Musicians and singers who don't read music can still learn to play. The key is developing an ear for a piece, and studying what happens when you change a note, a chord or the tempo. The same is true for writing. One great way to improve your writing is to read with these three aims in mind: Read your work aloud, read it with breaks in different places, and read it with varied emphasis. Notice how the implied meanings change when you change these elements.
Among the holiday commercials one impressed me — one for diamond rings. Neil Lane, jeweler to the stars, said, "Setting is where the diamond lives." I guess I'm not completely sucked into holiday commercialism because the first thing that struck me, well, the second thing after the gorgeous diamond, was how Lane's observation related to story — that a story's setting is where it lives. I recently did a post on the movie The Descendants, based on the debut novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and was thinking that although the story could have been set anywhere, Hawaii was the perfect spot. In this case, Hemmings grew up there, so from that perspective it was a natural choice. But the setting worked well for another key reason — the variability of the scenery and climate, which the director used with dexterity to match the mood of each scene.
To put this writing principle into practice, select a scene from a story you're working on that includes your main character and has a comparatively common setting, like a doctor's office or café. To see how a different setting could enhance the scene, consider an aspect of your character that you want to convey, a hobby, for example, or an avocation. These say a lot about who a person is when she's not "on display." Revise the scene using the new setting. How does the rewrite change the original?
If you're looking for a great visual lesson on how to blend genres — particularly creative nonfiction and memoir — see The Descendants, a film based on the debut novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings and directed by Alexander Payne, starring George Clooney. Hemmings' Hawaiian upbringing and experience, along with her Sarah Lawrence education, underpin the story. The work blends several plotlines — the apparently unraveling personal life of main character Matt King, played by Clooney, and the impending sale of a vast chunk of legacy land owned by King's extensive haole family. What's particularly instructive about the movie is the seamless blending of the storylines, which presents a good approach to cross-genre work — assigning one plot line per genre.