The Intimate Kinship of Genres

David Radavich

David Radavich

During this period of hyper-consciousness about genres and subgenres, bookstores, Amazon, and agents encourage us to think of “boxes” into which our writing can be put for purposes of marketing. Not surprisingly, we pay close attention to relatively small distinctions between intersecting forms of literature. What makes for a young adult novel—a teenage protagonist?  How do we place a prose poem, or the lyrics to a song?

But the classic genres—poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction—in fact bleed into each other relentlessly. In fact, I would argue that they not only borrow ruthlessly from each other but also contain each other. These genres all belong to the same family, the art of literature, and their differences are more due to mind-set and arena than to fundamental distinctions.

Take drama, for instance. It can be written in poetry or prose, but there is always a story. And that story bears a striking resemblance to most fiction, apart from the mechanics of enactment on stage. And as master analyst of theatre Sam Smiley has pointed out, even the most prose-driven plays ascend to poetry at the climax: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman moves into a new lyric dimension near the end.

Fiction, of course, contains the central elements of drama—plot, characterization, setting, thought, and conflict—even as it occurs on the page and in readers’ minds rather than under the proscenium arch. Like drama, fiction also incorporates a good deal of non-fictional elements, the classic instance being Moby Dick’s disquisitions on whales. But novels also include elements central to poetry—imagery, metaphor, rhythm, refrain—on a regular basis, to heighten awareness and increase impact.

Poetry is thought to be the “quiet,” interior genre most intimately tied to music.  But many poems tell stories of various lengths, even in particular stanzas, while narrative verse is commonly written and read. Every poem enacts tension between the speaker, the subject, onlookers, and the reader in an elaborate linguistic and semantic dance. Poems include perpetrators, spectators, conflicts, and most build to a climax as mini-dramas of thought and emotion.  Shakespeare’s sonnets include the speaker, the beloved (male and female), friends, the rival poet, each by turn scorned, castigated, pled with, or embraced. Lots of drama!

Incorporating narrative, drama, and at its best poetry, non-fiction hovers throughout as our basic source of information about weather, geography, flora, history, religion, and politics. In thinking about writing, it might help us to become more aware of the sibling genres to the one have chosen so that we can enrich and magnify our impact. Sacrifice and renewal, love and alienation, oppression and justice—deep human struggles appear in all genres, wearing our many faces of experience.


LEARN WITH DAVID: David Radavich leads “Dramatizing Your Poetry,” which considers the oft-ignored theatrical elements in poetry and examines a range of poems that demonstrate both the loud and the quiet conflicts inherent in poems. Thursday, October 22, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT DAVID: David Radavich is a poet, playwright, and essayist who has published companion epic narratives, America Bound (2007) and America Abroad (2019), along with six lyric collections, most recently Middle-East Mezze (2011) and The Countries We Live In (2014). If the pandemic passes, Cervena Barva Press will publish his new book, Here’s Plenty. Radavich’s more than 25 plays have been performed across the U.S., including six Off-Off-Broadway, and in Europe.  He has served as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, Charlotte Writers’ Club, and North Carolina Poetry Society, and currently administers the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.

Making Conscious Choices

In my Introduction to Fiction Writing class, I tell undergraduates that if they learn nothing else in our time together, I’d like them to absorb the idea that creative writing is about making choices. That means selecting everything from plot to characters to setting to POV to theme.

It doesn’t mean picking and choosing at random, although—as writer Lillian Li pointed out in a craft article for Glimmer Train—small choices like a character’s name or eye color might be arbitrary. Bigger decisions, affecting a character’s identity or culture, must be thought out.

This is especially important when a writer doesn’t have the same cultural experiences as the characters they write about—a more and more frequent occurrence. Most of us consider “write what (or who) you know” pretty limiting advice, and we want to include a broad cast in our writing. We want to be free to express our creativity.

Examining your intent doesn’t curb your creative powers, though; it can deepen them. Try asking yourself probing questions such as: As a white writer, why did I include this Black character in my story? What purpose does this gay character serve in a plot that centers on a straight couple? As an able-bodied person, can I tell the story of someone with a disability with depth, not pity?

When writers forget to examine the “why” behind these decisions—their intentions—mistakes often follow and the writing rings false. Now, “mistake” is an unforgiving term: “an action that is wrong,” according to one definition. Like most writers, I can get hung up on being “wrong.” If I give that enough space, it hovers over my writing desk and makes me feel like a failure.

In contrast, my wife recently pointed out that “error” comes from the Latin for “to wander,” and the idea intrigued me. When I think about wandering, I see myself getting lost and fumbling, maybe finding my way for a while but probably getting lost again. Next time, I’ll consult Google Maps or stop and ask for directions. The process sounds less final, less condemning.

To bring this metaphor home: If we as writers spent more time examining our intentions upfront, that could lead us to taking better paths, making conscious choices that humanize and flesh out all our characters, not just the ones who most resemble us. Our writing will still contain errors, that’s a given; but what we learn along the way may lead to stronger, more complex work.


STUDY CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT WITH PAULA: Paula Martinac leads the four-week studio “Creating Characters That Reflect Our World” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace experience in writing fiction or nonfiction that includes characters different from you in race, gender, sexuality, or other ways. Begins Sunday, October 18More info

ABOUT PAULA: Paula Martinac has published five novels and a book of short stories. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches fiction writing at UNC Charlotte.

The Schrödinger’s Cat of Writing: “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the most the famous, or infamous, instruction for writers. This reputation is deserved, as the phrase manages to be both absolutely right and dead wrong at the same time. It’s a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, and knowing whether the rule is dead or alive, in a manner of speaking, can significantly boost your writing.

Let’s first define our terms. To show is to render the action live on the page; when you show, the reader can see it happening right now. To tell is to summarize what happened, or to describe something that can’t be seen, such as thoughts.

On a sentence level, the cat lives: “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental truth. Rather than telling your reader “she was happy,” show her walking sprightly down the street, whistling, greeting passersby who look at her strangely. Have her call out, “Isn’t the day glorious?”

On a scene level, the cat’s dead: we must use both showing (here, known as being in immediate scene) and telling (also known as exposition). Here’s why: we don’t read just to see what happens; we read to see how characters experience what happens. That experience is both external—action you can see on the page—and internal—the world of the mind.

The balance of showing and telling on the scene level varies by genre—for instance, literary fiction and memoir will have more exposition than thrillers and mysteries. This balance will also vary widely inside a single book, because this is how writers control pacing. Showing moves the story forward in real time. Exposition (telling) is time travel: it lets us skip over the dull bits (car rides, baths, staring out of windows), flash back to an earlier time, or stop time entirely so that we can sit and listen to a character think.

This is easy to see for yourself. Open a novel or memoir and read a passage. Use a pencil to underline any exposition, while leaving the immediate scene plain. See how it goes back and forth? Repeat with another scene or two. Now, read those scenes and pay attention to the pacing. Note that the better it’s done, the less you notice it.

So: remember Schrödinger when you write, and know which “show, don’t tell” cat you’re playing with. On a sentence level, the cat purrs when you show action and emotion instead of telling. On a scene level, let the cat go: mix the showing and telling and step through your story at a pace you control—elegantly, maybe even invisibly to the reader, on ghost cat feet.


STUDY SCENES WITH PAUL: Paul Reali leads the four-week “Scene Studio” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace deep dive into what makes scenes work in novels, short stories, and memoirs. Begins Sunday, October 18, 2020More info

ABOUT PAUL: Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit, is the co-author of Creativity Rising: Creative Thinking and Creative Problem Solving in the 21st Century. In addition, his work has been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, Lawyers Weekly, and others. His fiction has been awarded first place in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018. Paul has an M.S. in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, where he is the managing editor of ICSC Press.

Devil’s in the Details

Megan RichI find myself with a little extra time lately to notice things I don’t want to notice, like the dust on the bookshelves or that mole that I’m convinced has gotten bigger, hasn’t it? Details are what make life rich, but can also reveal so much about where a person (or character) is emotionally, mentally, and physically. The details that ring most true in writing are the ones we don’t notice at first in real life, the ones that emerge only when we have extra time and space to really look, listen, smell, and touch.

Looking back over scenes that fall flat, I notice more than not that the devil’s in the details: I haven’t successfully described a character’s facial expression (what would happen to the corners of her mouth?); I’ve revealed too much of an emotional truth but not enough of what we’d actually see there if we were standing alongside them; or I’ve attempted to set a scene with a few sweeping statements about the landscape, the weather, or the town gone dilapidated, but it’s all too abstract and grand to give a clear sense of the actual place, the concrete details that, when taken together, remind us of places we’ve been and known.

Each of these problems needs a different part of my brain to fix them: if I have underwritten, it is the right brain, that gardener that can sit so present for hours to admire the flowers; if it’s overwritten, it’s the patient, gloved hand of my left brain that will reveal the splendors again by pulling out the weeds. Both are a special kind of work; both are worthy of our admiration; and both are the work we put in as writers to revise a piece to its fruition.

It’s often these details—the ones that have fought their way through, draft-by-draft!—that bring our readers into our world. In fact, it brings the reader into their world, too. The harder we work to find the perfect concrete images for our scenes, the more the real world can shine again, too, in relation.

In times like this, when we’re cooped up in the same places, running like a record through our days, we’re primed to find the details that we might normally miss. Just the ones that make our writing feel true.


ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.


STUDY WITH MEGAN: Meg leads the new studio, The Art of Detail for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Bring on the Drama, Mama!

Ashley MemoryI don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. For example, suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back to her. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back in the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama exponentially. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her family by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank has just repossessed her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer builds sympathy for Mary by watching her react to events that might have crushed the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her reacting by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the great thing about adding more tension to our story is that it makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!


ABOUT ASHLEY: Through a little intuition but mostly blind luck, Ashley Memory has twice won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination for her fiction. But it wasn’t until she delved deeply into the short stories she’d admired for years that she unlocked their winning formula. Using the techniques described in this class, Ashley wrote a story that won 1st Place in the 2019 Starving Writer’s Contest and appeared in County Lines: A Literary Journal. Through the years, her short stories and flashes have appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Cairn, Women on Writing, Carolina Woman, and numerous anthologies.


STUDY WITH ASHLEY: Ashley Memory leads the new Short Story Studio, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions.  More information is here.

Show and Tell

Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.


One of the great lies of writing instruction is “show don’t tell.” The truth is, you’ll need both. Here’s a quick primer, and an activity to help you to understand and use showing and telling.

Showing is a catchier way of saying “in scene.” When we write in immediate scene, the action is happening on the page. If you’re writing dialogue, you’re in scene. If you want the reader to experience the moment, write in scene.

Telling is another way of saying “summary.” When we write in summary, we’re explaining. You will write in summary when you need to speed up time or to describe events or give information that doesn’t have to happen in real time. A good hint: when there is unnatural dialogue—two characters telling each other things they already know for the reader’s benefit (“Well, brother, I know we’ve been estranged since Dad died and Mom ran off with the church organist…”)—that’s a good sign it should have been told in summary.

It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. This can be true even in a single paragraph, where some of what happens is live and some is summarized.

Here’s your prompt for the week, adapted from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, which is used as the textbook in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.

  1. Think about something you witnessed in the past week or month. You could be a bystander or involved in the event.
  2. Take 15 minutes to write a pure narration (telling) version of the event.
  3. Take another 15 minutes and re-write the event using only immediate scene (showing).
  4. Write a version that combines the parts that are best shown and those that are best told.

Pacing in a Poem

Paula Martinacby Tina Barr

One element that I often share with students, when we workshop poems, is the movement or pacing of a poem. The poem’s imagistic, linguistic or narrative thrust must convey the reader through the poem. The poem might center on a small drama, and this is fine. Think of a haiku. But the poem’s length has to be congruent with the level of drama.

In Robert Frost’s famous poem, when a boy loses his hand to a saw, just before he stops work, the poem is rich with microcosmic and macrocosmic context, so the poem is longer, and narrative. Sometimes the “meat” or the “juicy” part of a poem does not actually occur until later in the draft, often because as the writer begins, he or she doesn’t reach “lift-off” or the real central metaphor, dramatic upswing, or the language doesn’t become really compelling until a certain point in the draft. Often this is because the writer is gearing up before her or his unconscious begins to drive the poem. And it’s the unconscious that really comes up with compelling imaginative ideas.

There is a balance between the way the reader moves through the poem and the “pay-off” for the reader. The reader must be kept engaged by the poem, and the poem needs to offer or give an experience to the reader, whether purely linguistic, centered in imagery, or in a dramatic moment or series of moments, or a story.

My students are often confused about what I mean by pacing, but I mean the poem can’t meander on for 3 pages unless those 3 pages pack some kind of punch. That is why, and this is interesting to me, in a contest in which I was a finalist recently, the editors advised that out of the 1200 or so entries, they were sending 15 or 20 finalists to the judge, but they were very specific in their submission policy about advising writers to avoid sending in entries that went over a page, in general. They were referring to the difficulty of sustaining that energy, and poetry, because it is, in general, about compression and condensed language, works best, often, on one page!


ABOUT TINA: Tina Barr’s books include “Green Target,” winner of the Barrow Street Press Book Prize and the Brockman-Campbell Award for the best book of poems published by a North Carolinian in 2018, Kaleidoscope (Iris Press)She teaches in the Great Smokies Creative Writing Program at UNC Asheville.


LEARN WITH TINA: Tina Barr leads the Charlotte Lit class, “Folk Wisdom: Proverbs as Prompts for Creating Narrative, Memoir, Poem,” Saturday, April 4, 1-3:30 p.m. More information is here.

Lingering in the Language of the Soul

Jaime Pollard-Smith

Jaime Pollard-Smith

In a couple of weeks, I will begin a new semester with a fresh group of unsuspecting students. After reviewing the syllabus, I will open the course by suggesting a shift in perspective and proposing a revision to their role as writers. Writing to think becomes our motto, and I explain that we rarely know what we are trying to say until we have said it. I will encourage them to read as writers and write as readers, as well as push them to always show before they tell. We will work to cultivate an intuitive process of waking up and listening to our own voice, which is a tall order in our present media-crazed culture. Yet, much to their dismay, the first assignment in my freshman composition class is to examine and create a piece of personal poetry.

Joy Harjo, our U.S. Poet Laureate, once defined poetry as soul language or soul talk. Poetry is often considered “high-brow” or reserved for an exclusive club, yet Harjo’s perspective appeals to the universal humanizing role it plays. It appears in our songs and oral traditions; we hear it in our laughter and through our tears. Expanding our definition of poetry can liberate us to explore our inner selves. Robert Frost solidifies this noble endeavor by explaining that “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

When we truly read as writers and write as readers, we learn to listen in a specific way. We can tap into the feelings and hear the whisper behind the story. As Dorothy Allison explains, don’t tell me the grass is green; tell me how the green grass makes you feel. There are emotions attached to places, events, smells, sights, sounds, everything, and a poetic lens reminds us to pause and pay attention.

Learning to incorporate poetry into our prose can be one pathway to allowing our soul to speak through our written word. Poetry need not contain rhyme or rigid patterns, but it can come in a concentrated, more fluid form infusing our storytelling with the feelings we hope to convey. This process nudges us in the direction of the ultimate embodiment of show, not tell.

A new decade offers us the perfect chance to reflect upon our own creative process. Can we provide more space for playful, poetic, non-structured exploration in our writing? Is it possible to deepen our prose by tuning our ear to poetry? When we create spaces for “soul talk” we foster authentic kinships with our readers and tap into feelings lingering beneath the surface of our words.

Writing Prompt: What do they do when…

Occasionally we’ll post the writing prompt from our free weekly Pen to Paper session. Today’s prompt comes from Megan Rich.


To describe characters more richly, consider how their actions and reactions change under different circumstances. For a character you’re writing about, think about the character’s:

  • facial expressions
  • movements/gestures
  • things they say

When they are experiencing:

  • regret
  • nostalgia
  • conflict
  • injustice
  • anger
  • contentment
  • etc.

Use what you’ve discovered to write a scene with this character.

Staying in the Flow: Advice for Memoir Writers and Others

Gilda Morina Syverson will lead a workshop on memoir, “Traveling Home, Again:  Memoir’s Enlightening Path” at Charlotte Lit on Thursday, February 21st, from 6 to 9 p.m. Register


Only two years. That’s what I told myself when I first began to teach memoir writing at Queens University. I would do it for two years. My plan was to spend more time on my writing. But something happened. I not only fell in love with the process of writing my stories, but I fell in love with everyone else’s stories, too.

That was over 19 years ago. I am still in awe of what people discover when writing about themselves, their families, relatives, in some cases distant ancestors. We can write compelling stories by capturing flashes of memories, obsessions, dreams—night or day, an inspiring line from a poem or article and more. Then we take the thought or line, let it lead us as we write and write and write.

What I’ve told my students over the years is to capture the memory that comes to mind after giving them a prompt or reading them a poem. Do not think about editing, grammar, punctuation marks, and so on. Just write what flows! We’ll deal with crafting later.

I learned this process over thirty years ago when Natalie Goldberg wrote in her books about keeping that hand moving. NO THINKING ALLOWED. Not out loud! Although there is something valuable to learn about “Why not out loud?”

When a person says to me that he or she wants to write and starts telling me their story, I carefully, sometimes not so carefully, stop him or her and say, “Don’t tell me. Write it down.”

I’ve seen frustration on faces. Yes, they have a story to tell. But my intention is to get these people to their office, bedroom, back porch, or wherever they feel comfortable and put down that tale in written words. I imagine them saying to themselves, “I’ll show her. I’m telling that story anyway,” and then pen it in a journal, on a piece of paper, or type it into a Word document.

Ah-ha! A start! It’s where all writers—beginner or advanced—return to again and again.

Even though memoir (and poetry) are my loves, keeping that hand moving is a starter for all genres. When I sit down to write something new, brand new, I let it spill out—a morning dream, a cousin who has revealed a family secret, relatives from Italy who appeared on my grandmother’s doorstep. I let the story lead me where it wants to go. While writing, if Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane appear on your shoulder (metaphorically, of course) and have something to say, do not swat those voices away.

When it is time for crafting, editing is a creative process all its own. Since I am drawn to the editing process as much as the initial discovery, when I go back into the story, that’s when I play with the language, add specific and descriptive details, dialogue if need be, cut, paste, develop scenes.

The structure and spine of the story will slowly evolve. I let it lead me remembering what Anne Lamott said years ago when visiting Charlotte, that she edits each chapter seven, eight, nine times. It is in this process, where I get honest with myself or bring my writing to one of my critique groups; I can count on them to be open with me.

After all these years, I am still in awe of the stories that have grown out of people’s lives, their families, the places they have come from. I hope to hear a bit of your story one day—written down, of course!


Gilda Morina Syverson is an award-winning author for the memoir, My Father’s Daughter: From Rome to Sicily, and two poetry collections, Facing the Dragon and In This Dream Everything Remains Inside. She is at work on her second memoir. Gilda has been teaching and coaching memoir writing for over 19 years and is also on the faculty for Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab. She has recently been featured on Charlotte Readers Podcast.