I’m a fiction writer. If you ask me what I write, I’ll usually say something like, “Primarily urban fantasy, but I’ve also written some sci-fi, contemporary, horror, and mystery.” No mention of anything outside the genre of fiction. Though, the truth is, sometimes I also write poetry and non-fiction. In fact, I even have a non-fiction publication coming in March in Chicken Soup for the Soul, so I guess, I can even write decently in nonfiction.
Note: When I say nonfiction, I’m referring to creative nonfiction (in this post at least), which is more like memoir and essays versus straight up nonfiction that would be more like a how-to book.
Through my MFA program at Carlow, I’m often exposed to writers, methods, and exercises that fall outside of the fiction realm. And while at first, I’d be less interested when a poet was up to speak, I learned very quickly the extreme value of taking notes, no matter which genre was up for discussion. Writing in three genres—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—will help you no matter what your primary genre is, if you even have one. I know many writers who regularly write all three.
Here are eight instances when writing outside of fiction can help you as a fiction writer. (And this would obviously apply to a nonfiction writer or a poet, too.)
1. When You Get Stuck
If you can’t picture a scene right, not sure what should happen next, or are having trouble with a character, stop and write some poetry. We do a fun exercise sometimes in my MFA where we look at some poems, then take a line and write a poem using that line. Do this while thinking of your story, and it can help you come up with new ideas. You’ll shift your way of thinking and it will often shake loose the stuck things in your mind.
2. When You Need to Find the Story
Sometimes you have a character and an idea, but the plot just isn’t working. A similar thing happens in nonfiction. You want to write about your road trip to Niagara Falls, but most of it probably isn’t an interesting tale. You have to find the story and make it interesting. Writing about real life can help you do this. If you have to take 15 years of your life and write a 1200-word story (which I did for Chicken Soup), you’ll quickly see which sort of events are the ones that need to be included. Which ones move the story forward? If you’re a writer who loves to write extensive back story, this may especially help you. Including 50 pages of back story is usually not the best way to go, but if you learn how to look through a life, pick out the important moments, and let the rest go, your story will be stronger for it.
3. When You Need to See it Differently
There are times when a scene just feels flat. Maybe there’s not enough description to make the setting come alive, maybe your characters aren’t showing enough emotion, maybe there’s not enough tension. I did an exercise once in a Pennwriters class where we had to take a scene in our story and describe it in a poem. To be honest, at first I thought, that’s dumb. But then I actually did it. Let me tell you, my eyes were opened and I’m grateful that I learned this technique in the class. When I thought about the scene as a poem, I heard it differently and saw details that I hadn’t considered. I then used elements of that poem in the scene, and it brought it to life in a new way.
4. When You Want Fresh Inspiration
For me, most of my poems come out as nonfiction, but I realized something recently through talking to poets. There are such things as fictional poems. I think the tendency is to feel that every thing a poet writes is true and is based on them. While this seems to be the case a lot of the time, some poems are completely imagined emotions and scenarios. So, if you sit down to write a poem, write about your character or a scene, or even write from your character’s perspective. Also, writing nonfiction about your own life can help you draw parallels to your characters. There’s usually some part of ourselves in every character we write, and if you can find a moment in your past that corresponds in some way with your character, it’ll help make the character more realistic.
5. When You Need a New Idea
Every time I did any sort of poem-writing exercise in my MFA, it led to a story idea. There’s something about just grabbing words and throwing them around in unique ways that sets creativity flowing down new paths. You want to write, but need some ideas? Write a poem about a moment. Write a nonfiction essay about your favorite childhood memory. These sort of exercises will get you thinking differently, which opens new channels for creativity to flow through.
6. When You Want to Grow as a Writer
There are lots of ways to improve as a writer, and knowing different forms is a great way to grow. Take for an example a dinner out that went horribly wrong. If you write the scene as fiction, it’s going to look one way. Write it as nonfiction and you’ll pick out different aspects of it. But write it as a poem, and it’ll take on yet another shape. Each of these styles will help you see the event differently, no matter what your end goal is. Practicing a bit in each genre will help you improve in different ways. Nonfiction writing helps me keep scenes more realistic and pull out parts that aren’t as interesting. It also helps me to bring out the “why” behind something. Why is this scene or conversation important to the story? Poetry helps me heighten the emotions of my descriptions and scene settings. It makes my writing more lyrical when I’ve spent time writing poems and keeping my mind in a poetic state.
7. When You Want Emotional Release
I am not a very good poet. I’ve spent enough time with great poets to know this is true. However, there are times I need to write a poem. Usually, it’s for reasons of catharsis. Though, I also tend to journal or write something non-fictiony when I need an emotional release, too. It helps me to be able to write about real things and emotions that I’m feeling, in a way that makes it sound different. Writing out my own emotions then helps me write my characters’ emotions and reacts better, too.
8. When You Want to Take the Pressure Off
There’s something about writing out of the norm that takes off the pressure. I know I’m not a poet. I know I’m not a memoirist, so when I sit down to write a poem or essay, I’m not thinking of all the things that go through my mind that I need to do to make it good. I just write. I write horrible, emotional poems that I rarely show anyone. Knowing that no one will see it, that I’m not going to try to publish it, and that I’m writing knowing it will suck and not caring, allows me to write some stuff that can be surprisingly good. Like that whole “don’t be afraid to suck” idea you hear, it frees you to write whatever and however you want. You can fix it later if you decide to or you can just toss it. But either way, it can release the stress of trying to be good and give you some freedom.
Have you ever tried writing outside your genre?