Writing Outside Your Genre

Posted by Jamie Henshaw, CNF Reader for 8.2

Fiction is my jam. There’s usually a story, character, or idea occupying the synapses of my brain like the roots of a blossoming flower. Or a sturdy tree. …and sometimes an errant weed, to be honest. While this might make it sound like I have ideas just pouring out of me – and that’s often true – a lot of it is rubbish.

To add another metaphor to this discussion, I’ve learned that you have to be good at gold panning to be a good writer. You have to sift through a lot of rock to find the little nuggets of gold. You have to remember that gold is just a valuable kind of rock. You have to understand that good writing takes time and effort; the best writing requires exponential levels of time and effort. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, Canadian author and journalist, says in Outliers: The Story of Success that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be an expert. Let’s see… that’s 416 days of really, really trying.

That’s not something I’ve achieved, personally.

Not even close.

But I have been getting pretty good at this writing thing. This to say that I have been practicing dumping words from my mind onto the page, and then spending hours upon hours destroying, cutting, building, forging, hacking, gluing, stomping, and soldering everything into the right form. (Admittedly, the most recent case of stomping was my desk chair, and the most recent case of soldering was… well, never mind.) I thought I might share a crucial piece of the knowledge I’ve acquired in this process. I’ll start with an anecdote:

I used to work at a factory which transforms enormous rolls of plastic or foam sheet into containers for things like rotisserie chickens and your leftovers from the Chili’s 2 for $20 special. I started operating these “forming machines” and I got really good at it. A few years in, I began my training on the even bigger “extruding machines” that made the rolls themselves. I discovered that if the operator of these machines did their job well, making the containers was a hell of a lot easier. If the sheet is free of thick and thin spots, if it has an even blend of plastic pellets, then everybody else has an easier job and the end product is loads better.

Well. Writing fiction is, for me, a lot like running the “forming machines.” Granted, my writing isn’t as fast as that assembly-line format, but I know what I’m doing and I get some really great products out the door. Here’s where this story comes full circle–the dabbling that I’ve done in poetry (mostly from an introductory course) and in nonfiction (which I did well enough in to be asked to TA for a semester) has taught me some incredibly useful understandings of words and sentences that I didn’t have from studying fiction alone.

Words—those metaphorical plastic pellets—create sensory details and images, alliterations and sonics, and build a strong lexicon (I keep a journal of new, interesting, and inspiring words now). But I couldn’t do this as well without learning about the structures of poetry, or reading Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life in my creative nonfiction studies (really, read this no matter what genre you write in).

Sentences—those enormous rolls of plastic or foam sheet—create conflict and tension, character and voice, pacing, balance, movement… I explored myself as a character in nonfiction and that opened my eyes to developments for my pretend people, and described the movement of the heavens in a line of poetry that made me realize all the words I’ve wasted in writing a protagonist through the front door.

We have to learn all these skills and we have to do our best to recognize good core materials from the contaminates in the rocks or in the plastic. We are the pans that sift through the rubbish, and we are the machines that form new products. We have to be innovative and think outside of the box (or chicken container, if you like), put yourself outside of our comfort zone, write outside our genre of choice.

I, personally, won’t be drifting too far from my preferred genre. I don’t have many poems I’m proud to put my name on, and I’m not one to produce large amounts of nonfiction essays. Some people do switch or shift into a new genre. Some people write in multiple forms. I dabble and I try because everybody–everybody–benefits from learning new ways to create through words. So, work towards your 10,000 hours. Craft a poem. Create a story. Narrate a personal experience. Sift. Solder. Mold. Repeat.

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