Posted by Gabrielle Esposito, GD Fiction Editor for 7.1
I identify as a fiction writer because I’m too self-conscious to write nonfiction, and I can’t write poetry because I don’t know when to shut up. I’ve found in the writing community that writers have preferred genres, and once that preference is identified, all the other genres disappear. Most of a writer’s hesitation comes from the fact that the three genres are very different.
I think novelist Kathryn Harrison defined the two genres best in an interview promoting her memoir, On Sunset. During the interview with Lilith magazine’s fiction editor, Harrison defined fiction as “wonderful for the freedom it offers,” while nonfiction provides the opportunity “to explore what already exists” (https://www.lilith.org/blog/2018/10/the-depth-of-grandparents-love/#comments). From a technical standpoint, poetry “pays…close attention to the “sound, texture, pattern and meaning” of words, as stated by Dan Rifenburgh in his article “What is Poetry?” (https://www.arts.gov/operation-homecoming/essays-writing/what-poetry). Lytton Smith, a professor at SUNY Geneseo and author of two poetry collections, has put into words that charming, elusive quality that seems to be unique to poetry. He said “poetry’s defined by a kind of alchemy in which two things placed together produce a third without reducing themselves to nothing.”
In truth, these genres were difficult to define, which makes writing outside your preferred genre even more difficult because creative nonfiction can easily fade into fiction, while poetry can be a vague sting of spaced out phrases. It doesn’t seem like writing outside your preferred genre would be a productive endeavor.
The biggest benefit to writing outside your genre is strengthening a weakness. Each genre demands a new perspective, and requires you to flex different muscles. The great news is that you don’t have to rely solely on your writerly instincts to come up with things to write about. Thanks to the internet, thousands of writing prompts are available. Having a writing prompt takes some of the burden of creativity away, and provides an entryway into each unfamiliar genre.
But in case your fingers are tired of typing, here are three writing exercises, one in poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction below. Pick a writing exercise in the genre that you don’t normally write, and just see what happens.
Poetry demands that the world be looked at with fresh perspective. Considering that poetry often places things together that don’t belong, try and think of two objects that would never interact under natural circumstances. If you’re stuck, consider what it would be like for an earthly body and a celestial body to interact. A few examples would be sun bathing starfish, or “star-gazing spiders.”
Adapted from Poets and Writers, September/October 2018.
Here is a link to a wonderful PDF file with poetry prompts: http://www.agodon.com/uploads/2/9/4/3/2943768/writing_prompts_by_kelli_russell_agodon.pdf
Creative nonfiction requires truth, so this exercise asks you to call on your memory reserves. Choose a memory that is common, unremarkable, boring–and make it exciting. Describe the memory in a fantastical, or unusual way. For inspiration, take the way Tom Robbins writes in his novel Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas: “there was a crouton of fact in that nettle salad;” “the afternoon lasts as long as fourth grade.”
This link provides even more nonfiction writing prompts: https://www.eventmagazine.ca/2017/02/30-non-fiction-writing-prompts/
Fiction has a clear structure; there has to be a beginning, middle, end, setting, plot and resolution to the story, but it is freeing in the sense that those staples of fiction can contain whatever you please. Write a story or a piece of flash that includes the words: hamburger, exuberant, promote, bridge, strike, flute, acidic, anger. This prompt is unstructured in this hopes that seeing these strange combinations of words will be enough to spark a story. If this batch of words doesn’t thrill you, here’s a link to a random word generator: https://wordcounter.net/random-word-generator
Writing is hard, but writing outside your genre can make it easier. I’ve had some personal experience on this front. After a particularly grueling workshop critique, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to write fiction. My writer’s block stemmed from my own insecurity; I questioned what right I had to call myself a fiction writer. There was a long period of silence between myself and the page, but eventually, I sat down with my journal, and wrote. The end result was a poem, clunky in nature and technically simple. But I was writing again, and eventually the poems morphed into flash fiction, and finally to prose. It was a freeing experiment that led me back to my passion. What could writing outside your genre do for your work?