In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 131.
Many of you may know that the English word gender is derived from the French word genre, meaning “kind” or “sort.” So maybe it follows that, as a nonbinary writer, I find the breaking or bending of genre to be an essential element of my craft. There is power in subverting the expectations that come from identifying as writers of poetry or fiction or nonfiction. By writing in a genre different from our norm, we can improve our craft as writers both in and outside our primary genres.
One of the first times I learned this lesson was as a young poet in an MFA program, where I’d struggled with a project that involved writing poems about my father. Previously, I’d had some success processing my mother’s chronic illness in poetry. But, much like my relationship with my father itself, writing poems about him was complicated; I continually found myself frustrated by how limited each poem felt in addressing this complexity. Then I took a nonfiction seminar with memoirist Patricia Hampl. One of the texts she assigned was a missive Franz Kafka wrote to his father—first published in English as Letter to His Father by Schocken Books in 1966—and something clicked for me when I read it. Now, Kafka’s father was narcissistic and abusive, and my father was neither of those things. But what Kafka’s piece opened up for me was—in some ways quite literally—the space for complexity. It showed me that, in part, what each of the poems about my father lacked was the larger context: Every poem was held in its own little poem space, isolated from the other poems that, together, formed a more complete portrait. In some ways, then, the problem was that the topic literally lacked the space it needed for full exploration—my poet’s canvas was too small.
So for my workshop in Hampl’s class, I decided to combine the poems in the form of a lyric essay. I thoughtfully stitched the poems together, sequencing them so that they would be read with and against one another in a single unified piece rather than as separate poems. Arranging them this way gave each poem context and gave me room to explicitly address the limitations of writing about other people. Ultimately I ended up with something that I found moving, vulnerable, and satisfying. I was even lucky enough to work with editor Mary-Kim Arnold on the essay further to ready it for publication in the Rumpus under the title “Something Small and Heavy.”
By breaking out of my literary milieu, I achieved a couple of things. First, I avoided the tics and habits of language that allowed me to write without being intentional about my process, which in turn saved me from having to engage fully with a difficult subject. By repositioning the poems in a prose context, the poetic maneuvers that permitted me to avoid directly addressing my relationship with my father fell away. I couldn’t necessarily lean on the quick gesture of a line break or the muddied water of metaphor when I hit a part of our relationship I didn’t want to talk about, as I had done in the poems. I simply had to write straight into the complexity of what telling this story meant for me. Second, I entered a space that required me to actively reconsider how my own writing works. The images that provided the foundation for my original poems became, in the context of an essay, suddenly responsible to an entirely new paradigm of narrative and character, which, even if they played a role in the original poems, had to be approached and understood in new ways and from new perspectives. In short: The logic of the piece had changed. This meant that the relationships, the ratios, among the parts of the piece had to be reestablished. Balance in an essay can look very different from balance in a poem.
As a poet, this is what I learned by picking up the tools of an essayist. But maybe you’re coming at this from the perspective of an essayist who could use some of the tools of a fiction writer to solve one of your writing problems. If so, here’s a bonus tip I picked up from that Hampl workshop: Just about any fanciful notion or fictionalized scene or impossible image can come after the word “perhaps” in an essay and still technically be creative nonfiction. In any case, by writing in an unfamiliar genre, we free ourselves from the pressures of being experts or technicians in our primary genre. We become amateurs and, as such, our only possible goal can be to try and see what comes out of that attempt. That’s how we learn new things about our writing, things we can take back with us into the genres where we feel most at home. As amateurs, we are freed, too, from the need for this writing, this thing on the page in front of us, to be “publishable.” When we remove publishing from the equation, we can identify what actually makes a piece work according to our own judgment. What makes me want to continue reading this? How is this communicating my point or topic? Is this language coming together? These questions put us in direct contact with the writing itself—which, frankly, is how we should all be writing in our own genres anyway.
Now you might be saying, “Well, Trevor, that’s easy for you to say. The essay you wrote ended up getting published in the Rumpus!” And that’s a fair knock. However, I would say it is important that the goal for writing not always be publication. I worked on my essay with no expectation that it would be read by anyone outside of that seminar, much less published. I worked in the essay form because the story about my relationship with my father showed me that the best way to tell it wasn’t a poem or even a series of poems; this story needed to be told in an essay. Ultimately, by writing the story in the form it needed, I ended up with something I was proud of. That someone thought it was worth publishing was a bonus. I truly think I could have worked on those poems for years and still not have been happy with them. It took stepping into a new space, the space of an essay, to shift my perspective enough to reenvision the work in its most successful form.
So if you’re stuck on a piece, try making it something completely different. That problem chapter? Make it a poem. That poem that just can’t find its shape? Make it reportage. That wandering essay? Make it a stage play. Instead of repeatedly hitting your head against the same problems you always encounter in your genre, you’ll find new problems that require you to think in new ways to solve them. And who knows, you might end up with something amazing! Even if you don’t, you’ll likely have freed up at least some part of yourself from whatever was limiting your writing.
Trevor Ketner is the author of The Wild Hunt Divinations: A Grimoire, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2023, and [WHITE] (University of Georgia Press, 2021), selected as the winner of the 2020 National Poetry Series by Forrest Gander.Art: Suzanne D. Williams