Blurring Boundaries: Challenging Our Compulsion To Categorize Writing

Written by: Jess Gallagher

For as long as I can remember, I always felt the compulsion to fit my writing into neatly packed boxes, lined perfectly across the backdrop of white-washed pages. Genres terrified me. As a writer, I wanted to experiment with my work—to turn writing on its head, and not feel pressured to abide by guidelines that limited my creativity.

However, I always felt restricted when it came to creative writing. 

It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I started to come to terms with how I wanted to write versus what I felt I should write based on what made an objectively “good” piece. I’m not saying I’m a pro by any means; dare I say it, I wouldn’t call myself a writer just yet. Not because I don’t value my writing, but because I don’t yet know who I am as a writer. 

I think many writers know the feeling of wanting others to value their work. I always craved some semblance of validation or approval without realizing how much it impacted my pieces. I could write with all the elements of a “good” story. I knew all of them like the back of my hand. But what I didn’t know was what it truly meant to experiment with my writing. 

I was so afraid of rejection. It didn’t even cross my mind that to find yourself, it takes more than a few missteps and risks. I’m a big proponent of risky writing, and it’s something I saw in my peers’ work when I began to put myself out there a little more. I knew I was making progress when a friend said to me:

“Was this poetry?”

 “Wait, I think it’s non-fiction?”

 “Well, it’s not exactly nonfiction, but you could call it a collection of lyrical essays, since it’s poetic!”

Of course, it stung at first. It was a knee-jerk reaction. It’s always easier to shrink our identities as writers into neat categories. However, I encourage everyone to travel outside of their comfort zones. Don’t worry about what makes writing “good.” Not at first. Forget conciseness and brevity for now!

My best advice is to discover who you are before you start restricting yourself too much. 

Don’t worry about your writing fits into the world just yet. Worrying about whether my writing “fit” made me avoid expressing myself creatively for so long. It’s okay to be in the liminal space of discovering who you are. Take this time to play around with your writing by “genre-blurring.” Use poetic language and elements in your fiction pieces! Try to blur the lines between your own experiences and fiction to create some new pieces! You can even try using white space to your advantage in your short stories. 

In his essay “The Bigamists: Writers Crossing Genre,” Lee Upton gives this advice:

“An old argument exists that there is no sense in naming genres, given the permeability of language and given that genres are dependent on readers’ expectations and thus are in flux. Admittedly, some genres are more multiply implicated in other genres. Especially if you happen to be a novelist, you are already often a multi-genre worker.”

Even today, memoirs can read like novels; YA books can be poetry, and poetry tells stories. We don’t have to adhere to just one form of delivery. Writing, like people, should never be a monolith. We are a collection of vastly different experiences, identities, and emotions that shape who we are as individuals. To say that we fit into one category is to limit our potential and diminish ourselves. 

I think it’s about time we diversify our writing, regardless of who says it’s good enough or not. After all, we’re all coming into ourselves as we grow and discover new parts of identities. 

Shouldn’t our writing do the same?

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