Bad Advice Wednesday: Genre Jump!

categories: Cocktail Hour


The poet Mike White visited our house on Christmas Day.  The only thing is I’m not sure if he’s “the poet Mike White” anymore.  He now has a forthcoming book of nonfiction that contains, among other things, memoir and art criticism, and is at work on a novel.  So maybe “the writer Mike White” is better.

Today’s post-Christmas bad advice is simple: be like Mike.  Genre jump, shake it up.  Write in a new form and you might just get new results.  The truth is I’m still too bloated from Turkey to say much more than that.  But as evidence to back up my point I’ll post the first few paragraphs of a short story that appeared in the November-December issue of Orion magazine.  It is fiction by the nonfiction writer David Gessner: 


       On the first morning of the last week of Kenneth Brant’s life he woke to the mewling of a catbird. Not the most melodic of requiems, but then he wasn’t planning on this being his last Tuesday on earth. He liked that little gray bird despite, or maybe because of, its gregariousness. Catbirds got close fast. Annoying in people—less so in birds. He eased himself out of bed and opened the back door to see what the racket was. His vision was weak, but the bird, unmistakable. It wore a skull cap slightly darker than the rest of its feathers and was standing on the corner of the deck, chittering and yapping as if desperately needing to impart a message to Brant. But Brant, curious despite the early hour and his eighty-six years, couldn’t quite decipher what was being communicated.

     “Peace, friend,” he said. “It can’t be all that important.”

     As if acknowledging him, the bird dipped in a slight bow.

      It quickly crossed Brant’s mind that in earlier years this morning serenade might have sent him rushing to his desk, uncovering everything he could find about Dumetella carolinensis. He would have gotten a poem out of it, or at least a few lines. But by now he had lived next to this bird and its predecessors long enough to know almost everything he needed to about its habits, and the only creative urge that pressed on him at the moment was the desire to make water. He shuffled to the deck’s edge and described a weak arc out into the briars and woods that surrounded the house.

       He didn’t sleep much anymore. It couldn’t have been much past five but solstice was fast approaching and the morning woods were already lit up and active: well over fifty acres that curled around the kettle pond, and drama on every foot. It had been one of the great events of his life, the purchasing of this place, and despite his best efforts to cultivate something like humility, he often gazed out at the woods with a proprietarial pride. Why not? He’d bought the land dirt cheap—twenty dollars an acre in 1948. Later, people would flock here and gobble up the seaside property. But the locals knew about the winter wind and said it was best to get some trees between you and the ocean. He listened. The man who sold it to him called the land worthless. Just a month ago he had been offered $100,000 per acre.

     “This land could make you rich,” the slick young developer had said.

       Brant had resisted the urge to tell the boy it already had, knowing it would sound like he was playing at the wise man. No need to be Polonius. Still, it was the curmudgeon’s prerogative to sneer at the ringing of the boy’s cellphone, worn on the hip like a gunslinger. There were times now when thought became word before he could stop himself, and he couldn’t remember if he’d actually muttered “Goddamn phones” when it rang. He hoped he hadn’t. Saltiness was one thing, but to turn himself into a caricature was another. He remembered the old men up on his grandfather’s farm in Maine grumbling about the way the world had changed and those new infernal machines called automobiles. He would try to better edit what escaped his lips.



  1. Vasilios writes:

    Better being a curmudgeon than what my generation is. I keep looking for “Like” buttons under everything I friggin’ read or view.

    Loved it, though!

  2. Tommy writes:

    Wow, this is fantastic. But what’s 5 million bucks (the developer’s offer) to someone who’s 88? Better to leave it all to the Nature Conservancy. Of course they’d sell it, pocket the 5 mil, and purchase conservation easements on 6000 acres in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Definitely want to read more – this may just drive me back to the library!

  3. Jeff writes:

    Nice teaser, especially since I’m at a lodge in central rural Michigan, a couple of hours drive from a Barnes and Noble… 🙂

    • Bill writes:

      We will send a magazine on the Bill and Dave’s private jet. If no landing strip, an air drop. That is all.