Why Genre is Holding You Back

By m.e. alonso

In college, I took a class on C. S. Lewis where we read practically everything: essays, letters, novels, apologetics, sermons, children’s books, sci-fi, fantasy. While the amount alone was impressive, what amazed me was the freedom and ease with which Lewis traversed genres. The man didn’t think twice about trotting into a different world of writing. Like little Lucy, Lewis passed easily from one to another.

Sermons and lectures expounded on the weight of glory. A sci-fi trilogy explored the idea of paradise not-lost. Epistles passed between demons. A children’s series presented rich theology simply. Lewis used whichever genre suited each piece best.

He used genre as a stage, as a tool, as fodder to his budding theories. Like Diggory and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew, he jumped from pool to pool exploring just what he could see and do in each. He was never confined to just one.

He was a writer, plain and simple, no adjective, no specification. Rather than ascribe to a genre, Lewis developed his own “presence of mind,” his own doctrine of thought. My favorite quote about Lewis comes from his friend Owen Barfield: “There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is ‘presence of mind.’ If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.”

By developing, exploring, feeding his own ideas through study, conversation, and meditation, Lewis was able to build a foundation for his voice which could then speak into any genre presented him. He became a writer of thought rather than a writer of a specific genre. If you read everything of his, you will find repeated again and again the same themes and ideas: that glory is indescribable, that pretending leads to becoming, that reality is but a shadow of the world to come. You can find them in his apologetics, his letters, in Narnia. His ideas flow through his creations as the lifeblood that makes them his. Each piece throbs with the unmistakable personage of Lewis. As a result, scholars and laymen alike discuss not so much how Lewis wrote, but what Lewis had to say.

Since that class, I’ve been challenged to rethink my own philosophy of writing. Am I too close minded? I try not to be, but I often think, I’m a non-fiction writer. I write non-fiction. It’s my natural habitat; it’s what I’m good at, what comes easily to me. I’m sure most of you can relate. I know who I am, you think. I’m a _________ writer. I write _________. But now I think we’re all guilty of selling ourselves short.

It’s like we’re saying, “I’m an American. I live in America,” and so never travel anywhere else. Instead, Lewis models saying, “I’m a human being. I live on Earth,” thereby granting us the liberty to travel from country to country. Sure, we might be better at being American, might be more comfortable, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t let what we learn elsewhere affect what kind of Americans we are. The point, ironically, is freedom.

As Americans, we know that achieving freedom is easier said than done and often involves internal conflict. As writers, genre gives us a place to live and work in safety. It’s that go-to place where we know we belong, we know we can speak in confidence. It’s the niche we fit, the thing we’re good at. It’s sure, familiar. But we writers are bigger than our happy-place sweet-spots. We writers are able to survive the adventure of traveling.

This is my desire: first, let us be writers, plain and simple.

Then let us also be adventurers, writers with pens like passports, ready to go where the river of thought leads. Let us be curious and bold. Let us embrace fully the call on our hearts to speak truth and beauty, refusing to let fear of the unknown hold us back.

Let us be gracious leaders of our ideas, giving them the liberty to grow as they may, taking us to genres we never considered. Let us take the unknown as a challenge to grow our skills. Let us remember to play in the new worlds we discover, remembering that not everything has to be perfect or shared. Let us remember the joy that is writing without map or destination.

It’s time to tap into not what makes your writing a certain genre, but what makes your writing yours. What are you breathing, what are you bleeding into it? It’s time to find that source and dive into its flow. Go deeper, go further, go somewhere new. Better writing lies beyond.