Don’t Be Afraid to Switch Genres by Zack Rogow

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Denise Alicea

This blog was created by Denise in September 2008 to blog about writing, book reviews, and technology. Slowly, but surely this blog expanded to what it has become now, a central for book reviews of all kinds interviews, contests, and of course promotional venue for authors, etc

Don’t Be Afraid to Switch Genres 

I don’t know what possessed me to write a memoir about a person I never really knew. That was a particularly odd choice because I’d never even attempted a memoir. But that’s exactly what I did in my newly released book, Hugging My Father’s Ghost, from Spuyten Duyvil Publishing (2024). Maybe it was the Covid lockdown, which affected writers in opposite ways. It either forced authors to hunker down and concentrate on a project in a way they never had before, or it distracted writers in ways they’d never imagined. Strictly by luck, I fell into the first group. 


What did I concentrate on, to keep my mind off the headlines? Well, my dear sister had for more than half a century kept in her basement the papers of our dad, the writer Lee Rogow. Not many people had seen those documents since our father passed away in a tragic airplane crash in 1955, when I was three years old. Those papers featured Lee Rogow’s short stories and articles published in many of the leading magazines of his time, including The New Yorker, Esquire, and Redbook. What intrigued me even more were his unpublished writings that had never seen the light of day. Those writings that revealed family secrets that neither I nor my sister had known or understood. 


When I went through my dad’s writings, I realized I had lots of juicy material, but I was new to nonfiction. I had no pattern for how to piece all those patches together into a quilt. I had written mostly poetry books. I’d also scripted plays, including Colette Uncensored, about the amazing life of another writer, the French author Colette. So, how to make a memoir from a confused jumble of my father’s published and unpublished short stories, journals, and vignettes; as well as family photos, interviews, and writings about my dad by other people? 


It occurred to me that everything I had learned from years of writing poetry and theater could contribute to a nonfiction book. Even though poetry is radically different from memoir, much of what I’d written as a poet involved retelling family stories. I’d also learned from writing poetry how to compress and simplify complex material to construct the crux of an incident. And poetry taught me to paint a picture with words in a way that could hold a reader’s attention. 


From my writing for the theater, I’d learned something about how to create dialogue and scenes. To my surprise, while I was looking over my dad’s work, his voice started to appear in my head. I gave that voice space to express its very individual opinions and emotions with its personal diction, and I responded to my imagined dad. Those imaginary conversations then entered the memoir. 


Theater also taught me that episodes in a long story need to have a unifying arc to twine them together, and to create a lasting impression on an audience or readers. It wasn’t so easy to find the arc in my father’s story, though. He had a relatively short life with a fate that wasn’t tied to his personal choices. Not only that, the poet in me wasn’t used to stepping back from the fine print of language to take the panoramic view. It wasn’t until a writer friend suggested I add to the memoir some of my own story that I started to see connections in our family history. In generation after generation, there was the legacy of the immigrant experience. All our family members have struggled to be part of and contribute to North American culture in our own way, despite the pressures of assimilation. That became the memoir’s unifying theme. 


My own experience in writing the book Hugging My Father’s Ghost has taught me that switching genres is not as scary as I thought. All literary genres have in common a thirst to engage the reader in story, both on an emotional and a visual level. Using what I’d learned from poetry and writing theater scripts opened up the memoir in a way that was unexpected for me. Bringing in techniques from those other genres also gave me opportunities to play with the nonfiction form in creative ways. 


I would urge writers from other genres who are thinking about a creative nonfiction project to give it a try. Don’t feel you have to leave behind all the skills you’ve accumulated in your work so far. Fold them all into your literary suitcase, and take them with you on the trip. I promise, you’ll wear all of them. 


Zack Rogow is the award-winning author, editor, or translator of more than twenty books and works for the theater. His memoir, Hugging My Father’s Ghost, was released in 2024 by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing. Zack’s play Colette Uncensored, had its first staged reading at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and ran in London, Indonesia, Catalonia, San Francisco, and Portland. His blog, Advice for Writers, features more than 275 posts. Zack’s literary translations from French include works by the authors Colette, George Sand, André Breton, and Marcel Pagnol.

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