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.

What writers should read

It’s been raining here non-stop – almost—for months—almost.  At least that’s the way it feels. This is terrific for our lawns and gardens, but not so much for anyone longing to get a bit of (dry) fresh air and sunshine.  If you’re anything like me, though, a rainy day is an invitation to a good book, or any book, good or otherwise.  It’s an opportunity to lose yourself in the pages (or electronics if that’s your preferred platform), to learn something, to be entertained, to be provoked, to daydream.

I have two questions for you: What does a writer read?  And…What should a writer read?

The first question is, of course, making the reasonable assumption that writers read.  Of course they read.  The answer to the question is obvious: whatever he or she wants to read.  My answer to the second question – what should a writer read – might surprise you.

Perhaps you think that writers should read about writing.  Or they should read books in their specialty area (for example if you’re a creative non-fiction writer, you should read  creative non-fiction; if you’re an historical novelist, you should read historical novels; if you’re a women’s lit writer, that’s what you should read and so on).  Of course it’s important for you to read the kind of literature that you write.  In fact, it’s probably more important the other way around: you should probably write what you like to read.  So, it’s likely that you will read all of this anyway.  But in my view it’s only part of what you should read.

I think it’s important to cross-read.  This is a natural extension of last week’s discussion of cross-writing and is related again to the concept of creativity cross-training.  Reading in genres far afield from your everyday work and writing is one of the best ways to keep your creative mind working overtime.  And it’s fairly easy to tell if you’re a cross-reader; stack up the books you are currently reading, and the books that you have on your next-to-read list, and see what’s there.

Here’s my current stack of reading-now books…

Books I'm reading now.

As I mentioned, it’s been raining, so both my husband and I have managed to take on Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and I’m on the final one The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  We added onto that experience by watching the Swedish (with English sub-titles) movie versions.  We’ll watch the final one this weekend after I finish reading it.

But you can see a real range of literature in this pile.

  • London Day-by-Day is a representation of my favorite way to prepare for a trip.  I’ve been to London several times before, but next month we’re meeting my son (who lives in Europe) there for a few days before ticking off one of the experiences on our bucket list for which he will join us: a transatlantic liner crossing from London to New York on the Queen Mary 2.  This little book series is my bible for walking new areas of cities.  Sometimes they are even useful in the future when I’m writing about those cities.
  • No Exit and Three Other Plays by John Paul Sartre is a bit outside my usual reading.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time I actually read a play.  However, one of my avocations is writing ballet libretti and I promised a new one to my son who is a budding choreographer.  I’ve been inspired by the notion of Sartre’s take on hell.
  • Health Communication – what can I say?  I’m also working on the development of a new course in my department (many of us writers do still have day jobs).
  • Finally, the book on vintage purses represents one of my passions: handbags.  I actually have a collection of vintage Coach handbags.  The truth is that one of the antique handbags I came across in my cross-reading is the inspiration for some research for another historical novel.

See, what did I tell you about cross-reading? What are you reading now?

Cross-training, cross-writing, it’s all the same

I doubt if there is a person among us who hasn’t come across a magazine or newspaper article or online post on cross-training.  After all, we’re all obsessed with fitness these days – n’est-ce pas?  Not you? Even so, I’ll bet that you still have a pretty good idea about what cross-training is.  It’s that approach tofitness that involves a variety of training methods to improve your overall fitness level.  For example, if you usually run for its health benefits, by adding strength conditioning, you’ll improve your overall fitness level, which is likely to improve your running.  So, you already know this.  But have you ever thought that the same  approach might apply to your writing?

It doesn’t matter if most of your writing is on a blog, in magazines, in academic journals or even in your own personal journal, how you write matters.  How you write affects the way that both you and others understand your ideas.  As William Zinsser (whose book On Writing Well should be in your library) suggested, “Most people have no idea how badly they write.”

Go back and read some of your very earliest writing and you’ll quickly notice that if you’ve kept on with it, your writing today is so much better than it was when you started.   Your continual practice has, in fact, made you better.  But if you’ve gone a step further by actually working at improving your writing, it will jump off the page at you and scream: “I am better!”  One of the most under-appreciated approached to writing improvement in my view is the concept of cross-writing.

I’m not sure when I came up with or stumbled upon the idea, but it probably had something to do with a creativity course I taught a few years ago to a small group of third-year university students.  In that course we explored the idea of creativity cross-training: for example, if you’re a choreographer, then you could try a visual art such as photography or painting to keep the creative juices flowing – learn to see things in different ways.  This enhances your creativity.  The same holds true for writing.

I have great respect for authors who work in a particular specialty, but I’ll bet my next paycheck that most of them (if not all) do at least a bit of cross-writing even if they don’t cross-publish (not sure that’s a real concept for anyone but me). Many, if not most authors, keep journals in which they write a lot of material that they never intend for readers to see.  So, they cross write, too. But I’m talking about an even bigger commitment to this approach.

I’m talking to all you academic writers (including students) out there who don’t seem to think that your writing needs to improve – that it’s “good enough.”  But I think that taking the time to write a bit of fiction, to blog or even to keep a personal journal would help. You would improve your story-telling ability, and in spite of the parameters within which you must publish, at the heart of what you’re doing is telling the story of your research, or your theory, or your opinion.

I’m also talking to all those bloggers out there who free-associate in every blog post. I’m imploring you to take the time to do a bit of research for a change, and craft a piece that is more authoritative  I’m not necessarily suggesting that you post it on your blog – rather do it for yourself and your writing.

Perhaps all of this is to justify my own approach to writing:  a bit of academia, a bit of blogging, a few non-fiction trade books, a couple of textbooks, a bit of creative non-fiction (memoir) and, increasingly, works of fiction.  This apparent lack of focus on my part, I like to think of as evolutionary in terms of the quality of my own writing.  When I have the courage to open the pages of that first book I wrote  and really read, I am usually astounded that a publisher bought it.  My writing is better now, and gets better with every article and every book I write.  I don’t think you can ever stop improving.

What, then, are some of the skills that I learned by writing in one genre and was then able to use to improve another style?

  • First, I used to write feature articles.  One of the first things you have to be able to do (after gathering your material) to write a feature is to organize your material and write an outline.  That ability to think about how to tell a story has improved the way I’m able to write case studies in textbooks.
  • That ability to tell a story also became extraordinarily useful in writing the memoir.
  • The self-reflection skills that I had to engage to write the memoir became a key to opening up my imagination so that I could pick up on the rich possibilities of fiction that might come from an academic journal article (that’s the backstory about my upcoming book Grace Note which I’ll tell you about the minute I have it in my hand from the publisher).
  • My research skills that I honed by writing textbooks are the key to my ability to write historical fiction that is full of accurate historical detail.
  • And of course, all of the editors who have had a crack at my work have taught me some of the fine points of grammar, punctuation and style – even if I had to argue with them from time to time. In almost all cases, they won.

All of this makes me a writer who I think continues to improve, but one who has not yet arrived!

What parts of your current writing could be improved by trying out another form?