Why We Write What We Write

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I once thought of myself as a poet. I'm not sure now whether I thought this was a way into girls' hearts, or whether some stray muse had captured my heart. But as more than one poet has claimed, verse rarely strays from one of two subjects: love and death. So I moved on.

Short stories – alongside the various strains of journalism – are the traditional training grounds for fiction writers. But as a dear friend and mentor once told me, "I've found that fiction writers are either short story writers or novelists, and you aren't a natural short fiction writer." "Why's that?" I begged. "You try to cram too much into your stories," she said. "I think you're a novelist by temperament."

Okay. Let's say I agree; how does this happen to a writer; that is, how does one know one is a novelist, a short story artist, or a poet?

Temperament may be part of the answer. Certainly poets tend to be expressive, emotional people (I know, I know, I'm generalizing). Short story writers tend to be somewhat similar in temperament, and are similarly reflective, in that they're drawn to the microcosms of the life about them, homing in on moments, sharply drawn scenic experience, much as poets are, but in a looser, prosaic form.

But as I see it, here's the other factor of the tandem: the way you view the world. I.e., all writers are aware of the interconnectivity of all things in the world, but poets and short fiction writers trust in that reality enough to push it aside long enough to focus on the specific, the moment.

The novelist seems to be drawn to the "big picture" of life on the planet, but is perhaps a bit more insecure in his or her view of the connections between all things. The novelist loves complexity, uses it to draw disparate things and people together in order to test such connections.

How do you know your writerly bent? The only sure way seems to be to write. Be a poet. A short story writer. A novelist. Then let them be your mirror, allow them to speak back to you in their own native, literary language. Eventually you'll find yourself in one of them.

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