Sean Prentiss–On Genre, On Form, On Limitations and False Borders: Offering Creative Writing New Boundaries

Part I

I am an essayist. Ever since I started keeping a journal when I was eighteen, I’ve thought in essay, in narrative, in truth. My life is offered back to me in the mirror of creative nonfiction, in finding metaphor and art in life and fact.

*

Since that first river heartbreak:

Those late nights, when stars are the only

friends, I floated beneath

the surface of water.

The peace of silence.

Since then:

a poet.

*

I relapse into fiction once or twice a year (maybe like those younger-day mistakes I used to make during late nights when I drank too much and chased after the shadow of the moon).

When someone tells me a story and I think, I need to let that story wander where it may. And I will follow along. During those short windows, I explore invention, fiction.

 

*

The art of the empty stage: drama. A genre I’ve never studied. But the camera is so close, intimate, like falling in love, that first night. The hardest kiss. Or the night of the breakup. Nights alone.

Though I don’t know drama, I understand the feeling aloneness on a stage, a hot beam illuminating our essential aloneness.

*

Part II

I teach an intro level, multi-genre creative writing class at a small Vermont university. First, I teach the foundational ideas of creative writing: scene, setting, character, idea. Only then do I teach the four genres.

*

Definition: Genre is a category of writing based on shape. The four major creative writing genres include poetry[1], drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre in a One Act Play.

Setting: A stage filled with twenty desks and twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, walks across the stage.

Teacher: “Genre is a way to categorize writing based on its shape.”

Students nod their heads.

Teacher: “Creative writing has four genres. Can anyone tell me what they are?”

Smart Student: “Fiction …? Poetry?”

Professor nods his head.

Other Smart Student: “Drama?”

Smartest Student: “Oh, and real stuff.”

Teacher: “Yup, creative nonfiction.”

Classroom is filled with smiling, happy students and proud professor.

Smart Student: “How are the shapes of fiction and nonfiction different?”

Teacher: “Err. Some genres are based on shapes, like poetry and drama. But some deal with whether they deal with truth or fiction.”

Smarter Student: “So genre is either shape or truth/lack of truth?”

Students look confused.

Teacher wrings his hands.

Teacher: “Okay, let’s start over. We have prose, poetry, and playwriting. Those are our three shapes of writing. These are the shapes a piece can take on the page. Prose is any writing done in paragraphs. Poetry is any writing done using line breaks. Drama uses playwriting techniques.”

Students smile again.

Smart Student: “Wait, are poetry and drama true or invented?”

Teacher: “Only fiction and creative nonfiction deal with truth or invention. Poetry and drama just deal with shape.”

Smartest Student: “Why?”

Teacher paces in front of classroom.

*

Is this confusion between truth and shape within genre merely a problem for the random professor? Merely an issue in the classroom? No. For this writer, there are a plethora of problems with our current system of how genre seems to use both shape and truth as its defining characteristics, that tries to meld together these differing ideas on what genre is, that offer only false borders.

As a writer, I am stuck trying to explain my writing to editors, agents, readers, and publishers.

I write micro-essays that look like poems. What do we call that?

Creative nonfiction poetry?

Prose poems?

Lyric essays?

How will the reader know that these poem-like things are truths? How will they understand that truth is the heart of these pieces and the shape serves the truth I am trying to get at?

My friend, Julia, calls these hybrid pieces that span shapes Thingamabobs, which just highlights the problem. Julia and I, and so many other writers, are forced to create unclear terms to try to define something that should be easily defined. We are writers. We work with language. How is it that we have no language here?

And then there is the issue of bookstores. I read environmental and nature writing. When I go into a bookstore and search for nature writers, I look in the Nature Writing section. Easy enough. Unless I want environmental poetry. Then I need to go into the Poetry section. Here, I’ll find nature poets like David Budbill and T’ao Ch’ien kissing covers with lyric poets like Ezra Pound and ultra-talk poets like Mark Halliday and confessional poets like Sylvia Plath. These poets are lumped together for their reliance on line breaks, on their shape. This organizational system of gathering likeminded things together might tell us to call a house and a cardboard box the same thing since they share the same rectangular shape.

Also, the reader often has an unclear understanding of what they will be receiving from the writer. Is that poem true, invented, or something else?[2] What is the small paragraphy-thing? A prose poem? A lyric essay? What is the difference? We can be more clear with the reader. We can tell them exactly what they will be holding in their hands. Genre, or shape, is normally easy for a reader to see just by examining a piece of writing. Most poems clearly use line breaks. Most fiction and creative nonfiction clearly use paragraphs. But truth/fiction is not something that can be seen. It can only be told to the reader. Once the reader knows what they are reading (genre and truth/invention), then they can decide on how to use that information or if that information is even important. But right now we often don’t provide that information to the reader.

Finally, as writers, we have been taught to write truth or fiction in prose, to often ignore truth or fiction in poetry and drama, and to see creative nonfiction as only prose. These are artificial limitations. These constraints hem us in for no reason. A poem can be true. Creative nonfiction can use playwriting techniques. Fiction can use historical information and fact. Drama can be true or invented.

*

Etymology of Prose: Prose is birthed from the Latin word for straightforward. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and traditional uses of punctuation.

Etymology of Poetry: Originated from the Latin word for poet, poetry originally meant maker or author or poet.

Etymology of Drama: Drama comes from the Greek words for to act, to perform, to do.

Etymology of Genre: Originates from the French word for kind, sort, style.

Part III

What is genre?

We saw the definition and etymology above, but let’s start here. We have four genres:

  • Creative nonfiction
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Drama

That’s pretty simple.

Before we visit with genre, let’s examine how the use of (or lack of) truth affects pieces. Maybe truth will offer clarifying ideas. Here’s a simple chart looking at truth in our genres.

Truth/Invention in Our Genres Truth/Invention
Creative Nonfiction Truth
Fiction Invention
Poetry Unclear
Drama Unclear

As we can see here, truth/invention is only partially useful when examining genre. Truth/invention works great with creative nonfiction and fiction but doesn’t work at all for poetry and drama. So truth doesn’t clarify enough for us. It leads to more confusion.

Next, let’s examine the keys to figuring out what makes a genre a genre.

Genre What Makes It a Genre?
CNF Truth + Paragraphs
Fiction Invention + Paragraphs
Poetry Line Breaks
Drama Playwriting Style

Though this chart is simple, it’s also confusing.

Two of our genres deal with truth or lack of truth (fiction and creative nonfiction) plus shape (paragraphs).

Two deal with shape (line breaks or playwriting).

So we are no farther along. Genre is unclear (because two of the genres focus on truth and two focus on shape) and truth is ineffective because two of the genres don’t care about truth.

*

Title: The Teaching of Genre and Shape Overlapping, a Two Act Play (Act I)

Setting: a stage empty expect for twenty desks filled with twenty students. A professor, bald, 40ish, thin, stands at the board looking at his diagram, which he has labeled “Illustration of Genre and Shape Overlapping.”

prentiss graph

Teacher: Points to illustration. Looks confused. Tries to explain how genre and form works. Sputters. Erases work.

*

Thesis:

  • As a professor, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to students.
  • As the writer of a textbook, I get stuck trying to explain genre and truth to readers.
  • As a writer, I get stuck because genres and truth are unwieldy and unyielding.

What if I want to write creative nonfiction in poetry form?

What do we call that? Essay? Memoir? Poem?

If we call it essay, we wonder about shape.

If we call it poem, we wonder about truth (or lack of truth).

I could go on and on.

[See confusing illustration above.]

*

Part IV

We need to move to a system that offers rational borders and removes the false limitations that have been set on our genres. What is the solution to this overlapping confusion of genre and shape?

Let genre teach us only the shape of a piece since the term genre originated to mean style and never was meant to include fiction or truth. Maybe this problem originated with the invention of the term “the fourth genre” for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is not the fourth genre (and fiction isn’t the third genre). Rather, prose is the third genre but before creative nonfiction became popular, fiction was seen to equal prose. Now we see fiction and creative nonfiction as genres rather than as types of prose.

Once we have moved to three genres (poetry, drama, prose), then let us create a new category that deals with truth or invention. I propose veracity.

Definition of Veracity: The observance of truth, or truthfulness, of a thing, something that conforms to truth and fact.

Etymology of Veracity: From Latin, meaning truthful.

So we will have two (or three) veracities. Veracity only teaches us about the truthfulness or invention of a piece.

Veracity What Makes a Veracity
Creative Nonfiction Truth
Fiction Fiction
Hybrid[3] Inhabits truth and fiction

And let us have three (or four) genres. Genres will only teach us how a piece will look on the page.

Genre What Makes a Form?
Prose Paragraph Form
Poetry Line Break Form
Playwriting Playwriting Form
Hybrid Multiple Forms

*

Dichotomous Key to Veracities:

Nonfiction:

Habitat: Lives in areas of sunlight populated by truths, facts, memories, and speculations.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: Carries the appearance of the writer’s life or the life of those who the writer has studied.

Times: When the writer wants to examine the factual, the truth, the real in a moment.

Fiction:

Habitat: Lives in caves populated by invention.

Location: Can be found in prose, poetry, and drama.

Appearance: A changeling. Can appear like the writer, like other humans, or entirely unlike humans at all.

Times: When the writer wants to create something new, when the writer longs to invent.

*

Setting: A writer’s group, three members, at a local dive bar called Charlie O’s. Practicing a new way to view genre and veracity.

Jess: So what would you call Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay?

Jess and Julia in unison: “Hybrid/hybrid.”

Julia: “What about Moby Dick? It’s fiction and nonfiction and it is prose.”[4]

Jess: “Catcher in the Rye is fiction and prose.”

Jess: “Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle? Nonfiction/Prose.”

Sean: “The ancient Chinese poets, like T’ao Ch’ien? Creative nonfiction and poetry.”

Jess: “In Cold Blood?[5]

*

What does this new system allow that sees genre as poetry, drama, and prose? That offers a scale for veracity of a piece?

One: It makes the teaching life easier. This simpler view on genre and veracity is easy to teach. Every piece of writing is:

  • Either true, invented, or something hybrid (veracity).
  • Either poetry, prose, drama, or something hybrid (genre).

We can go back to calling a cardboard box a box and a house a house.

Two: It allows writers flexibility to conceive of how they should write on the page. Writers may no longer need to feel constrained by genre and veracity because we’ve separated truth and fiction from genre.

Choose a genre(s).

Choose a veracity(s).

Write.

Three: This system allows publishers a way to clearly articulate what they want. Again, just choose a genre(s) and a veracity(s) and the writer will know what to submit.

Four: This new system instructs the reader more clearly on what they will receive. The contract is clear between writer and reader. Veracity teaches us about truth/invention. Genre teaches us about shape.

*

I am an essayist. But I see my truths, attempts, tries at understanding life not always in the long paragraphs of prose. Sometimes my brain, heart, hands need, yes, other forms.

To tell

my truths through poetry.

I don’t want

to be

constrained by form.

Let my words, like the waters

of my life, wander.

[1] There exist hundreds of definitions for poetry. Most offer major flaws in how they categorize poetry. The only definition I have found that doesn’t have major holes (because of its simplicity) is that poetry, almost always, uses line breaks to determine the shape of the poem. Except when it’s called ‘prose poetry.’ And once again, the professor looks confused.

[2] My friend Karen just said that she reads most poems as “real” or “based on the writer’s life.” I read most poems as invented by the writer. We, the reader, have no idea if a poem is real or invented.

[3] Hybrid texts intentionally blend fiction and nonfiction, play with fiction and nonfiction, or have fiction and nonfiction share space. We can continue to work to decide where the hybrid boundary begins and ends, but it seems that the hybrid space could be reserved for pieces that mix or play with truth and fiction.

[4] We decide on fiction and prose because the heart of the novel is about the invented story not the nonfiction on whaling.

[5] We’d still need to work out some kinks (like where to place In Cold Blood), but the kinks are smaller and on the edges of the borders. So rather than dealing with major issues in how our genres and shapes overall and confuse, we’d have to deal with smaller borderland issues like Is IN Cold Blood nonfiction or hybrid.

Sean Prentiss is the author of the memoir, Finding Abbey: a Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. Prentiss is also the co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction, a creative nonfiction craft anthology. He lives on a small lake in northern Vermont and serves as an assistant professor at Norwich University.

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13 thoughts on “Sean Prentiss–On Genre, On Form, On Limitations and False Borders: Offering Creative Writing New Boundaries

  1. Entertaining. Communciated surprisingly clear given the subject matter. And like Julia, I see poetry as “real” and until this post, I never saw it otherwise. Thanks.

  2. Reblogged this on The Dynamic Literacy Project and commented:
    Sometimes, breaking out of the traditional mold is the beginning of mastery, and absolutely essential to passionate artistry. Fascinating article. Thank you. This is about fluent writing. Expression. Weaving creative tapestries. Art. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Pingback: Mapping the Psyche: A Conversation Between Jessica Hendry Nelson & Jill Talbot | Tin House

  4. I enjoyed that foray into the sprawling acreage of writing, its shapes and truths. The revised genres you propose sound pretty darned good. But I always think of truth as first and last a subjective outcome of observance or experience and suspect we all do. Don’t we all variously call “the truth” our personal belief, confuse it with what we were told or what we felt, inhabit it like a maze, deny it, redesign it as we please, call it a lie made of prejudice, define it according to mood or gender or race or age? I always consider truth an internal architecture for the writer, something that holds the whole creative piece together, that is meaningful and made of whatever works best and keeps the working heart and intellectual force of the story (or going until the end. It’s all story, too. It’s just how we are moved to make and name it. And it is all truth-telling of some kind for a writer and a thoughtful reader.

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