Writing Across the Genres: A Journey to Fame–or Failure?

woman writing                                                                                                     by Nancy Means Wright    

When I told my long ago college history professor  that I wanted to write a paper on Women in the Civil War, she said I should focus on a tiny segment such as, she joked, the role of the petticoat. Did I know that southern women saved young slaves by hiding them under their petticoats? I could become an authority on one minor aspect of the war, she waxed on: write papers, give lectures. I imagined focusing my entire life on women’s petticoats, my brain slowly shrinking to a hunk of cotton lace.  Whereas I wanted to know about women’s lives: their loves, their losses.

     And if I was going to write about these passions I didn’t want to put them in academic papers. I wanted to write poems, stories and novels. Even so, my creative writing prof advised me to choose one genre. “Look at Shakespeare,” she said.  “His sonnets are superb, but it’s the plays we read and act out over and over. So choose!”   After I handed in a 100-page thesis on the novels of Virginia Woolf for my senior thesis, I decided I wanted to be a poet. But the derivative Shakespearean sonnet I wrote for one English teacher literally burned up as he underlined my archaic metaphors with his sizzling cigarette. So much for poems, I thought.

     Two years after graduation I went with my new husband to teach in a boys’ school where the headmaster wouldn’t let me teach English because it was a “man’s subject.” So I began a feminist novel, featuring a faculty wife who slowly anesthetizes herself with sherry. It won a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers Conference where I lived across the hall from poet Anne Sexton. She had just left a mental institution where she crafted slippers to bring her back “to reality,” and had written her first collection of poems: To Bedlam and Partway Back. Since I had four kids by then, I related to the idea of bedlam. My novel, alas, came out with a cover depicting a hairy hand pulling aside a diaphanous shower curtain. The agent had renamed it The Losing. And so it was.  

     I earned an MA in French and taught for a time, then returned to Vermont with my man to live in a decrepit house sans plumbing or electricity. To help earn a living I ran a craft shop in our barn and began a lifetime habit of early morning writing–our children learned to bleed outside the door. I was still trying to write Woolfian novels where the action is largely inside the head. “We’re looking for something more commercial,” the agents would say, and I knew it was time to try another genre. 

     I took up journalism: articles for numerous journals and newspapers. I picked up true stories from local characters like octogenarian Charlie, who did carpentry for us at a dollar and a beer an hour. I learned a lot from old Charlie, who spilled out wild domestic and wartime tales. I penned a nonfiction book about friends, family, tourists who had wandered into my craft shop. My daughter and I explored the creative processes of 30 craftspersons for another book in which we tried to make each interview tell a story and reveal character. For like writers, these artists forgo benefits and pensions, and spin webs out of themselves. 

     I found myself  turning some of my nonfiction characters into short stories, as in “The Batik Room,” published in Redbook; batik offers meaningful metaphors the way one posits layer upon layer of color. A succession of potters, weavers, basketmakers found their way into my fiction,  both mainstream and mystery. A few stories landed in high paying magazines like Woman’s World and Seventeen, but most appeared in small journals such as American Literary Review. My husband would say, “Why are you spending your time on stories that don’t pay?” I could work more profitably mowing the lawn, he suggested. I couldn’t seem to explain that I was finally feeling good about my work, and could call myself a writer. I was learning, even from the outpouring of rejection slips.

     Then when my daughter Catharine invited 12 girls for a slumber party on a night my husband and I were out of town, she drew 200 girls and boys, who pretty much wrecked the house. I wrote her into a YA novel, Down The Strings, as a sort of punishment, and discovered the joys of writing for children. I’ve since done four books for kids.

     Divorced after thirty years of marriage, I went to Poughkeepsie, New York to teach in a liberal arts college. Feeling a pariah, I couldn’t write anything longer than a poem. I took on the persona of Fay, a gutsy, resilient kind of older woman, and felt I was writing from the gut. I was lucky to get 100 poems in the lit mags and in two small press chapbooks. One was in the voice of 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft whom I admired for her courage in the face of adverse criticism. I found deep satifaction in completing those poems. Maybe this is what success is–simply finishing something: a poem, painting, or piece of music.

     So I was writing in Fay’s voice, Wollstonecraft’s voice, and in many other voices because a novel was gestating in my head. But this time I wanted to write it in multiple viewpoints. After reading about a vicious assault on two local farmers, I began a novel about a single mother dairy farmer and found myself writing in yet another genre. Mystery. I hadn’t read a mystery since Nancy Drew, but here I was, with no plot in mind other than that assault and some voices whispering in my ears. The “voice” was that of an amateur sleuth, wanting to bring order back into her world.   I poured years of living into a series for St Martin’s. Writing a novel is for me like writing a poem:  I build the poem to climax, but don’t know what it’s about until halfway through. For Stolen Honey, the only book I was asked to outline ahead, I had to write the whole book in order to do the outline!  

     I discovered that I could frequently recycle my research. When I felt a lump in my breast, I wrote a poem called “Apple Doctor’ that morphed into how to write a poem: “Now we talk endings  / the way a poem / comes like love / to climax…”‘  I’ve turned my kids’ novels into plays for a Vermont children’s theatre. Both Fay and Wollstonecraft pushed their way out of poems and into novels.  The anthology At Grandmother’s Table includes an essay about my Scottish granny who was so nearsighted that she once poured a whole box of turtle food into her turkey stuffing. I had to include a recipe, but Granny only noted ingredients like “a handful of flour, a dash of salt.”

     But the way she threw in dashes and pinches makes me think of the way I write, in a sort of trial-and-error process: a pinch of humor here, a handful of quirky characters there–a dab of darkness. And somehow the work comes out–far from perfect–but for the most part edible, readable. I’m not an authority on any one subject, like the role of petticoats in the Civil War. And when people ask what kind of writing I do, I can only say, “Well, whatever comes to mind–and loving it. Writing across the genres, despite the failures that come along,  keeps the brain robust (if not the pocketbook). And it keeps me out of the psychiatrist’s office.

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18 Responses

  1. Nancy, so many writers wrestle with “writing across the genres…” and you have helped put their concerns to bed. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog.

    • “Wrestle” is a good word to use, Betty. I’ve poet friends, for ex, who write poems only and have many fewer marketing / guilt-at-inadequate- sales than I do. But it’s such fun to try many different genres. Thanks for your support, too!

  2. Hi, Nancy,

    I really feel that I know you so much better after reading this. You are such an interesting writer. As far as genre, here’s my take. Like you I taught English, both at the high school and college levels. I told students to try writing all types of work, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. Why not? We have the ability to excel at many genres if we are willing to work at it. As far as making money, writing makes big bucks for very few people. I always say I write because I can’t not write.

    • Well said, Jacquie! You get right to the bottom of it. We can’t ‘not write.’ Although there are always forces riding against attempts at a variety of genres, such as fans who like the earlier work but not the newer experimental stuff. Or publishers in some cases who are fearful of radically diffferent styles or subjects. But yes, we do it anyway! And I know that you have, and with success.

  3. Hurrah! Everything feeds into writing (and that feeds into living, not always nicely). Studying and writing poetry taught me more about writing fiction than any fiction writing class I ever took.

    • This is true, Sheila. I really began writing verse (I didn’t dare call it “poetry” back then). But the fiction came more easily afterward. Thanks for your supportive input!

  4. Hi Nancy. I’ve always admired you and your writing, but I had no idea of your accomplishments in so many different areas. You’ve motivated me to be the best writer I can be.

    Of course this will require a fresh supply of chocolate!

    • Omigod, Cindy,I couldn’t write a word without a BIG supply of chocolate. Chocolate, like writing, in many forms: chocolate milk, ice cream, frosting, shakes–chocolate covering bananas, almonds, cherries and apricots,Chocolate also helps to bear the bad stuff that hits one in the face now and again..

  5. I’m so impressed, Nancy and thrilled to hear of your fascinating life and explorations into different genres. And I don’t think I would find you quite so interesting (after an hour) if you’d stuck to petticoats. Thanks for laying this out for us.

    • On the other hand, petticoats do get inside the truth of things more than the outer wear, don’t they? But in all honesty, I do feel I’ve done little of real significance by throwing myself into so many genres. It’s been fun, but well–a sort of scatter-shoot.
      But thanks for taking the time to read it. I know it’s too long, but my fingers kept typing away.

  6. Nancy, without realizing it, you validated my entire life! I’ve never been able to settle for one genre, one career, one hobby. (I’ve had only one husband, and I didn’t “settle” for him. He’s amazing.) As Stephen Jay Gould, one of my favorite writers, once said, “There are so many pretty pebbles on the beach.” I want to explore them all, scattershot or not. Thanks for a fascinating post.

    • Thanks, Nikki! And you’ve made my day with your kind comment! I guess I envy you for having only one husband. My offspring would have preferred that–but if a marriage doesn’t work, well, you have to try and grow one in another direction, I like that Gould quote. Too bad you and I have only one life to do this exploration.

  7. This is my second reply – my first lengthy response went “poof.” I guess I have “sold out.” It’s easier to write non-fiction articles for the local news magazine than face the rejection of fiction into which I pour my belief in my writing ability and face less than stellar responses from publishers. I had the same praise along the way – my career was writing non-fiction; yet, my heart is in fiction! Alas! Sometimes the easy street is the one to travel. Loved your article. http://www.dkchristi.com author of Ghost Orchid, published by L&L Dreamspell

    • Sorry you had a hard time responding, DK! But thanks for persevering. Non-fiction is fun to write, and garners more reviews and readers, I think. I enjoy doing it (well, this blog is non-fiction!) although my heart is in fiction, too. But don’t give up if you love writing it. There are so many writers like Madeleine L’Engle who had 31 rejections before she sold her famous A Wrinkle in Time. And how about short stories? Anyway, the point is simply to write. Period.

  8. Nancy, what a wonderful post, not too long at all. I hung on every word and identified with so much of what you said. I quit a graduate program in English after one course (medieval lit, which I’d loved as an undergrad) which consisted of the students reading and taking notes to be handed over to the professor who was using them for his research.

    • Oh, that doesn’t sound fair! For students to be virtually writing the professor’s book! Anyway, there are writers who don’t even have college degrees, much less graduate ones. I think of all the stuffy papers I wrote in college. They bore no relation to what I do today.Thanks for your personal insights, Anita!

  9. Very entertaining post. While the muse visiting me loves fantasy (and dragons) since I’ve written in other genres including science fiction and historical westerns, I hope that someday the stigma sometimes associated with writing in various genres will disappear. One problem I’ve found with crossing genres–promoting. And the biggest problem–keeping straight all the voices in my head. thanks again for your personal insights. Helen

    • You’ve certainly moved through the genres yourself, Helen! I’ve tried a little fantasy but never science fiction–though my engineer spouse loves sci fi. But you’re right that promoting is the hardest part of jumping genres. My very latest is a “tween” historical novel–not a mystery. Yet most of the listservs I’m on are for mystery.So how I’ve the problem of learning how to promote a new and different genre. .

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