Writers need to experiment with forms, styles and genres to find their niche.
Writers need to focus on one form, style or genre to gain the necessary 10,000 hours of experience to become masters of their chosen form of writing.
These conflicting things are both true and unfortunate in beng true, as they can work against each other. How can you tell that one kind of writing is your niche if you haven’t ruled out other forms of writing? How do you know you don’t have a poet living inside your creative non-fiction body? How long do you spend experimenting with other forms of writing to make sure they are not your niche?
I can only offer you my story as a first-hand example of this conundrum.
I knew writing would figure into my life from the time I was ten years old, but I didn’t know how, partly because I was ten years old.
At my little school in Boston, our teachers encouraged us to write stories. We barely knew grammar, but we were spinning tales from our imaginations. I could use any words I wanted, write about any people I wanted, I could make anything happen at all, limited only by my imagination. The Gifted and Talented writers program at my junior high took me in and encouraged me. At that point, I might have been on a path to pursue writing as a career.
Hold your applause
But then in high school I joined the drama club and discovered that people applaud for actors, whereas nobody applauds for writers. I chased potential applause into Boston University’s acting program.
Halfway through BU’s acting track, students are encouraged to make a tough call on their career trajectory, a choice between focusing on building the skills and experiences necessary to become a professional actor, or figuring out how to serve the world of theater in some other way, in design or directing or stage managing or playwriting. It’s a choice between a high-risk profession and slightly lower-risk professions.
I chose the high risk track. I don’t regret the decision, but I’ve long regretted a missed opportunity I had at BU to take a playwriting class taught by the late and incredible Jon Lipsky. At the time, I was focused on trying to be an actor, so devoting spare energy to playwriting seemed counter-productive. As the years progressed, my friends and peers who took that class went on to tremendous success: Chris Nee developed the animated show ‘Doc McStuffins’. Abraham Higginbotham created the TV show ‘Modern Family’. Krista Vernoff has been writing ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ forever. I had been greatness-adjacent.
Alas, those were my drinking buddies. They would have been my writing classmates and mentors, if only I’d decided to take that class.
Lost in possibilities
Years later, having given up acting, I hacked away at short stories and what I called ‘novels’ but which were really just ‘more typed pages than usual under one title’. I studied writers of every sort, trying to figure out who to emulate. Did I want to develop my own private investigator like Robert B. Parker did? Did I want to write funny essays like David Sedaris? Did I want to write poems like Billy Collins? Did I want to write for a TV show? Did I want to write jokes for Letterman? (This was thirty years ago.)
The problem was, I wanted to do all of it. Consequently, I focused on none of it.
When in doubt, go to grad school
I found my way into NYU’s Creative Writing program, for grad school. At last, I thought, I’d be on the fast track to figuring out what kind of writing I’d devote my life to.
Not quite: I wrote and critiqued more short stories than I had in my entire life. Then when I graduated, my agent told me that publishers would only take short story collections after selling a novel. A novel? I didn’t have a novel.
I did two things to change this: 1) I married a woman with a full time job that supplied us health insurance, and 2) I wrote a novel.
Then I wrote another novel. And another. Each took about two years to write, but only forty-five days to be rejected by every publisher who looked at it. I came close with Harper Collins on one of them, assured by the man who ran Harper Collins that they were having multiple readers read it and then — nothing. It would be the closest I’d ever come to having a novel published.
After the fourth try, I decided that life was too short to write something for two years only to have it rejected for five weeks/forever. No more blank Word docs, I decided. No more notes. No more outlines. No more novels. No more writing. Only a book-deal-less depression.
Occasionally I’d think, maybe I should try writing porn. Use a pen name, churn out some erotic lit, make a fortune. Then I’d realize that I could never write porn because I wouldn’t be able to take it seriously. Why is the lead character always a writer, readers would ask. How could so many women be turned on by a guy in a café with a laptop? And why doesn’t he use normal porn words? What the heck is a ‘treasure forest’?
The opposite of porn
And then, in 2011, I discovered the career that required me to write and perform: wedding officiating. Advanced wedding officiating: I studied at the Celebrant Foundation and Institute to become a Celebrant, training in writing ceremonies for couples from all different religious and cultural backgrounds. I discovered that ceremonies could be both touching and hilarious. In fact, it turned out that nobody, not a single wedding guest in the history of wedding guests expected a ceremony to be performed by a classically trained actor with good comedic timing. I thrived. I set myself apart.
I collected so many good experiences with weddings, both at gorgeous venues and on TV shows, I got up the courage to float the idea of a book proposal about officiating weddings. The proposal got picked up and, years after I first thought I’d be a novelist, I had a book deal. Was I happy? Let me put it this way: days after I got the good news, my wife was still scraping me off the ceiling with a spatula.
The book went on to amass me the complete opposite of a fortune.
But the main thing I remember from the experience was the sound of pride in my wife’s voice — pride not because I’d gotten a book deal, but that despite years of rejection and struggle, I’d never given up and I’d ‘tried everything.’
I’d tried everything.
I looked back and thought, yeah, I did. Poems and non-fiction and greeting cards. Humor and drama and romance. Short stories and novels. Satire and blogging. I dipped my toes in many pools.
When Covid shut down most weddings, I used my spare time to write again, to experiment and sample other literary forms. I took a Billy Collins Master Class. I recently started my third class with The Second City Training Center, writing satire. I’d still love to write for Colbert or Fallon or Oliver, or whomever the next great humorist might be.
Writing is a fun outlet for the imagination, a way to regain power, a way to work through problems, to understand your world and re-shape it. Expressions abound regarding the life of the writer, the essence of writing, the romance of writing. Writers buy whole books of quotes about writing and leave them scattered about their offices. Book Love is on my desk right now.
You only live once
So what of the conundrum about experimenting with forms and committing to one? It’s a solid conundrum, and every writer will ping-pong between these efforts, between curiosities and passions.
My theory is this: once you turn off the television and put down your phone, you can find time to do both.
If you want to write, don’t worry that your niche is not yet apparent; keep going, try everything, and one day, this range of experimenting and experience will pay off in some unforeseeable way.
And your treasure forest will fill with the life-giving currents of a magic stream.