Writing across genres

So many genres...so little time.

It may come as something of a surprise to students I’ve had over the years – those who have have sat in my classes to learn about communication ethics or strategy – but I began my unexpected academic career as a writing teacher.  I never intended to be a university professor.

I had always been interested in teaching and thought that it was probably one of my strengths.  I had done it for several years in a previous incarnation – I taught anatomy & physiology, ethics and human sexuality (!) to nursing students before my career evolved into health and medical communication, leading eventually to writing books and teaching in the area of communication (public relations to be specific).  But I went to the university initially as a writer who could teach writing.

The first course I taught (before I ever considered teaching full-time) was called “Print Media.”  There is no such course with that title any longer, but its descendent “Text-Based Media” comes close.  I also taught news and feature writing and persuasive writing after the then-chairman of the department talked me into applying for a full-time job.  But I never intended to stay.

That was 23 years ago!  So, what’s the lesson here?

For me, it means that our skill sets can cross many disciplines – and in writing can cross different genres.  But writing across genres has two different meanings.  First, let’s talk about individual writers writing across genres; then we’ll talk about those genres that cross genres themselves.

When I was trying to create copy for my web site, it occurred to me that this was, in fact the hallmark of my writing: I am a bit of a switch-hitter.  As I say on my home page

…Goethe is said to have opined that every author in some way portrays himself [sic] in his works, even if it be against his [sic] will. For someone who writes in a variety of genres, this is either a symptom of some kind of mental confusion – or perhaps the hallmark of an interesting personality. I’d like to think that, in this case, it’s the latter…

The bottom line is that I started my writing career as a medical writer.  Skills honed there took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my past work has been writing about health and corporate  communication.  But, I’m a writer.  To me that means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy.  I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote my memoir, then took my research skills into an area that I love to read – historical fiction.

In my view, writers, like everyone else, have individual strengths – and my strengths are probably not the same as yours.  I think it’s important to know what those strengths are and see how you can use them across genres.  For example, my meticulous research skills, honed in the areas of non-fiction, have been enormously useful to me in moving into historical fiction. Story-telling is also a strength that many of us have – it’s a skill that is important both to non-fiction (creative or otherwise) as well as to fiction writers.

The second way that you can think about the concept of “writing across genres” is the notion that there are discrete categories of writing, and to create  a mash-up, to use the current parlance, is to create a cross-genre genre.  Make sense?

Here’s my example: I have a secret – I sometimes read chick lit and I’m not apologizing for it.  Since I like a bit of escapist reading from time to time, and only if it’s well-written like some chick lit is, I am also interested in creating some of my own.  But I don’t want to be formulaic.  So, I’ve taken my interest in travel and travel writing and put it together with my interest in chick lit and I’m writing a travel chick lit book.  Is this a cross-genre?  Maybe, but who’s to say?  Who is the arbiter of what is and is not a genre?  And who says that because my book is funny, with a young, modern woman as the protagonist, that it’s chick lit anyway?  Maybe it’s just women’s literature – ooh, that sounds a lot better for a university prof-type, doesn’t it?

In any case, cheers to coming up with your own genres and writing whatever moves you.

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