Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 21, 2013

Fear of Jumping Genres

shakespeareNo one questions the genius of Shakespeare – or whoever it was who wrote those brilliant plays, if you’re like me and aren’t convinced it was the son of the illiterate glove-maker.  And if you studied Shakespeare in school, you also know that because of the cultural standards of his time, his plays were not nearly as honored in his lifetime as were his sonnets.  No one’s yet matched them, either, in the sonnet world, except for maybe John Donne who wrote just a generation or two later.  But Donne wasn’t simultaneously cranking out astonishing plays.  (He did write sermons, but I haven’t read any and so can’t vouch for their quality.)

Writers who can master various modes or genres with equal levels of excellence really blow my mind.  It would be like Michael Jordan making that crossover into baseball and becoming an all-star with it.  There aren’t many writers who’ve accomplished this feat, and maybe none as well as the Bard, though he did set an impossibly high standard.  In the 19th century, Thomas Hardy wrote a half-dozen successful novels and then turned to the land of poetry, where he stayed for the rest of his life.  “The Man He Killed” and “Convergence of the Twain” are just as laudable as Tess, I think.

KingsolverToday we have quite a few crossover writers, and interestingly, many of them are women:  Margaret Atwood, most notably – but also Marge Piercy, Robert Pinsky, Barbara Kingsolver (a huge favorite, shown here), Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, and others.  But I’d argue each of these writers is most known for one genre over the other.  I’m sure it could be true that hundreds of writers work in multiple genres but choose not to have their secondary works published . . . or perhaps their second-genre work is not up to the same standard.  But this idea leads me to wonder why.

Could it be that artists excel at one form or style due to an innate talent?  Or do we tend to stay in the confines of a particular genre because it just feels more comfortable?  Might the writers and musicians and filmmakers who find great success at one genre stay there for financial security?  Actors often feel the freedom to genre-hop; indeed, it has saved or elongated the careers of many performers to do so.  But we don’t see the same leaps made by writers or directors.  In the music world, artists are often maligned when they try to move into another genre or style.  Think of Bob Dylan’s scandalous move to electricity in the ’70s, or more recently, Natalie Maines going rock or Darius Rucker going country.  It’s a risky move.  You know, like Russell Crowe in “Les Miz.”

artsI’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of months as I’m finding myself drawn to trying fiction writing.  Earlier in my life I wrote primarily non-fiction – essays for college, then personal essays for various publications and to use as models for my students.  The shift to poetry happened when I began teaching it in A. P. Literature in the late ’90s.  Then just two years ago, I began teaching Creative Writing and had to study fiction writing more intensely.  Suddenly, my interest in short stories and flash fiction was sparked.  I’ve been dabbling in it for a while, but I haven’t found my fiction “voice” yet.  Maybe that’s because the pieces I’ve written have been very short — mainly one or two pages.

In my recent guest post at Minerva Rising (link below), I’ve shared that I’ve had an idea for a novel that I think has the potential to work.  While I realize that I’m not nearly ready to write a novel, and that my chances of being able to complete it successfully are slim to none, I’m intrigued by the idea and considering trying it, just for the challenge.  The serendipitous timing of an interview in the New York Times this week is also spurring me on:  writer Edward Kelsey Moore, author of the best-seller, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, shares that he wrote this book at 52 for his “own amusement” and was floored when it “sprouted wings.” edward kelsey moore

I’m not delusional enough to think my work might be successful, let alone even make it to print.  But I’m finding Moore’s spirit and energy inspiring.  And, as if to give me a final nudge, today as I got into my car to return from an errand, NPR’s “Science Friday” host was just introducing Barbara Kingsolver for a chat about her latest novel, one with an urgent theme much like one my work would explore.  She and the show’s host openly lamented the lack of fictional works about this particular theme.

As I pulled into my garage, the interview ended.  If I were superstitious, I’d think NPR ran that segment just for me to hear.

What might you try in mid-life that you’ve never done before?  What is stopping you?  What nudge would you need to make the leap?

Link to Minerva Rising blog post, “A Poet’s Phobia:”

Rainbow woman

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