the ability to write only in that genre than it is about feeling your voice works better in it. Many people feel that they only have the one voice--or rather, they find that that voice is the easiest to work with. (I'm much more comfortable with short fiction than poetry.) That said, though, there are lots of people who have several voices that fill different genres, each equally good. (We know a couple of these people ourselves.)

    I try to work my poetry voice regularly, but because it's harder for me to control it, I tend to give up more quickly when I fail. Contrarily, I'll beat a short fiction piece to death. I'm comfortable there, so I'm not afraid to tinker or even destroy the story. The poem, however, feels much more fagile. I feel like I'm trying to perform brain surgery with a pickaxe and a teaspoon. I'm not sure where I'm headed with this, but I thought I should keep going. I'll stop now so that I won't inflict more of my brain fever on you. Good-bye, Jenny.

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  3. Hear, Hear, total bullshit. Genius cannot be revealed unless polished by practice, work ,training, immersion in language with different genres, let alone shine. How can one know one is good at anything unless one tries their hand at something?

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  4. I either have not yet discovered my genre, or it's different than I feel intuitively that it ought to be. I intuitively write flippantly. I spend most of my time and creative energies on rather dark and gruesome sci-fi. And, rather counter-intuitively, I try to inject into everything I jot down a little bit of poignancy.... Which really strikes me funny.

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  5. And genius came first. Geniuses had to invent forms. Before geniuses, everyone was a yokel. And you can quote me.

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  6. I will never be a great poet, but trying to write poetry is helping me find the exact right word. I struggle with short stories, but they help me narrow my focus. The one screenplay I wrote showed me how to get the visuals right. I'm most comfortable with writing novels, but playing with the other three have strengthed all of my writing.

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