Brain Babies: Pigeonholes


Ken MacGregor


The word “pigeonhole” was originally coined, obviously, to describe the small recess for a domestic pigeon to nest in. It was also used to describe a small cubby, open at the front, into which messages could be left for people. The final definition is to force a person into a specific category, frequently a restrictive one, from which they have a very hard time escaping.

Actors get pigeonholed all the time: typically, this is called “typecasting,” and some in the field never get past it. Writers, too, get pigeonholed. There’s a reason for this. Readers have expectations. If you read a book about Bob and the Space Laser Circus, you’re going to expect whoever wrote it to write other books about Bob, or about Space Lasers, or about some wild, science fiction-y Circus. Because that’s this author’s brand.

I dislike this word, brand. It sounds painful. Like I was standing in a field, minding my own business, maybe chewing some cud, when all of a sudden, the reading public walked up to me and pushed a hot iron into my flank that said, “Horror Writer.” Ow.

Don’t get me wrong: I write horror. In fact, I write mostly horror. Because I enjoy it. Same reason I read mostly horror. But, I read outside my genre, and I write outside it too. I just released a story collection—my third. It’s all of my animal stories. Turns out, I have quite a few. Now, some are, in fact, horror. Most are, really. However, some are fantasy. Some more mainstream. There are children’s stories in there. A poem. An editor I know asked me how that works, mixing all the different aspects together. I said, “Well, they all have the same theme, and I think it works.” The point, though, is that readers might be confused if they come across a book with multiple genres and styles. The point is that they’d rather pigeonhole me.

I won’t be pigeonholed. I think that, maybe, since I came to this thing late in life, with no formal training to speak of (three-time high school dropout with about a year of college, and only glanced against literature and creative writing while there), that I don’t know how to follow the rules. I understand the rules of writing: I’ve read book after book after book on it. I get grammar, and I can edit (your work far more easily than my own, but I’m getting better at the latter). I know how publishing works far, far better than I used to. But I’m an outsider to writing. I have weird ideas. And, maybe most importantly, I believe in myself enough to try things that others might not, simply because I don’t know they won’t work. And some of them do.

I have a project I’m working on: it’s kind of a graphic novel, or maybe a picture book for all ages. It’s kind of dark but uplifting. It’s kind of heavy but also sweet. It utterly defies classification. I wrote the text. I hired an artist to help me design it. I’m working with a second artist to put it together. No one, as far as I know, has ever done something like this, so publishers and agents mostly just shake their heads at it, and say things like, “I like it, but I wouldn’t know how to market it. Best of luck.” I found a publisher who might take a chance. We’ll see how it goes. I believe in the book, though. I think it’ll sell, if only we can get it made.

I continue to champion these weird little ideas, and many of them are now in print. Some do very well at book sale events. I just keep plugging along, trying to make interesting things for people to read, and have no idea if I’m gaining a following or if I’m constantly losing them because they don’t know which little cubby to stuff me in.

I want to encourage other writers out there to experiment with this. Go out and try something new. You may not sell it. I mean, you may, and that would be awesome. But, even if you don’t sell it, you’ll have stretched yourself in a new direction. You will have engaged a part of your creative process you never have before. This is a huge win. It’s like running up and down hills when all you’ve ever done is the treadmill.

I’d also like to encourage other readers (of course, I’m a reader too!) to try to keep an open mind regarding genre. Just because you know a writer for their Bob and the Space Laser Circus stories, doesn’t mean they can’t write some paranormal romance, or a book of angry haiku. Creative people move in all kinds of oddball directions. Before writing, I was an actor. Then, for about five years, I did sketch comedy. My entire life, I’ve always craved a creative outlet, and it’s a shifting, nebulous thing that continues to evolve. I love that. I hope it never stops.

Pigeonholes are small, cramped spaces with a limited view of the world. We need more room than that. We need worlds, universes, alternate dimensions. We need to spread our wings and soar above the city streets, seeking the weird and the wonderful. We need to eat discarded fries and shit on statues. We need to take metaphors too far.

So, if you see that a favorite writer of yours is branching out into other genres, maybe give that new thing a read. Expand your own horizons a little. Join them for that ten-mile run. It’d do you some good to get off the treadmill too, I think.

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