There are weightlifters that only focus on the upper body. You’ll recognise them by their broad chests, well-defined biceps… and tiny little legs.
There are musicians who never go beyond their own type of music. Few country singers record rock and roll, and Yo Yo Ma has yet to cut a rap album. There are exceptions, of course. Paul McCartney has made a classical album, so has Billy Joel. Bruce Springsteen has delved into folk music, and Kris Kristofferson has sung rock and roll. There is something heroic about the artist who refuses to settle for the familiar and the comfortable.
Like other artists, writers can fall into a niche. JK Rowling was deemed a children’s author—until she published grown up novels. William Goldman was famous as a scriptwriter (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Marathon Man, etc.) then he wrote a novel for his daughters called The Princess Bride. Poet James Dickey wrote a novel (Deliverance), and novelist-short story writer Ernest Hemingway wrote poetry.
For the most part, though, writers seem to prefer to find their groove and stick to it. Bob Woodward seems content to write insightful non-fiction about American Politics. Emily Dickenson never wrote a novel. F Scott Fitzgerald tried becoming one of those “Jerks with Underwoods” as studio chief Jack Warner scathingly called screenwriters, and the effort seems to have contributed to his early death.
Take care where you tread. There be monsters here.
Last week, I talked about breaking out of your comfort zone and writing about people who were radically different from yourself. Today my challenge is for you to write in a different format from your norm.
If you spend your time writing beautifully crafted short stories, there’s no shame in sticking with that. But maybe you would be a wonderful novelist, too, if only you took a chance. Trying new and different things is, or should be, part and parcel of being a writer. You can learn a lot about your own preferred type of writing by experimenting with other fields.
SHORT STORIES: If you’ve never tried to write a short story, you might be inclined to think they are pretty easy. Well, they’re short. However, brevity doesn’t come easily. You may find writing short fiction, good short fiction, is a lot more difficult than you expected. You can learn a lot from the effort, though. You’ll discover that selecting the precise word is more important in a 1000 word story than in a 100,000 word novel (though you should, of course, aim for precision in your longer works, too.) You’ll learn something about simplifying the plot, and about how to reveal character with just one carefully selected scene or event. The short story writer knows how to use language in a more precise way than anyone other than a poet. I’m a big short story fan; reading as well as writing. If the effort of writing a short story defeats you, at least try reading a few. James Joyce, Hemingway, Chekov and Alice Munro all offer extraordinary examples, and there are hundreds more.
NON-FICTION: It’s easy for the novelist or the short story writer to be sniffy about non-fiction. Where’s the creativity? But anyone can learn a lot by writing or reading non-fiction, either in article or in book-format. Non-fiction teaches you how to structure a story; how to pepper the tale with facts; how to conduct research. These are important techniques to master, no matter what sort of writing you specialise in. Again, if you find writing such pieces too difficult or time-consuming, try reading articles, either in the newspaper or in specialist journals, or reading non-fiction books. Biography, political memoirs, and historical analysis are good places to start.
POETRY: Will teach you the importance of the lyrical phrase; symbolism; and the use of language. Poetry lifts the spirit and it conveys feeling better than almost anything else, except music. Don’t dismiss poetry out of hand. Even if you think you’ll have an allergic reaction to Keats or Wordsworth, try reading some humourous poetry by poets such as Spike Milligan or Roger McGough. Even if you learn nothing, you’ll have a laugh. Try writing poetry if you need to develop your sense of lyricism.
PLAYWRITING: Will teach how to structure your story in acts; how to show rather than tell; how to reveal character in dialogue and action. If you were frightened by Shakespeare as a child, you can still find accessible plays: Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, for instance.
NOVEL-WRITING: Not many people will try this as a casual exercise, but if you think you might be ready to work on a book-length piece of fiction, you’ll find writing a novel has much to teach you, not least of which is stamina. To go back to our sports metaphor, the novel is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself. You’ll also learn something about the slow reveal of information, the psychological insights into your characters are much more achievable in a long work than in a short work.
Finally, you can also stretch your writing in one other way: By going to a different genre. If you love romances, try writing a western. If Science Fiction is more your thing, perhaps you could try a thriller. Or you could eschew genre writing altogether and go with the literary or contemporary fiction route.
Just try something new. You have nothing but your puny muscles to lose.