Esther by genre

Elphine, a character in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, spends her days dancing in fields, dressing in fanciful costumes and generally gadding about like a sprite of the woods. She also announces to the heroine, Flora Poste, that she writes poetry. Flora, being the wry Jazz Age society girl (and would-be author) that she is, discourages publicizing such a hobby, particularly to men. Myself, I prefer the opposite tack. If a fella can’t grok that I’m a writer and reader of weird things, we probably wouldn’t get along in the long term anyway.

My OKCupid profile announces near the top that I enjoy writing hard-to-categorize genre fiction. Last week, for the first time, someone sent me a message using that as his hook. How would I categorize my fiction, given the chance? I haven’t yet taken him up on the opportunity to explain in person, but I did start thinking about how I could break down my preferences in an easy-to-digest format.

This won’t be about steampunk or dystopias or paranormal romance. All I know for certain is that I consider myself a fantasy writer: it’s the broadest category that’s always made me happiest. My caveat is that I’m not generally invested in Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery: my definitive introductory fantasy text wasn’t Lord of the Rings, but Redwall, which took me in some different directions. (As a sidebar, I’m the heretic who adores Peter Jackson’s movies but is bored by the books, save for The Silmarillion, which many people find impenetrable.) I tend to think there’s an internal logic to my genres. Here are my top five.

1. Epics. Blame this on Homer. The bigger and meatier the story, the more I can get lost in the world, the more I love it. The experience of immersing myself in something else entirely is one of the reasons I read and write. Quest stories in particular are really delightful to me, and given that I wrote reams of Redwall and Odyssey spinoffs as a kid, it’s no surprise to me that I have a hard time assembling novels in which the protagonists stay put.

2. Myth, folk tales and fairy tales. There’s something so fascinating to me about authorless stories that everyone within a culture knows. I love how potently these stories become connective tissue within a society, and I’m always impressed by how the telling of these stories is such an important part of the story itself. These are narratives as an act of power, and they change so much in relation to who tells them. That dynamism never stops moving me; I always want to engage.

3. Magical realism. I loved this genre for a long time before I knew the term for it. I’ve always been attracted to the tone and atmosphere of a story where everything seems normal except for one particular thing, or where something becomes literalized — cities are people, books are alive, God is dead and needs to be towed out to sea. The scale of magical realist stories is something I also find inviting: it can be as far-reaching or as personal as you wish.

4. Literary derivations. Two of my ongoing projects are radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays — not just retellings from another perspective, but taking those characters and their lives and putting them somewhere entirely new. I’m also working on a version of the Odyssey actually set in space, with all the considerations for psychology and culture that a modern audience demands. I honestly think the value of reinterpreting texts and engaging with them through storytelling cannot be overstated, no matter what the text.

5. Pastiche. I recently finished a story told in the style and conventions of a Jane Austen novel, and it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long, long time. In the same sense that poetry with strict stylistic requirements gives poets a framework to break and play with, so too does taking on a voice decidedly not your own. The writing can just flow once you’ve figured out the style. It’s a neat way of combining elements of improv and collage, in that you’re operating within a character more than dictating it, and that you’re playing with juxtaposition and combination.

As I look these over, the pattern I notice is how much I’m into reframing and world-building. Perhaps these aren’t as immediately marketable as “werewolf novel” or “deconstructing superheroes” (both of which I love dearly, don’t get me wrong!), but I find I’m not really nervous about that. Like Elphine, I know what I like, and when the time comes, if I can spoil the ending of Cold Comfort Farm a little, I’m confident I can land a guy — or an agent, knock on wood! — who gets that.

Professional identity: Available in bulk

“Do you have a card?”

It was last Saturday, and it was the first time I’d ever been asked that question in earnest. I was at the Chicago Creative Expo, a day of workshops, vendors and networking in the Loop’s amazing Chicago Cultural Center. If you live in this city, you may also know that last Saturday was the St. Patrick’s Day parade. There were very nearly brawls, at least on my end (I don’t care how cool you are, drinking Busch Light on the Brown Line at 11 AM on a Saturday is not my idea of a good time). But once I made it through the throng of green, my grumpiness at waking up early on a Saturday disappeared entirely.

The booth guide said that more than 140 vendors took part in the event, which I more than believe. The energy of so many creative people, who take their creativity and passions in so many directions, all in one place, was thrilling. Not only did I get a gigantic bag of swag (by which I mean more brochures, leaflets and cards than I know what to do with), but I got to talk with dozens of amazing individuals and learn about the ways Chicago’s arts community lives, works and grows. (I’d love to highlight some of them here in the near future. Stay tuned.)

If I had been thinking ahead, I might have gone into this with more of an agenda. I might also have worn a nicer-looking outfit. But I just wanted to fact-find, and get on some mailings lists, so I came in jeans and a t-shirt and totally without a plan. “Hi!” I said, over and over again. “What do you do?” It’s a great opening line, and it started a lot of good conversations. But, occasionally, the topic turned back on me.

“Are you an artist?” the vendor would ask.

If the booth was about painting or dance or crafts, I would hem and haw. “I’m not a visual artist, but I’d love to learn more” was my go-to response. That was how I moved through most of the upper floors. On the ground floor, however, I found my people.

“Are you a writer?”

“Yes,” I said, and it felt really good.

“Are you published?”

“No,” I said, and that felt a little less good. “I’m working on some drafts. I want to be really proud of them first.” To a few, I mentioned Magpie & Whale, and that got a really pleasing spark of interest. Then came the question: Do you have a card?

It had never occurred to me to get a business card for my creative work. Never in a million years. However, I love collecting creative business cards. If I’m ever at, say, the Renegade Craft Fair or an art fair of any kind, I generally take home forty or fifty vendor cards to look up later online. If I order something on Etsy and the seller includes a card, I’m thrilled. I love them as little portable expressions of a person’s work.

What I realized was that, for all my talk about how I want to be a storyteller, how this is the real work I want to do with my life, in a way I wasn’t taking it seriously. Many a writing blogger, for instance, will talk about how much work and sheer elbow grease you need to accomplish when crafting or selling a book, to which I nod along and assume that comes later. But you know what, it turns out that’s not something that I only get to do when I’m a “real” writer, because I’m a real writer now. No more waiting to be anointed by a publisher: I’m a real writer now!

Still, holy cats, if I’m a real writer, doesn’t that mean I need a real business card? How much do I need to do? I could go for letterpress — people really like letterpress. Heck, this place has some options for $95 — a steal! Or maybe I could buy some stamps and make my own — people love that personal touch! Summer Pierre just got some great ones made, and as you can see in this post, Moo is highly addictive browsing. And yikes, maybe a business card is overkill — I’m a real writer now, but maybe a minicard is more suitable at this juncture. Maybe?

Hang on, says my voice of reason. Didn’t we just go over this? Yes, yes we did. Business cards are convenient ways to spread the word about one’s work, but the work is still the most important thing. I keep noting to myself that for all the ideas I get for the creative responses on this site, I’m still working on actually carrying them out. Consistency is what’s going to keep this venture going, as with any project or skill that needs practice.

So, no business cards just yet, even if they are really cool. But hey, the big red bag of swag is still full of treasure. And you’d better believe I got some ideas for neat promotions. I’m trying to stay focused and not get too ahead of myself.

Still, is it ever too early to dream? There’s a rhetorical question for the ages. “Do you have a card?” the vendor will say, and I’ll smile, and take one from a very nifty carrying case, and I’ll say, “Yes. Yes, I sure do.”