Tania Hershman on Hybrid Writing: “Leave the Labelling Up to Others”

By Dylan Brethour

Tania Hershman is an acclaimed poet and short story writer who’s known for breaking the boundaries of form. Her first hybrid book, and what if we were all allowed to disappear was recently published by Guillemot Press. She tells the Word Factory about how to experiment with your writing and why there really are no rules.

What is hybrid writing?

Hybrid writing is, by its nature, writing that doesn’t want you to say what it is. It hops across genre boundaries, slips out from under labels, you think it’s one thing, and then perhaps it’s another. It can be a collision of existing genres, say, or its own thing entirely.

What are the boxes and boundaries that writers get caught up in (and why)?

I know myself from twenty years of writing short stories, and then moving into poetry and other forms, how it can weigh heavy on a writer, especially one trying something new, what a short story or a poem ‘should’ be. I’d become much freer in my ideas of what a short story could be, but when I began writing poems, I immediately discovered a new Inner Critic in my head saying, ‘don’t be silly, that’s not a poem. You’re a fraud. You’re just chopping the lines up.’ It took years til I could say, ‘well, it’s a poem if I say it is.’

I’d had the odd experience more than once of reviews of my flash fiction collections saying that if I’d called the tiny pieces ‘poems’ they would have liked them more. This got me wondering about the whole business of putting things in boxes, and I started moving out of them, giving myself, first of all, the freedom in my writing to do whatever I wanted. And to leave the labelling up to others.

How can writers take a freer approach to form?

The best way, always, to give yourself permission to do anything is to read. Read everything and anything. Read things you think you’ll like and things you think you won’t. You might look for writing that is called ‘experimental’, ‘hybrid’, ‘cross-genre’, ‘multi-genre’, but a lot of it is going on without those labels. A good place to start is a wonderful book from American publishers Rose Metal Press, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres.

Do you give your own work any kind of labels before starting out?

Poems and prose come to me in different ways — poems come generally out loud, but not always, and I can feel where the line breaks might go. Prose comes to me when my fingers are moving, on a page or the computer. But everything is up for grabs after a first draft.

If a piece is accepted for publication, I generally let the magazine put any labels on if they need to. To me, they are words in shapes. I’m not concerned about the rest of it all! The publishing world is still very attached to categories and genres, though. If you don’t know where to send something — send it as a ‘poem’ and as a ‘short story’ and see what happens!

How do you approach structure when you’re combining different forms of writing?

I’m never worried about structure, in my own writing or in other people’s. There really are no rules, that’s my philosophy, it’s whatever serves the story you want to tell. A story might look like a traditional piece of prose writing, with dialogue in speech marks, paragraph breaks etc… Or it might be in the guise of a list, a recipe, a play script, an epitaph, a diary entry…. Each writer finds what works for them. Try something, then try something else.

One of my flash stories, Under the Tree, took years to write (and got shorter and shorter over time) and it was only when I read someone else’s story — on a completely different subject and told completely differently — that was written in sections, each with their own subtitle, did something fall into place. A story will find its shape.

What are some of your favourite pieces of hybrid writing?

Some of my favourite hybrid books are Bluets by Maggie Nelson, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and The Most of It by Mary Ruefle, all of which are variously labelled ‘poetry’, ‘lyric essay’, ‘non-fiction’. For a few favourite individual pieces, DIAGRAM journal is a wonderful place to look — here are a few.