Be a Triple Threat, Write in Three Genres
It boggles my mind that people go to MFA programs which forbid them to take courses in other genres.
You enter, and you’re suddenly given a stamp: Fiction Writer, Nonfiction Writer (if your MFA even offers it), or Poet.
Should you attempt to cross these lines, you feel the wrath of your cohort in your primary genre (“how dare you betray us!”), the disbelief of your secondary genre (“you’re just trying it out, we’re the REAL deal”), or the overarching message your MFA is sending by preventing genre-mingling (“you can only master one thing here. ONE!”).
Anyone who has been to an MFA program knows you don’t master anything.
Get real. School is a starting place for a lifetime of learning about whatever it is you’re into. “Master,” my ass. You suck less and you know more; that’s how you end up.
Don’t limit yourself because other people do, and your MFA program thought it was fashionable. I’m not sure why it’s the general MFA practice to limit your genre but I suspect it has something to do with money (i.e. get multiple MFAs! Ick.).
Even if you aren’t in an MFA program, you should be writing in all three.
Why? Because it makes you a better writer. Period. End of sentence. There are things you can do in some genres that you cannot do in others, and there are skills some genres will build that will only strengthen your work in others.
For me, writing poetry has made my prose more musical, more vivid and image-based. My poetry has become more imaginative, full of character voices and persona poems because of my fiction. My nonfiction has become more associative, and lyric because of my poetry. I’ve been able to tell things in fiction that I cannot tell in nonfiction and vice-versa.
It has 100% increased my productivity. If I don’t feel like working on prose I’ll work on a poem. If I can’t figure out a problem that’s happening in a fiction story, I’ll write something I absolutely know is true and create an essay. When I reach roadblocks in one genre I’ll turn to another for relief, and yet—ta-da!—I’m still producing work. I trick my brain into thinking I’m taking a break.
As a child/teenager I was a Poet. I was convinced of this. At college I entered a poetry class, was told my work was too narrative (the poetry profs at my college were strictly lyric), and was relegated to fiction. I entered my MFA program as a fiction writer but ended up publishing nonfiction and coming out with a dual fiction/nonfiction dissertation.
If people try to shame you for writing in three genres, ignore it.
I’ve seen the sideways-glances of people when I write in their primary genre. Brush it off. Why? Because Toni Morrisson, Erica Jong, Mark Doty, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Karr, Reynolds Price, Raymond Carver, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Dave Eggers and Adrienne Rich all write/wrote in more than one genre, and what did it get them? Accolades and respect.
If you’re applying to MFAs, make sure the one you attend allows for multi-genre study. Mine did. Here’s a small list of the ones I’m aware of:
I’m sure there are more.
People write in one genre because they’re afraid to be bad at something. Be bad at another genre for a while. So what? Eventually, you’ll be better.
You may always have a primary genre, and that’s fine. And you may always struggle with another, and that’s fine. You’ll learn a lot more about yourself as a writer, and that’s always the goal.
Photo by Angela Radulescu.
It’s also good because when you’re working outside your own genre you have less ego to contend with, you’re maybe more open to critique and more willing to take risks. I got my first publication in fiction even though my primary genre was cnf. I think it was because I wasn’t as tied to the story emotionally and I was willing, in fact eager to make changes, and absolutely fearless in sending it out for publication…
Jennifer! Abso-freaking-lutely. I completely left this out as a benefit, but yes, you are much more open to revision and change in a genre that isn’t your primary genre. The distance can be SO beneficial. I remember that fiction piece, and when it was accepted for publication. Excellent.