This is no. 105 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
As a journalist, critic, novelist, and essayist, I write in several different genres on any given day. It can be dizzying. Different genres involve different techniques and strategies. A reported piece involves tracking down sources, finding an intriguing hook, and crafting clear, concise sentences with facts, data, and quotes—all while keeping to a deadline and a strict word limit. Creative writing and criticism, meanwhile, demand that the mind be pliable, contemplative, and reflective, that ideas have the time and attention to marinate and wander before committing to a particular narrative.
Yet many writers still manage to switch genres. Zora Neale Hurston was the ultimate genre-switcher. She wrote short stories, novels, biographies, ethnographies, and criticism. Even after her death in 1960, Hurston’s estate continued to publish books in multiple genres. Her biography of Cudjo Lewis, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ was released in 2018, followed by the short story collection Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick in 2020.
My approach is to avoid thinking about what sets genres apart from one another, and instead think of their commonalities. Each involves researching, drafting, and revising, so I use my frame of mind (am I in a research mood or a drafting mood?) to inform what I take on. I find this method freeing. Genre, after all, is a construct. When I sit in front of my laptop, I’m barely conscious of genre. But I am fully aware of the stage of my manuscripts, where they are on the road to publication, and what they need from me to inch toward completion.
Starting a first draft often feels as if someone has handed me an atlas and told me to pick wherever I want to go. I can ignore, at least for the time being, questions about whether, how, and when these drafts will ever see the light of day. So when I have first-draft energy, I take full advantage of it by channeling it into several new projects at the same time. A quilt of Post-it notes for a nonfiction book proposal will blanket the wall in my office while I pound the keys on my laptop for a new flash fiction piece. Knowing that many of my writing projects won’t make it past the first draft fuels me to take more risks, to write in other genres, such as poetry, that are more challenging for me.
Some days I’m in a research mood. As Hurston herself so aptly puts it, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” When I am seized with this inspiration to poke and pry, I tackle the work for multiple writing projects simultaneously. My nonfiction book, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, and my novel, The Parted Earth, both involved extensive research. On days my mind was eager to fall down the rabbit hole of footnotes, when dozens of tabs lined the top of my screen and dog-eared pages of books laid scattered at my feet, it felt natural to peruse the testimonies of survivors from 1947 Partition for the novel while also reading articles about the AIDS epidemic in the South for one of my essays in Southbound.
If I am taking on revision, I will open up every document I need to edit on my laptop at the same time—perhaps a short story, an essay, and an article—until at least one or more of them are complete. The revisions for different pieces, I find, inform and are in conversation with one another. Tightening a paragraph in one piece will often make me reconsider the efficacy and punch of a paragraph in another. This method is also valuable for analyzing pacing. If I am rereading a draft of an essay that has good flow and keeps my eyes traveling down the page, I will notice right away when passages in a novel chapter feel clunky and choppy.
Writing in multiple genres at the same time has been my cure for both boredom and imposter syndrome. If I am not excited by or confident about a manuscript in one genre, switching to another will reinvigorate my creativity and remind me that I do, in fact, know how to write.
And why shouldn’t we spread our writing selves across multiple genres? In the words of Walt Whitman, we are large, we contain multitudes. A multi-genre writing life, after all, is only natural.
Anjali Enjeti is an author, teacher, and organizer. Her first essay collection, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change (University of Georgia Press, 2021), and her first novel, The Parted Earth (Hub City Press, 2021), were both published in the spring. The recipient of awards from the South Asian Journalists Association and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, she has written for Oxford American, USA Today, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other publications. She cofounded the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, and served on the Georgia AAPI Leadership Council for the Biden-Harris campaign. She teaches in the MFA program at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia.Thumbnail: Mana Amir