Writers on Writing #46: Tasha Cotter
My Journey in Genres: How Not to Burnout
Growing up, I was always writing. Somewhere along the way my heart settled on poetry and though I read widely, I wrote mostly poetry. Throughout my teenage years I kept annotated journals—I say annotated because I tended to write in these large artist’s sketchbooks and glue or tape things inside, so that I would have not only a written record of my days, but also a physical component, whether it be a picture of someone, something that caught my eye in the newspaper, a concert ticket, or a receipt. Maybe it was this early experience of blending the visual and the literary that has drawn me to several art forms over the years. Rather than defining myself as a poet, the term that best applies to me is writer. It’s a term so broad it captures the variety of work I do.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that a professor in my MFA program encouraged me to enroll in a course outside of poetry. For years I’d taken poetry workshops because that was where I was comfortable. Poetry was what I’d been told I was good at. As a student, I hadn’t realized I could be writing fiction. Sure, I’d dabbled in prose poetry, but wasn’t there a clearer divide? I had unconsciously defined myself along the way as a short-form writer, not a long-form writer. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could try something else.
I crossed into fiction very gradually, beginning with essays. I still remember the sheer thrill of writing a failed novel back in 2010—it went off the rails somewhere around page fifty, and that failure sent me into heavy research mode: how did I go wrong? What sort of planning is necessary to complete a novel, not just shoebox-bound partial manuscripts for the rest of my life? I checked out any sort of fiction writing manual I could get, though I gravitated toward Anne Lamott, James Wood, and Cathy Yardley’s work. They all had something to teach me: how to write a synopsis, how to outline a book, how to keep a book moving over the course of 70,000 words, and, most importantly, for the poet in me, how to pace yourself.
I studied the hell out of writing. I approached it like it was my job and dedicated large chunks of time to completing scenes and reading as much as I could. I was in the middle of getting an MFA at the time and my eyes were opened to contemporary fiction—a genre prohibited during my undergrad days which were focused on 20th century American lit, British poetry, and writing critical interpretations of serious works. And some of those books I loved, some were terrible to get through. Later on I devoured anything by Nick Hornby, Julianna Baggott, and Steve Almond.
What did finding my way to fiction do for my poetry? Fiction has made my poetry more narrative-driven and I tend to bring drama into my work and seek out poetry that walks a dangerous line. I like dark, experimental, surrealist works. I love the work of Arda Collins, Anna Journey, Ilya Kaminsky, Kara Candito, Zach Savich, and Matthew Zapruder. And of course, the narrative-driven part of me is always up for anything by Billy Collins or Tony Hoagland. I admire these writers because they open the door to their readers. They are the best of hosts—unpretentious, and always willing to offer you a moment of beauty gleaned from their own lives. They are generous in the way I want to be generous.
And as a poet, I brought an entirely new skill-set to the fiction-writing table. I tended to not mince words. If three words would do, why use ten? My fiction tends to move fast, cutting to the core of the action, and I don’t waste time on what doesn’t matter. Descriptions of scenery, details of a person’s appearance all tend to get cut, if they make it to the page at all. If my attention lags while I’m writing it, I’ll spare the reader.
All this said, I would encourage writers to learn about other genres. Working in a new art-form can create new enthusiasm and excitement around your old work, and it helps broaden your own market and reach. I love the wider audience that fiction brings. You may even discover, like me, that you enjoy writing in a new genre. I have often felt that fiction fulfills other instincts of mine. It wasn’t until I started writing fiction that I realized I had some stories in me that demanded attention. It was freeing not obsessing over concision and compression when I turned toward fiction. Having now spent time with short stories and nonfiction, as well as poetry, I feel like a well-rounded writer, capable of shifting between longer-form pieces of writing and short-form pieces. And that ability, that option to shift gears, has kept me writing and learning for many years, channeling and transmitting ideas, dreams, and stories in lots of satisfying ways.
Tasha's first full-length collection of poetry, Some Churches, will be released in December with Gold Wake Press. Find her online at www.tashacotter.com.