I didn’t start out as a prose writer. I started out writing angst-filled poems when I was a teenager. Then in college I took a modern drama class, and the next thing I knew I was writing plays. I did all that before I decided I was a storyteller and that fiction was my genre. I came to nonfiction nearly thirty years later, quite by accident, and a happy accident it turned out to be.
This is all to say that dabbling in various genres isn’t a bad thing to do, particularly when we’re trying to find out where our talents lie. Even if we settle on one genre, or, as in my case, two, there’s much to be gained by continuing to read in the others.
So here’s some of what I’ve learned from reading in other genres.
Poetry taught me to pay attention to language and to hear the music that words, properly arranged, could make on the page. It also taught me about image and metaphor and leaps of fancy.
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.
Plays taught me that dialogue isn’t the same as everyday speech, but must appear to be so. They taught me pacing, while also making me aware of the fact that scenes are made up of beats, individual units, each having something to communicate, each reaching its own climax, each in conversation with the rest.
–from The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter:
MCCANN: You had a long sleep, Miss.
MCCANN: Your sort, you spend too much time in bed.
LULU: What do you mean?
MCCANN: Have you got anything to confess?
LULU: Confess what?
MCCANN: Down on your knees and confess!
LULU: What does he mean?
GOLDBERG: Confess. What can you lose?
LULU: What, to him?
GOLDBERG: He’s only been defrocked six months.
MCCANN: Kneel down, woman and tell me the latest!
Nonfiction taught me that thoughts have layers, that questions don’t always need answers, that the self is made up of multiple selves, that modulating tone and voice can deepen both thought and emotion.
–from “Interstellar” by Rebecca McClanahan:
At a bookstore on the east side of the city, where aging beauties wear rouged cheeks beneath mink hats, you notice a table labeled Hurt Art: stacks of Renoir, Michelangelo, Monet, the covers torn or missing, spines broken, the pages water stained or burnt slightly at the edges as if they’d ventured too close to the flame. You want to buy all the books, to remove them from public shame. Someone has drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa—a young girl perhaps, making her own mark? And why not hurt the art that holds a secret beneath its lips, a code you cannot begin to crack. You want to take your beautiful nieces aside and warn them. You want to spin back light years from today, hold your sister on your lap, rock her luminous beauty in your arms until it stops hurting.
Poets, essayists, playwrights, fiction writers, and writers in forms I haven’t had time to mention—we’re all part of that group that spends its days in the world of the imagination, working with marks on a page. I’m always looking for whatever I can pick up from reading other writers, no matter the genre.