Last Wednesday, Brain Pickings had an article on Neil Gaiman’s advice for aspiring writers. One resonates with me:
Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.
There’s a perspective inside you that’s special, and we want to hear about it. You don’t think you have any special ideas? I’ll bet your best friend and your spouse would disagree. Out of all the hundreds of people they’ve met in their lives, they picked you to be the person they care about the most. Why is that?
The story that you tell and the way that you care about it is unique. Every story in human history has already been told. The way it’s been told, the author’s unique perspective and their insight into, is what’s changed.
When I was still in college, I started working on a fantasy novel. I worked on it for three years. One day I finally admitted that I didn’t like the story. I liked the characters well enough. The hero was cool, his girlfriend was a spitfire, the villain was awfully evil, but the trappings of the story – the wizards, elves, and dragons – read like every other novel I’d ever read. I didn’t care. I realized that if 22 year-old me, sitting in a creaky apartment on a beautiful day in a building that my mother thought should be condemned, had invented wizards, they wouldn’t be old, and they wouldn’t have pointy hats.
I wrote a scene about a wizard who was sweating and barefoot. He had short hair and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. For him, working spells had his mind burn like a flexing muscle. There was nothing epic about him. He was standing in the patch of a back yard behind his cottage in the woods, talking to his younger sister about the dragon he saw while hunting. The dragon was muddy brown, about the size of a bear. It didn’t breathe fire, but it did roar as it flew over him. She was amazed. He thought it was cute that his sister got such a kick out of it. I loved his relationship with his sister, and the sweat.
Ask yourself: what’s magical to me? What scares the hell out of me? What would be a cool super power, if I had to invent them? If nothing’s coming, maybe you’re looking at where you think you should, or where you think is popular. What means something to you? Maybe not even the biggest thing; what’s on your mind today?
Here’s why your perspective matters: even though it’s different from mine, we can all relate to it. Even people who don’t like what you wrote can relate to it. The chance to walk in someone else’s shoes appeals to everybody. If you put Queen Elizabeth alone in a room with six stilettos, she might not try them on, but she would think about it.
An acting coach once told our class that we are all the prince, the queen, the pauper, the slave, the priest, the whore, the madman, and the sage. Everything that any of us feels is a mixture of four basic emotions: mad, sad, glad, and fear. I don’t know what it’s like to be brain surgeon, but I know what it’s like to solve an intricate problem where I have to keep my cool, when it feels like everything hangs by a thread. I’ve never been a general in the army, but I’ve made decisions that hung around my neck for months. Both brain surgeons and army generals had their hearts broken when they were teenagers, and cried when their children were born. That said, they saw them through different eyes.
Your insight is precious.
I know what you’re thinking. You think your life is boring? Mine is, too. Show me how you cope. Think you’re too young? I remember how it felt to be young, or I think I do. Remind me what it’s like. Think life’s passed you by? I worry about that sometimes. Show me how you’re rekindling that fire, or how you’ve moved on. Don’t want to write about your own life? I try not to write about mine, too. Maybe it’d be fun to write something that happened to you, happening to someone else.
I’ll put my money where my mouth is: here’s my insight on bad ideas. Sometimes I think, it’s hard to write when I don’t have any good ideas. All that I have are the best that I’ve got right now. When I write about that, I think about digging a ditch in my back yard. I don’t want to dig a ditch. It’s back breaking, filthy work. But if you have to dig a ditch, you might as well put some music on, put your heart into it, and do a good job with it. I can dig a crappy ditch or I can dig a good one, where I say, “Yeah. That’s what I wanted to do,” when I’m done. Maybe your ditch story is wrapped around a son finding a way to bond with his estranged father. Or maybe a girl breaks open a shell and falls into another world.
The sooner you start writing with your own voice, the sooner you’ll start to feel comfortable with it. Then you’ll start to strengthen it. You’ll try new things. Keep what works. Throw away what doesn’t, at least for now.
Get started. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.