How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

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Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Craft Book Recommendation: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

By Ruta Rimas

My first post features one of my personal favorite books about writing. Every month, I will recommend a craft book for our wonderful literary group, one that I’ve suggested over the years to various writers with whom I’ve worked on a professional basis. There’s a lot of shelf-space dedicated to the craft and I hope that by offering up books that I’ve found insightful, helpful, practical, and inspirational, they will help you become the writer that you’ve always wanted to be.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Lamott, a bestselling novelist and creative writing teacher, invites you to join her for a one-on-one creative writing workshop. She asks that you to put in some work. The point of writing is to write and Lamott shares useful ideas like using short assignments to jumpstart your process. She jokes about the inevitable — and important — shitty first drafts, all while providing encouraging tidbits like this gem: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

The chapters are short and digestible, filled with self-deprecation, writing exercises, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Lamott’s style of narration is relatable and unpretentious as she uses life-affirming and often hilarious anecdotes to relate the, ahem, pleasures of writing (it’s “like bathing a cat”) while also candidly sharing with us her struggles as a human, her failures as a writer, her compulsion to never stop writing. She’s honest and raw about her journey, sometimes sad, but also uplifting and always wry.

Lamott provides practical exercises and writing prompts about developing character, plot, setting, as well as observations on dialogue (“You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”). There’s mention of the importance of writing groups and beta-readers, as well as a brief note on publication. But this book isn’t about getting published, it’s about writing, and so not much time is spent on questions like “Do I really need an agent?” because that’s not the point of writing.

Lamott’s book is a good reminder to us all: Take it word by word, writers. Just take it word by word.