Beyond “What You Know”: Expanding Into New Genres

sage.gif By Sage Cohen

What would happen to your writing career if you expanded into other genres? In my 2008 column, I’ll be exploring how we can stretch our self-concept as writers, explore new possibilities for our writing and thereby increase our publication opportunities.

For years, I though of myself exclusively as a poet until one day a journal entry derailed into a more formal narrative piece and I thought, “Hey, maybe I’m an essayist, too.” Shortly thereafter, I started polishing, submitting and publishing essays.

Whereas poetry is largely an art of compression-taking an idea or an experience and distilling it to its essence–essay has been for me an art of expansion. Through its large, narrative canvas, I can tell a more in-depth story, exploring and commenting on personal and cultural themes explicitly rather than metaphorically.

The two genres dovetailed for me on a month-long writing retreat at Soapstone, where I wrote not only poetry but also several essays describing the experience of writing poetry in a solitary cabin in the woods. One of those essays, “Flow,” was recently published in the anthology Cup of Comfort for Writers (Adams Media 2008).

I think I was successful in placing this story, as well as others that have appeared in Oregon Literary Review, Absolute Write, Greater Good and Black Lamb because I brought to essay writing two key, transferable skills from my poetry career:

1. Microscopic attention to the look, feel, sound and rhythm of every single word in relationship to the words around it

2. A practice of sending out my work regularly. The rhythm of keeping an ear to the ground for publications that seem like a fit for my work, and then submitting, was as important as the rhythm of writing essays.

The good news about taking on a second genre is that all of the good habits developed when cultivating one’s original craft will most likely continue to be beneficial.

By embracing two writing paths, I doubled my publishing possibilities and exponentially increased the fun and variety of my writing. And, of course, I doubled my workload. Keeping up with my double life demands more rigor, structure, creativity and odd work hours; but the payoffs have been well worth it. Within two years, I published two dozen essays and was offered two assignments as monthly columnist for publications I respect.

Interestingly, it was not a poem, but rather my essay “Flow,” that enabled me to share my love of poetry and the writing life with a larger, more diverse audience than I’d ever imagined possible.
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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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4 Responses to “Beyond “What You Know”: Expanding Into New Genres”


  1. 1 writersgroupblog January 5, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    This is so true. I think as writers we sometimes believe that we have to limit ourselves in order to appeal to a market audience.

    Great post, I’m glad to have come across this blog.

  2. 2 DG January 8, 2008 at 2:36 am

    I have been browsing blogs to see what other writers are up to, and this one seems familiar. I write articles and essays for a living, and am a hobby poet, but am now thinking of giving in to the fiction bug in me. I am glad it worked out so very well for you, and hope to keep reading your blog for ideas and inspiration to take on new things!

  3. 3 Sage January 24, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks so much! Good luck to you both in pursuing your multiple genres!

  4. 4 jason mashak January 28, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    Excellent piece, Sagey. And you’re right… I did a full analysis a few weeks ago of my published works list, comparing it with total number and type of works submitted… and I was surprised to see my essays and/or what I call p(r)o(s)ems have a better acceptance rate.

    I would go so far as to extend your points into all creative realms… photography, music (yes, you know this, lil drummer gal), painting, etc., all provide cross-pollination and thus a more fertile field to stand on. (Forgive my faulty flora syllogism, but you know what I mean.) 😉


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