How Many Writers Are You?

For a long time, it’s been clear to me that I want to write whatever is available. I enjoy journalism, enjoy interviewing people, and the constant learning that comes of keeping up with a challenging technology beat. At the same time, I enjoy the freewheeling invention of fiction, and the ability to run thought experiments that come alive. I’ve also experimented with many other forms — poetry, blogging, microblogging, some dabbling in screenplays and graphic novels, and anything else that came to mind. My personal belief is that these types of writing feed each other. I know, for example, that what I’ve learned about revision (which I still hate doing) from nonfiction has helped my fiction writing a great deal.

When I am writing in every form that strikes my fancy, I feel virtuosic, and in love with my craft. But at some point, I came to feel this was a dirty little secret. A book I read in grad school, Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing includes a forward from one of my professors that sums up the idea:

Elise is the supreme nonfictionist; you won’t find that word in the dictionary, but I know she would approve. Many writers, unconsciously or not, subscribe to a hierarchy that makes fiction the goal to which any real writer aspires, nonfiction a sad second-best; bitterly they toil in nonfiction vineyards, dreaming of novels and stories they will write some day.

I remember reading this not long after I got to grad school, thinking that I was in trouble. I do dream of novels and short stories — and of articles and biographies — but there have been times that I felt it had to be one or the other. And, for the record, I think the foreword is pointing to a true phenomenon: so many people feel their writing “doesn’t count” because it’s not the right kind. This extends, I think, far beyond the line between fiction and nonfiction. Several months ago, I wrote about a tendency in some readers to feel that writers of science fiction should not “commit fantasy.”

For the most part, I don’t hide that I write all kinds of things. I bring my laptop to work at the magazine sometimes, and use my lunch break to write fiction on the laptop. But, as I like to write so many things, I have moments when I feel awkward. I was uncomfortable, for example, when a person leaving a comment on one of my stories for Technology Review referred to my speculative fiction. And I haven’t gotten up the courage to make all these things public. I have a finished erotica story written that I am quite proud of, but, every time I think about sending it out, I have a vision of some reader at my job’s website making references to it in the comments. I have similar reservations about some personal essays I’ve written about incidents in my life. Granted, I could use a pseudonym, but that gets to the crux of the matter.

Am I writing as one whole person? Do I want readers interested in my work to see that work as a single body, the way that I see it? Or am I writing as many writers? Should I split my writing into categories or genres? I don’t have a good answer to this. The erotica story is still in my drawer. When I started this blog, I deliberately put up links to both my fiction and nonfiction — probably the first time I’ve publicly united the two. I like seeing them beside each other. It’s easy to see that I am writing all the time when I look at the “my writing” page here.

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts on this. How do you handle writing for different purposes, or in different genres?

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