I’D ALWAYS thought of myself as a poet, and that was that. I’d gone to graduate school in poetry. I’d had fellowships in poetry. I don’t mean to say these things qualified me to be a poet, but that was the label I’d given myself. Fiction had never come up. One day, like many other days, I sat down to write a poem. I worked for a few hours in an armchair with a pile of blankets on my lap; this was winter in upstate New York. I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I came back my then-boyfriend was in my chair, my blankets and laptop on his lap. “Who wrote this?” he asked. I told him I just had. He said, “You did? I think this is fiction.” I was annoyed: he’d been sneaky. I hadn’t asked him to read it. And I didn’t much care if it was fiction or poetry. I just knew I’d written it — this was what had happened during my writing time that day.
Somewhere along the way, I started writing things I called short stories. Now, I write things I call poems, stories, and a novel. I continue to be fascinated by the idea of genre and others’ experiences with it. I conducted this interview with four incredible writers — Idra Novey, Gregory Pardlo, Mark Richard, and Hannah Sanghee Park — over email. All four write in more than one genre. Novey is the author of a novel, Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company), and two poetry collections, including Exit, Civilian (University of Georgia). Pardlo’s book, Digest (Four Way Books), won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and he is the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Richard is the author of two story collections, a novel, and a memoir. He’s also produced and written for several TV series. Park is the author of a book of poems, The Same-Different (LSU Press). She was recently named one of Variety’s “110 Students to Watch” for her film and television writing. Here are the interviewees’ responses about the intricacies and challenges of writing in multiple genres.
OLIVIA CLARE: Which genre came first for you? How did the other genre(s) come about?
IDRA NOVEY: I wrote poems all through grade school, but the first writing I shared was a play I wrote in high school. In college, I wrote a little of everything — fiction, poetry, and lots of journalism. I thought journalism was the only way to make a living as a writer. But when I was writing down notes for an article, I’d end up drafting lines for a poem in the margin of the page. Sonically driven language was always what came to me with the most urgency.
MARK RICHARD: I began writing short stories during a visit to my father’s mother’s house in Louisiana when I was in elementary school. There was nothing much to do there, it was too hot to go outside, there weren’t any kids my age around. So my grandmother set an old black Royal typewriter on the back porch table, spun in some paper, and said, “Write me a story,” so I did.
I wrote poems in high school to girls, especially during breakups. I can still remember some of the lines and I cringe. I also had excellent teachers in high school who encouraged me to write short stories. At the same time, I was working as a radio announcer at a local station, and reading news copy off the teletype machine every half hour, so I got the rhythm and style of reportage which made my entry into journalism at college much easier.
Part of my job at the radio station was to write advertising copy, so I learned the style of the two salesmen there, whose accounts included cars, discount clothing, pharmacies, just about any type of store a small Southern town may have. I was one credit short of graduating college, and I had a great professor, Jim Boatwright, who helped me out. Jim said if I wrote a novel or at least the beginnings of a novel over spring semester, he’d give me the credit I needed. So I sat down and wrote The Bug Hunters. It was a science fiction novel about water-farming seafood in space on ocean planets. It was a crazy book and really bad, but it was my first novel.
So in my early 20s, I’d already written short fiction, ad copy, some poetry I wish I could forget, journalism, and a novel. This was helpful in finding work — I later worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, advertising director for a small real estate firm, and other jobs. So in some ways, writing for me was borne of boredom, a need for work, and a desperate ploy to graduate college.
The screenwriting came much later, again coming from a need for money. In our second year of marriage, my wife was pregnant with our first son and we were broke. A woman I’d known from the writing classes at Ole Miss, where I’d taught, introduced my short stories to Robert Altman, who said one story in particular would make a great movie. When I heard that, I went to the library, checked out some books on screenwriting, checked out what scripts that had that matched whatever movies they had to rent, and taught myself screenwriting. I’d watch the film and read the script at the same time. Like chess, it was easy to learn and difficult to master.
I still find screenwriting the hardest genre in which to work, you’re writing for so many different eyes looking for so many different things — executives, producers, actors, directors, all aspects of production — while still trying to maintain a compelling narrative. I hate writing in general, and I hate screenwriting in particular, but it’s probably the most fun to have “done,” in the way that the true satisfaction of any writing comes in having finished the goddamnned thing.
GREGORY PARDLO: My first love was poetry, but I didn’t know poetry was a legit “thing.” I thought poetry was like graffiti in that it was the kind of thing I found most interesting, but that it would have to be approved by history or, at least, a major institution before anyone would take it seriously. After high school, when I started reading for pleasure, I didn’t know what a genre was. There were only characters that I liked, and they included Siddhartha, Zarathustra, and Richard Wright’s Cross Damon from The Outsider. The first serious attempts at writing that I did — without anticipating being graded for it — were in that “genre.”
HANNAH SANGHEE PARK: I wanted to be a poet because when I read a good poem, I could feel and see what a writer was trying to communicate. That visceral, visual transfer — with often just a single piece of paper — was powerful to me. I was drawn to its contained openness, its music, how language was heightened, experimented with, and destroyed. I wanted to have a voice, and I thought poetry could help me find it.
Screenwriting came a few years ago. It came out of a desire to show more stories and nuanced portrayals of people from underrepresented communities, as I was starting to watch more television than I ever had. Around that time, I also read that beautiful Junot Díaz quote about monsters. Like Díaz — and all the other writers helping people feel less monstrous — I wanted the stories and characters I wrote to create mirrors.
Even though I was at very different crossroads when deciding to pursue poetry and screenwriting, the baseline they start at and the baseline they ride on is ultimately the same: it was about human connection, and shedding light on the human condition.
When I started writing fiction, I was surprised that my poetry background helped me write dialogue. For me, this had to do with compression and rhythm. My poet ear turns on when writing dialogue. Thinking about your writing practices in different genres, what have some of the surprises been along the way?
PARDLO: I tried writing fiction as an undergrad. I had one story in particular where the main character was listening to records, sitting on deep pile carpet in the den. There was a plot, I’m pretty sure, but I just remember slipping into this extended riff on the feeling of the carpet between the character’s fingers. It had little to do with the story, but it was rapturous for me to mine the image for greater and greater sensory revelation. I didn’t get into writing fiction partly because plot and linear arrangement occur to me as extraneous — the long procession through the pews and down the aisle to the altar — to the main event. When I started writing essays, I found that because the essay proceeds by more of a vertical and lyrical “mining” than the lateral emplotment and sprawl (at least that’s how I experience it) of much fiction, my poetry brain was also well suited to the essay form.
PARK: That’s a great point. When I write dialogue in scripts, compression and rhythm is key. I try to write memorable dialogue, and poets tend to create memorable lines.
I’ve found that when I write poetry, I pull from observations of objects, emotions, and language. In screenwriting, these same observations must serve characters and the arc of a scene. Because we follow a character through a script, we want them to be interesting and utterly human. We want to be invested in the character in the way that we want the line break to bring us another satisfying line. Poetry and screenwriting build emotional momentum.
With poetry, I write for the ear. The hope is it enters there and lands at the heart. I’m not sure if this means I have an “ear for dialogue” in screenwriting, but when I think of writing for the ear, I think of Robert Frost’s idea of “sentence sounds” — that the tone of a spoken sentence is independent of the sounds of its individual, comprised words. And this syntactical unit in sum carries an indistinguishable meaning. This idea has helped me distinguish a character’s emotions in dialogue — that what is said isn’t wasted air.
RICHARD: A realization more than a surprise — journalism has helped every other form of writing. Finding the “telling detail.” Trying to develop an observant eye, being one on whom nothing is lost. Journalism also allows you to move into environments in which you might not normally find yourself. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone into strange places. I find a lot of writers in Hollywood who’ve lived pretty sheltered lives, and their unimaginative work reflects that. Same with some students. It’s good to live a life before you begin writing. Barry Hannah used to say no one has anything to really say before they’re 30, and I think there’s some truth to that.
Have you ever felt pressured — internally or externally — to write in one of your genres more than the other(s)? What was that pressure, and where did it come from? What was the outcome, or is that pressure still there? Of course, feel free to be as specific or as vague as you like.
NOVEY: When I applied for an MFA program in poetry, I thought I would be able to take workshops in fiction and translation as well, to continue being a writer who moved between genres and languages but the format of the MFA program and the culminating thesis in poetry I had to do to graduate forced me to write mostly poetry and to think of myself mostly as a poet. It took me years to get out of that mindset.
RICHARD: Of course there’s pressure, and it’s usually almost entirely financial. I have a wife and three sons, lots of tuition, etc. You can support yourself in a variety of ways and I’ve done them all (only a handful of writers make a living solely on their books). There’s journalism, teaching, and Hollywood. Hollywood pays the best, and in the end, has been the most fun (and most humiliating and frustrating).
PARK: This pressure is constant, and a lot of it is driven by genre-specific deadlines I have to meet. My default way of approaching something I am unfamiliar with is to throw myself in headfirst. I’ve been writing poetry for a lot longer than I’ve tried screenwriting, so my natural inclination is to focus my time in the latter. I’m good at hunker-down marathons; the downside is tunnel vision.
I’ve heard some writers say they can feel if it’s a poetry-writing day, or if it’s a fiction-writing day, or if it’s a memoir-writing day. Do you feel this way? What determines when you write what?
RICHARD: I’ve never felt that way. I’ve felt the day that the bills are due approaching.
PARDLO: Perhaps it turns out that I have poetry-writing days versus essay- or interview- or blurb- or recommendation-letter-writing days, but more often than not it’s all-at-once writing. I already have trouble staying focused on one thing so I’ve found a productive solution to my drifting mind is to have several ideas or projects going at once. My mind works like a leaky ceiling in that I don’t know where the ideas are going to fall from; the solution is just to have a lot of different-sized pots and pails and bowls at the ready. I have a general sense of where the leaks tend to localize, and those most consistent leaks I label with a genre. Of course, my training is in poetry so that, so far, is the strongest “leak.”
NOVEY: I would say clouds are a factor. On overcast days, I’m more inclined to write fiction. When it’s snowing, I get the urge to translate to imagine my way into some other place where it’s not snowing. But more than weather, it’s the urgency I feel to move forward with whatever work of fiction or poetry or translation I’ve started but not yet finished.
PARK: There is probably a way to do it that isn’t so voracious and scattershot, but it’s always planned as a “both day.” I keep many, many documents open on my computer — my dock is a series of tiny squares crowding the bottom of my screen. When I write, I try not to waste any parts of the animal. Something that works better in a poem — say, pure image and feeling or language in action — will bring a poem to life. That same idea might be gilding or larding on a script.
Related — talk to me about time, and how you manage it. (Or maybe you feel you don’t!) How do you carve out time for projects in different genres?
PARDLO: This has everything to do with my literary diet. “You are what you read” is as true as “you are what you eat.” If, for example, there is a poem I want to work on, and I’m feeling blocked or lazy in any way, then I’ll spend an hour or two in the morning reading poetry that challenges my sense of the norm. It drives my wife crazy, but this is why I keep “acquiring” books that I may not read for months or years. It’s why I have so many books on my bookshelf that I haven’t read yet. Every book in my library is absolutely necessary, and cannot go out on the sidewalk sale. But I digress.
I carve out time for things like teaching so I can afford to be selfish with my writing time. I respect how it can feel like an accomplishment to many people, but I don’t like feeling like I make my living from writing. Writing is a bourgeois activity, and I’m very conscious of my privilege in having the leisure to do it. My leisure to write depends on the labor, sacrifice, and support of many people around me, and people who’ve come before me — those are the people who already carved out their time to make space for me so I can follow my strongest impulses to write in this or that genre.
RICHARD: I’m a poor time manager, but I’ve never missed a deadline. I often procrastinate like I did in college over term papers, waiting until the last minute and then pulling all-nighters. Still, it seems to work.
NOVEY: Ideas for poems often come to me when I’m in motion — on a train, or a plane, or on the subway. I work on the lines in my head and then type them into my phone. With fiction, however, my best thoughts come to me when I’m sitting still and usually in the early morning before anyone else in my family is awake. I need the hushed, secret feel of those dawn hours to work on fiction.
PARK: The bloodless answer is that more time is given to whatever deadline I have to meet first. At the end of the day, even if I’m tired, I try to write something, anything to add to my parade of open documents. Or I’ll pull one up and see where I can go from there.
I used to compare writing across genres as a continual turning of a Lazy Susan — a little of this, now turn to get some of that. These days I turn it slow. The poems I write in the future will happen with more time gained, more lessons learned, more new voices heard. My first poetry manuscript took me years to write. My second one (which became my book), was much more streamlined. Subsequently, this passage of time and exposure has only made me write each successive script at a faster pace.
Some writers like to say, “X genre is more difficult than Y genre.” How do you feel about such statements? Do you think that one genre is more “difficult” than another? Or do you not think in those terms? Feel free to interpret “difficult” any way you wish.
PARDLO: For a statement like that to make sense we’d first have to agree that genres can be distinguished by more than style and convention. In other words, the question assumes a kind of disciplinary difference like the difference between math and psychology, for example. I don’t think genres differ in that way. While I do think that the essay calls for a different kind of thinking about the writing process than poetry does, I also think any difference in my experience of either genre is a result of my personality and preferences, and how I’ve conditioned my brain to function, rather than any differences inherent in the genres themselves.
Poetry is at the center of all writing. But that doesn’t mean everyone is a poet. It only means that everyone has internalized the concerns of poetry so deeply that those concerns become very difficult to retrieve. Poets are those who are interested in doing the archeological work of recovering the ancient cities of our linguistic consciousness far below the surfaces where we all live, love, and play. Is archeology more difficult than urban planning, say, or civil engineering? They are all pretty necessary activities, I’d say.
NOVEY: Every genre, I find, presents a different set of challenges, which is why I enjoy moving in and out of them. When I tire of the challenges of prose, I work on a poem, or a translation. Moving between languages, and between genres, helps keep me open to surprise, and I hope, to inventiveness, both in terms of syntax and in the questions themselves I’m writing about.
RICHARD: Screenwriting is by far the most difficult for me.
PARK: The way I think about writing across genres is how much I can embrace the overlap to my advantage. I think both of them present a similar set of challenges — how can I write something that engages the person experiencing this in the most effective way? What are the tools at my disposal? How can I communicate succinctly and evocatively?
Both of them have moving parts that need to circulate at compatible rhythms. Before I start writing, I know what the germ of each piece will be — a line that’s been in my head for a poem, an opening visual of a character that will work double duty to lay the framework for a story. I start from there.
At this point, the creative process diverges. I write a few lines of a poem, and then find its form, meter, received pattern. I move on to the next stanza and see if it can hold its weight. If so, I continue — if not, I return to the beginning and try again.
For a script, it takes longer because it is essentially starting with different elements of an idea, then stripping it down to its bones to see if it stands. If it stands, great. Then you find the meat of it, the going heart of it.
The polishing process is the same for both genres, and it gives me the same joy. I read, and reread, and read out loud until it feels precise (it’s that “so much depends upon” precision, courtesy of poetry).
What are you working on now?
PARDLO: Trying my best to finish up a collection of essays centered on the air-traffic controllers’ strike of 1981. My dad was a controller at the time, and he lost his job in the strike. I was there. I witness and suffered the fall of organized labor firsthand. That moment had such a profound impact on our world today, and it is so little remembered in popular culture. That is the archeological work I’m doing now, bringing my poetry chops to bear on a project that involves memoir and scholarly research.
NOVEY: As always, a little of everything: I’m co-translating an Iranian poet named Garous Abdolmalekian with the Persian literature scholar Ahmad Nadalizadeh. I’m revising a story I wrote this summer about a UFO and also just finished revising a prose poem about a man gestating a panda that’s coming out soon with the Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow radio program.
RICHARD: I’m a co-executive producer for the television show Fear the Walking Dead. So right now, I’m working on an outline for an episode, which means I’m procrastinating by answering these questions instead because the outline is due Monday and it’s Saturday afternoon. But I’ve never missed a deadline.
PARK: I’m polishing two pilots I recently finished, and their accompanying bibles. I’m writing a strange sort of pilot I finished outlining, one that prostrates before Shirley Jackson. I’m writing a pilot with a fellow I met through the CBS Writing Program that stems from our shared cultural background. And speaking of writing across genres — within screenwriting, I don’t write strictly dramas, as the shows or films I enjoy watching often end up being a hyphenated mix of “drama-etc.” Life is drama-etc.
I wrote three poems recently, which isn’t a lot — but I’m excited about them, as it’s a step in a new direction. I’ve been reading poetry more than writing it, which is an edifying experience, especially as I’m exposed to more and more new voices.