This is the first in a series of posts by Jessica Dewberry on the literary life.
BACK IN SEPTEMBER, I included the word hybrid in front of the word writer on my Twitter and Facebook profiles. As a person who integrates fiction with imaginative poetics and writes nonfiction colored by an era where memoirs and reality TV make vulnerability and exposure mainstream, I was playing with how to best define what I do.
On his blog, Thomas Larson claims that Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being is a perfect example of “The Hybrid Narrative.” Dillard weaves together the travels of a French priest, the teachings of an 18th-century mystic, nature and its influence on artists and scientists, newborns, birth defects, the idea of strangers, and more. Although I truly love Dillard, I couldn’t help think just how common and natural a maneuver this is for writers, to braid history, fact, fiction, and memoir, causing a text to say and do many things at once. And if it is common, then why is there a need to set it apart? Why can’t we just call it (good) writing?
Unsure, I took this question to the recent AWP in Seattle, an annual, three-day book-love-fest and panel smorgasbord, a little over a week ago. Hybrid kept creeping up in ways that confused me all the more. Its first appearance was at a panel offered on Thursday — “Mix It Up: Teaching Hybrid Forms.” The panelists ran the gamut of forms, from writing genres to film, music, and visual art.
Later that afternoon, an independent press rep said the word while giving their seller’s spiel. “What does hybrid writing mean?” I asked. There was a pause, then he answered using language similar to Larson’s. “That’s what you think?” the woman next to him asked, and she gave a definition that sounded less like layering and more like chopping down subjects and stacking them in big blocks. I proceeded to tell them about the panel from earlier that day. Then, crickets. The first rep eventually added, “We’re just writers.”
At the Farrar, Straus and Giroux party Friday night, readers and writers stood along the periphery of the dance floor discussing reading and writing, with the occasional acknowledgment of how everyone now first becomes friends via social media before later meeting in places like these. On a table in a dim corner, books were for sale next to commemorative FSG shot glasses. A few brave hearts danced down to mostly obscure ’60s music the DJ seemed amped by and at home in and refused to change even after multiple requests. After participating in a discussion about Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I took to the floor and danced the ’90s Kid ’n Play, a remix from the popular ’20s dance, the Charleston — stereotypical, introverted-writer awkwardness briefly trumped by tap beer. The following morning I woke up thinking, that party was surely an example of hybridized space. Maybe what gets represented or mimicked on the page is cultural hybridity, the inherent movement, transitions between, and weaving of infinite threads in our everyday encounters.
Back at the convention center that last Saturday of AWP, at a panel titled “Outlaw Aesthetics and Publishing the Sprawl: How LA Indie Presses Are Changing the Face of Publishing,” featuring Kaya Press, Siglio Press, Tía Chucha Press, Writ Large Press, and Les Figues Press, I was there, again, in the thralls of hybrid. These presses offer a wide range of specializations, some focusing on marginalized people, some on marginalized genres, but all creating innovative “new models for publishing.” The presses situate themselves on the fringe of mainstream and share a desire to “change the culture of literary LA.” The previous day, at the Kaya Press/Writ Large Press booth, I took part in their collaborative Publish! #YouCanToo project, along with 99 other writers during AWP. I sat at their typewriter for three minutes and feverishly churned out as many lines as possible. Other writers and I also acted as editors, selecting and arranging our work. We slipped it into a paper cover stamped by both publishers, and drank our pay of small glasses of wine or whiskey.
I was lost in the matrix and the seemingly endless possibility of hybrid and its meaning. I asked one last unsuspecting passerby, “What is hybrid writing?” She said it is something “that lacks or is compromised by another thing in order to create a place for both.” I said, “Interesting,” my mind rummaging through examples. “Maybe it has something to do with marketing,” she added. It reminded me of Claudia Rankine, a poet and my former undergrad professor. After her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely was written, her publisher asked her what kind of writing it was, in order to market it. Rankine simply said that it was her job to write the book, and the publisher’s job to figure out everything else. Larson suggests “nonlinear narrative, composite, pastiche, montage, collage, mosaic, and bricolage” as possible terms, but, most likely, there are a hundred more, any one of which might be right.
Chuck Wendig, on his Terrible Minds blog, asks, “What the Hell Is a ‘Hybrid’ Author, Anyway?” and answers: “[The hybrid author] is told she is supposed to check one box and move on [...]. But [she] checks many, even all the boxes. [She] refuses to walk one path, instead leaping gaily from path to path, gamboling about like some kind of jester-imp.” I definitely felt jester-impish at AWP, coming to no great conclusion other than, yes, I like to write about a bunch of stuff and mix it up. Wendig claims that writing that way makes me a shining, more marketable star of diversity, using my superpowers to understand both the traditional and self-publishing game, bust open avenues, and pull “chutes” of possibility out of thin air.
Wendig has much more industry experience than I do, and he is probably right to say check all the boxes, and consciously sell the part of yourself that may be slightly different or more expansive than the next writer. But the varying definitions and perceptions of hybrid I was exposed to at AWP did not erase the doubt I went there with, the sense that the word muddies more than it clarifies.
When people used to ask, “What do you write?” I found myself always wanting to include hybrid in my response. I would start the hot breath sound of the letter “h” before inhaling it back and then just describe a piece I was working on, hoping they got the picture. When I got back from the AWP, I deleted hybrid from my online profiles, leaving writer to speak for itself.