During the live conversation on Abstract lllusions Radio with host Jennifer Hillman last week, we discussed writing in different genres – a favorite subject of mine.
Genres mix all the time in the creative arts – and often, into everyday expressions. For instance, the presence of lyrically strong music in TV advertisements networks three different genres: music, poetry and advertising. Ditto for a good memoir, which brings together elements of fiction, travelogue and non-fiction in a confessional setting. In L.A., performance artist Norton Wisdom will paint to either the music or poetry, with musicians and readers accompanying him in a very raw, live interpretation of how the genres blend in the mind of the creative.
I find it incredibly strengthening and liberating to write in multiple genres. If we specialize too much, we tend to become boxed into our ideas and limitations of a particular form or genre. The more we can open up to new forms of writing, first as readers and then as writers, the more tools we have at our disposal to express the stories, vignettes, poems or melodies that roll through us.
As I mentioned on the radio show, we’re living in an era now where hybridization is actually part of our evolution as writers and artists. It seems all of the genres have been discovered, explored and expressed (as I say this, someone will come up with a new one!). However, any good alchemist or Ayurvedic doctor will tell you what can happen when you blend the right elements – something very new, enthralling and potentially transforming can emerge.
We’ve seen music lyrics in novels for years; two great examples are Tolkien’s Hobbit songs in Lord of the Rings, and the nonsensical wizardry of Lewis Carroll in the Alice in Wonderland series. The New Journalists (Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, primarily) integrated fiction and characterization into non-fiction pieces in a way that changed journalism forever. Essayist/novelists like Joan Didion routinely blurred the line between genres; great musicians like Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin always mixed poetry, lyric, journaling or essay, and visual art in their work. Now, close-to-the-heart authors like Sarahbeth Purcell bring poetry, vignette, essay and fiction together to convey the most subtle and intense emotions.
Here are a few quick exercises for you to start playing with genres other than one in which you’re accustomed to writing:
1) Try writing your next poem as a vignette, a story in paragraph form.
2) In your next piece of fiction, import some factual details. Describe them from the eyes of your character – but keep the material factual.
3) When describing someone real, imagine what goes on inside their mind, gauging from their facial expressions, eyes and body language. This is a cross-genre technique used in narrative non-fiction.
4) Next time a song plays through your mind, write down the words that come to you with the melody – then write a story about it.
5) If you’re writing memoir, try to describe every setting as though you were painting a landscape or panning the camera to capture every nuance for a film audience.
6) Next time you write about somewhere you traveled, set the scene and take us inside what you felt and sensed … pull us into that world, just as you would if writing a fictional character.
7) Open your journal and start writing, today, in a genre outside your comfort zone.
We’ll have much more on the subject of cross-genre writing on this blog. Until then, let us know how these exercises work for you!