Skip to content

Breaking Boundaries: The Relationship between Writer and Genre

by Willy Doehring, River co-editor

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.


Last week, I wrote about how reading across every genre can make your writing stronger. This week, I want to take an even deeper look at genre: specifically, I want to look at the relationship between genre and the writer (a.k.a., you!).

I recently had the privilege of attending this year’s AWP Conference (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in Tampa, Florida. Over the course of the conference, writers come together for various panels that discuss all aspects of writing and literature. A speaker at one such panel expressed the idea that genre was much less a facet of writing itself and instead a “marketing term.” At the core of this statement is the argument that the writer need not concern themselves with genre at all, but rather it is the job of the editors and publishers to decide which genre best labels a piece of writing to distribute it.

Genre is ingrained into the minds of just about any writer; oftentimes (especially in academic settings) we may write with the goal of producing a poem, or an essay, or a piece of short fiction. This may work for some writers, as everyone’s process is different, but I’ve found that trying to work within the confines of a genre can box a writer in. On the other hand, setting aside genre during the writing process allows for a more open exploration of whatever story or topic you’re tackling.

In the acknowledgements section of Hanif Abdurraqib’s recent book of essays The Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (an absolutely fantastic book that I can’t recommend enough), Abdurraqib writes:

“To the encouragement from the poet who writes the long poem and calls it an essay or writes the essay and breaks it into so many pieces that it becomes a poem!”

This struck me as a perfect example of separating genre from the writing itself; Abdurraqib labels himself a poet but still shows a willingness to let each piece of writing take on the form that best suits it.

Inherently, genre not only defines what different kinds of writing look like but also defines what those kinds of writing do not look like. Fiction usually does not play with white space the way that poetry does; poetry usually doesn’t exist in a paragraph format. Nonfiction doesn’t cross into the realm of the fantastical, and fiction never quite reaches into our reality. As writers, we are all students of our craft; what we read, be it on our own time or in an academic setting, teaches us the possibilities and the limits of what writing can be.

By taking on the mindset of Abdurraqib and writers like him, the boundaries that we are taught through studying genre begin to fall away. Suddenly it doesn’t matter so much what poetry looks like in our minds, or whether reality collides with fantasy. Long poems are labeled essays, essays break apart and are labeled poems. These labels help us as readers understand how to define these works, but the writer’s words don’t change if we change the label.

This isn’t to say that genre is inherently bad, or that you’re doing something wrong if you think in terms of genre while writing. As I’ve mentioned before, do what works for you! My goal is simply to make you a little more aware of the writer’s relationship to genre. Developing my own personal views on genre and how it affects my writing has made me more willing to experiment and let my writing take whatever shape it needs to take; if this blog can help inspire a little of that in a few of you, that’s enough for me!

Until next time, happy writing!

%d bloggers like this: