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Our Many Genres

What do you write?

The question is always hanging out there when we start talking about our writing. It usually comes up in polite conversation like this – “So what do you write?” Agents ask about it up front on their websites on in conversation – “What do you write? What genre is your work?” Most of the agent generated questions are predicated on the assumption you, the writer, have actually written something you want the agent to read and then consider helping you find a publisher. I get that. I understand why the questions are asked whether in a casual setting or in the business of publishing. People want to know what you write and the writer should be able to tell them.

But what if you are like me and write across multiple genres? I write literary pieces, thrillers, memoirs, inspirational books and more. Ask me what I write, and I will tell you I write a lot of different things. I am not the only writer who writes across multiple genres and if you ask me, those of who do are having a lot of fun stretching ourselves by doing so.

I have been thinking about the human obsession with the concept of genre and I have concluded humans cannot exist without asserting genre upon everyone they meet. Think of it this way – we want to know what someone does for a living, what neighborhood they live in, the kind of music they like, their hobbies, which church they attend, the bar where they hang out – all of these are a kind of genre application. This search for place, putting people where they belong, it is a constant function of people in a gathered society. We need to know where people fit and sometimes, we try to make them fit where we want them to be, even if they don’t want to go there.

So, what happens if someone asks a writer their genre and the writer replies, “Why don’t you tell me? I just write the stuff because it interests me.” Have we knocked the world off its axis? Will the agent’s head explode?

There is the classic story, likely as much myth now as fact, that literature types were speaking grandly on the intentional symbolism Hemingway had woven into his novella The Old Man and The Sea. When Hem was asked about the symbolism he allegedly replied (or words to this effect) “How the hell should I know? I wrote a story about a man and a fish.” I think maybe, just maybe, that is exactly what he did but he did it with emotion and introspection and the knowledge of all that goes into the work and the toil and the backbreaking effort that is fishing in the hot sun out on a glass dead windless ocean. That kind of life experience was his genre. These days I don’t know what agents do with that sort of work. I just can’t see Hem or Saul Bellow or John Updike writing a book and worrying for a single minute about genre and I don’t think any of us who are writers should concern ourselves with it either. Write what you want to write and make it the very best you can. Write from your heart wherever you heart may be and let it flow. What you end up with will fit somewhere because either you or someone else will put it there but until your work is finished don’t give it another thought.

Just write.

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