When I was in junior high, I joined the track team. Track and field offers a lot of events, so the coach had us try a little bit of everything so we could get a feel for what we might like.
I had played softball when I was younger and was a good hitter, so I gave the shot put a few big hurls. My throws weren’t too shabby, but I wasn’t interested in training for it, so I moved on to other options.
The coach thought I might be good at the 400, which is once around the track. By the time I completed the oval, I was struggling for breath. Sure, with practice I could get stronger and build endurance, but that felt like torture. Any other options?
No interest in the 800 (twice around the track? I could barely make it once!) or worse, the 1600 (a mile? Are you kidding me?).
I knocked the bar off every time I attempted the high jump—even when they set it at the lowest notch. Later, I tried to clear one hurdle, but it seemed impossible to clear one after another all the way down the track. Pass.
The long jump required some funky training to standardize strides for the approach. You have to hit a skinny wooden board without even the tip of the shoe going past. Step, step…boom. Launch for takeoff! I hurtled through the air hoping to land in the sand without falling backwards.
I did it. I exploded off that little board and hit the sand falling forward. That was fun. I signed up for that.
Next up: the 100-meter dash. I struggled to place my feet in the starting blocks, but once in motion, I was built for speed. I flew down the track. Same with the 200. The gun would go off, and I’d power around the curve and then down the straightaway to the finish line. I felt electrified. Alive. Yes, I was born to sprint. Well, I wasn’t good enough to compete at the college level, but for my rural high school I did pretty well.
Figure Out Your Favorite Type of Writing
Trying to figure out our favorite type of writing—the writing that makes us feel electrified and alive—can feel at first like experimenting with track and field events. You have to jog once around the track or pick up that shot put and give it a spin. With any luck, you’ll find one form or type of writing that just fits, as the 200-meter dash fit me.
With writing, you have to stick your hands on the keyboard and tap out the first paragraph of a narrative essay. You have to pull out a pen and paper and write the first line of a poem. You can’t know what kind of writing will fit you best or what will end up your favorite form until you learn about it and try it out.
Your first attempts may feel awkward at first, like leaping backwards over a high-jump bar. How do people do this? On your first few attempts at something new, your resulting efforts might not turn out as you hope or imagine—in fact, they probably won’t. It’ll feel like you’ve knocked off that bar and fallen to the mat in an awkward tangle of limbs.
But as you keep testing out writing forms and styles and genres to find what you enjoy—what feels right for you, what electrifies you—you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll see how others pull it off. You’ll study their technique and see if it will work for you.
Don’t let the fear of a messy, awkward first attempt at any form—from short stories to a profile piece—stop you from trying.
Try a Little Bit of Everything
You may be tempted to discount something thinking it’s too big, too complicated, or too foreign to you. You may feel like ignoring a type of writing. In my interview with Tania Runyan, she says she has no interest in writing a novel.
In college, I signed up for an introductory creative writing course. They focused on short story half the semester, then switched to poetry. I thought for sure I’d love fiction and hate poetry—or excel at fiction and fail at poetry.
From Fiction to Poetry
What a surprise when I tried my hand at a short story and struggled to make it work. With practice, I could have improved—kind of like the 400. I could have trained and might have been pretty good at it, but I wasn’t interested.
Just as I rejected the 400- and 1600-meter events in junior high, I never returned to the short story form after my first efforts in that college course. So, yes, you can refuse to continue or even try out a writing form or style. No one will judge you; no one will ever know.
But never say never. You might be surprised at how quickly you pick up on how to pull it off. You just need practice and experience to be functional or find that you excel. And you’ll only find out if you try it. At least once.
When we switched to poetry in that college course, the instructor introduced us to free verse. I took to it as naturally as running down that track full speed for the 100-meter dash. I mean, I had plenty to learn, but that form or type of writing fit.
I didn’t continue forcing attempts with short story after I discovered my love of poetry.
But I didn’t stick with poetry. Tania Runyan—who thinks of herself primarily as a poet—branched out as well. She currently writes web copy for a living.1
After college, I launched a freelance writing career and found that I liked writing informative pieces. I wrote feature stories for our local newspaper and submitted work to several magazines. Years later, I contributed content to online publications.
Somewhere along the line, someone suggested I write a book, but I wasn’t sure I could handle writing long form. I knew I was capable of sustaining an idea and organizing material for pieces up to, say, 4,000 words. I struggled to stay organized and sustain interest and focus, but I had done it.
But a book? How many words is that? When someone told me a good length for a trade nonfiction book would be around 55,000 words, I said no way. Too long. Too complicated. That sounds like signing me up for an ultra-marathon. I was a sprinter, not a distance runner.
Then again, years earlier I had learned to measure the distance from that wooden long jump board to the spot where my approach should begin. I’d paced my strides so I could explode at takeoff and nail the landing. Maybe I could do the same with a book? Maybe I could work my way back from that overwhelming word count goal? Maybe I could break it down and spread it out?
Once I divided 55,000 words into 13 or 14 chapters of 4,000 words each, I realized I was capable of writing 13 or 14 “articles.” So I wrote a book. Then another. And another.
My point is that you can try lots of writing and see what you think. If you don’t know how to tackle it, read plenty of published work in the same style, form, or genre you’re going to try. You could also take a class, read a book about writing that form, and analyze a writer you admire to see how they pulled it off.
Discover Your Vein of Gold
You may be comfortable and content where you are, writing what you’re writing. You see no need to branch out. You’ve found your vein of gold, your sweet spot, your wheelhouse. Why mess with that?
Here’s a reason why: you may discover a type of writing you never knew you’d love. Another reason? You’ll become more versatile, capable of pivoting as the industry shifts. A third: you may have more fun as you experiment.
The other day I said to someone, “If you think of Meryl Streep, what kind of character does she really shine at playing?” I was remembering films like Sophie’s Choice, Kramer vs. Kramer, Silkwood: her heavy, haunting roles, sometimes played with an accent.
The person blurted out: “Comedy! Oh, Meryl Streep is so funny!”
Comedy? They were probably thinking of The Devil Wears Prada, Mama Mia, and Julie and Julia. Meryl Streep has played such a variety of roles, she’s made herself a versatile actress capable of making us laugh, gasp, and cry. She could have stuck with sad and serious roles, but she didn’t. Good thing she stretched herself and discovered new possibilities and new strengths.
I’ll bet she had fun as she experimented.
The way to discover your favorite type of writing is to try writing new projects, new forms, new genres, new styles. Why not branch out, have a little fun, and see what you think?
The Best Package to Deliver Your Message
This will pay off when you realize that some messages, themes, and topics are better suited for a particular form. For one reason or another, a topic you thought you’d write as a memoir works better as a prescriptive nonfiction book, or a poem needs the space of a novel.
You may be more comfortable with prose but realize poetry would best convey a challenging or painful topic. Images, metaphor, or rhythm allows you to tell it slant.
Or distribution may drive your decision. You want to package an important theme on, say, injustice, as a poem, but you realize you’ll reach more people if you write it as an op-ed.
In “A Conversation with Diane Ackerman,” found in Lee Gutkind’s book Creative Nonfiction, Ackerman says this:
A poem is so small a canvas on which to work, so compressed a form, that you’re somehow reduced to taking contingency samples. You have to somehow capture the gesture or mood and that puts an enormous amount of pressure on every word, every space, every half-rhyme that you use. I love that. I would much rather do that than anything else in my life. Then…I’ll wake up one morning and I’ll realize that there’s something that I need to do that requires more elbow room and suddenly, I find myself working in prose. I don’t think the goals are any different, and very often, the language isn’t any different.2
So even though you might love a form or genre or approach, you need to figure out the best package and the best delivery for your theme or topic. And this might mean that you write in a style that isn’t your sweet spot—that isn’t your vein of gold—because you’ve realized a particular form is the best fit.
Like Diane Ackerman, you’ll wake up and find that your poem needs more “elbow room” and you’re suddenly “working in prose.” The goals and language connected with your project aren’t that different; it’s just that the ideal form for your message wasn’t your first choice.
But if you keep writing to discover your favorite genre, you’ll gain skills along the way. You’ll increase your experience and skill set. You’ll build confidence. You’ll become a solid writer equipped to pull off a variety of types of writing.
What’s a new form for you? A new style? A new genre? This week, try something new. You don’t have to show anyone your first attempts. Just give it a go.
This week, write to discover your favorite type of writing.
- Ep 185: [Interview] Poet Tania Runyan
- Ep 180: Write to Discover – Start with Yourself
- Ep 181: Write to Discover the Courage You Need to Confront Your Fears
- Ep 182: Write to Discover Your Reason for Writing
- Ep 183: Write to Discover Your Top Themes & Topics
- Ep 137: What Do I Write Next – Experiment and Expand Your Repertoire
- Ep 136: What Do I Write Next – Enjoy Your Vein of Gold [This mentions Julia Cameron’s book The Vein of Gold and Meryl Streep]
- Ep 57: Go Ahead and Play to Your Strengths
You can subscribe to this podcast using your podcast player or find it through Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify.
- “Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach” podcast, episode 185, an interview with poet Tania Runyan.
- “A Conversation with Diane Ackerman,” by Kathleen Veslany, on page 160 of the book by Lee Gutkind, Creative Nonfiction: How to Live It and Write It. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 1996. Print.