What You Can Learn From Writing Multiple Genres By Lizzie Lawson
by Writing Workshops Staff
12 months ago
I’ve heard the distinction between genres described this way: fiction is action, nonfiction is analytical, and poetry is song. We write fiction to make something happen, nonfiction to figure something out, and poetry to express a raw emotion. But there’s also so much overlap between these and so much that can be learned from one genre to strengthen another.
My primary genre has always been nonfiction, but during my MFA, I also had the opportunity to take workshops in fiction and poetry, which turned out to be one of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of my writing education. Here are some things I learned in each genre that can apply to other genres.
In Fiction, I Focused Tension Into Central Conflict
In essays, I often rested on “this actually happened” to justify stray details and less than clear conflict, but in fiction, I had to reflect on the purpose of each scene and moment of tension I included and how they built into the central story. Since everything is, supposedly, invented in fiction, it forced me to consider how each piece was earning its place in the story. I couldn’t just include details because they were true. I learned to look more critically at the purpose my scenes serve and how they push the story forward.
In Fiction, I Flexed Character and Dialogue Muscles
Character and dialogue are important in nonfiction and poetry too, but in fiction, I got to practice these skills on another level. Suddenly, I could invent characters, write from multiple perspectives, and inhabit points of view other than my own. I learned to how to bring out characters’ unique voices in sparse lines of dialogue and how to exaggerate their traits just enough. Having practiced this skill in fiction made it easier for me to find and craft the sharpest characteristics and dialogue in nonfiction and poetry.
In Poetry, I Embraced the Strangest Details
Out of the three genres, I was most new to poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much it impacted my writing as a whole. One of the things my professor often said was to find a weirder detail or a stranger turn of phrase. In the short lines of poetry, every word is on display—naked, it seemed to me. There isn’t room for common images or phrases. Readers want to be surprised, startled, left thinking. Now in my prose, I’m more critical of my word choice, and I ask myself what stranger detail I could include.
In Poetry, I Thought About Presention and White Space
Being new to poetry, it was fascinating how line length, spacing, and arrangement could impact the reading experience of a poem. Longer lines make the reading faster whereas spaces create pauses. Line breaks aren’t typically used in prose, but this made me think more deliberately about sentence and paragraph lengths and the spaces between sections and how they could impact my intended affect.
In Nonfiction, I Searched for Meaning
I also learned to apply my nonfiction skills to inform my fiction and poetry. Because I was practiced in analytical thinking in my nonfiction, I used this to take my fiction and poetry deeper, asking “so what?” and “why does this matter?” The way I answered those questions was different in each genre, but it helped me create more layers in my work and complexities to point towards.
In Nonfiction, I Drew From Life Experience
Being practiced in memoir and personal essay has made me comfortable drawing from my own life experience for inspiration. Excavating my memory also helped when I started writing fiction and poetry. In those genres, I found that I could approach my life experiences in different ways, through exaggeration, invented characters, and in concise lines. I found that some memories that were struggling to make it into my nonfiction actually felt much more at home when used in another genre.
***Learn more about Find the Right Form for Your Personal Essay 6-Week Online Workshop with Lizzie Lawson starting October 31st, 2022.***
Lizzie Lawson is a Minnesota-born, Midwest-based writer and educator. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Redivider, The Sun, Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Identity Theory, and others. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University.