Having just sent off an oddball short story of mine to my writing group, I started thinking about the pros and cons of playing around with different sorts of writing. There seem to be two schools of thought on this: some writers tend to focus very narrowly on the medium they’ve chosen to master, while others like to experiment with different forms of writing and shift from one to another.
Nora Roberts, for example, just writes romances. Willa Cather primarily wrote shorts stories and novels; I don’t believe she tried her hand at poetry or plays once her career started to take shape. Shakespeare wrote glorious sonnets, of course, but his true focus was playwrighting. Dickens wrote the occasional play for family entertainments and some nonfiction, but he really saw himself as a novelist.
Hemingway, on the other hand, cast a broader net: throughout his writing career, he shifted among different forms: he was a journalist, he wrote poems, short stories, novels. Then there is one of my all-time favorite writers, Thornton Wilder: He was successful as both a novelist and a playwright and has the Pulitzers to prove it. He must have known something that Fitzgerald didn’t, because F. Scott struggled mightily to make it as a screenwriter in the go-go days of Hollywood, but he never mastered the form and flopped on that front.
I myself am all over the place: I have files filled with plays, poems, chunks of a memoir, songs for a musical, and more. You get the picture. I guess I belong to the Hemingway school: it seems to me that one of the ways you learn to write well and then get better is by playing around with lots of different forms. Does this lead to mastery or mediocrity? I’m not really sure. I’d love to know what you think. Write on!