The most valuable thing you have to offer as a writer is yourself. Not in terms of ego. But in terms of sharing your knowledge, insights, perspectives, and experiences. While this is obviously true for memoir and some other nonfiction, it's essential for fiction. No matter how crazy and distant from facts your story is, if it is excellent, it contains truths that are expressed in unique ways.
Now, there's nothing wrong with writing stories that are not distinct to who you are. Everyone begins writing by imitating – consciously or unconsciously – the works of others. And it's okay to do work on assignment, to explore stories with prompts, to take on a high concept that isn't in your sweet spot, or otherwise see what will happen with an interesting idea. Developing your craft, playing around with notions that come your way, and paying bills are all valid activities. Even taking a folk story or an entertaining scenario and giving it an audience-pleasing twist has its place.
But, if you want to fulfill your vocation as a writer and, I suspect, give yourself the best chance of success, mining the value of who you are is the advice I'd give. The payoff for you and your audience will be details that could have come from no one else and a kind of deep resonance that only comes from authenticity. So let's look at the essential elements:
Have you heard of the idea of a platform? Deep knowledge is usually put down as one of the required items for people who write nonfiction, but it can be just as valuable for fiction writers. The expertise you have – through education or having lived in specific cultures, geographies, or organizations (such as military) – automatically adds interest to your work. I think this is obvious when what you know is unusual, say from having grown up in an Amish community. But don't underestimate your knowledge of what you might consider mundane.
Even something as common as being raised in the suburbs can become special -- even outré --
through careful observation. Look closely and find what others haven't. Sometimes this requires research, even when all the fact seem obvious. Keep at it until you have specifics that are n some way surprising.
Much of your knowledge comes from experiences, but experiences offer more than facts. Your life is filled with stories of learning. These come from looking for answers to questions, getting surprised by life, dealing with adversity, and finding ways to relate to people were different from you. Experiences arrive as half formed, even fully formed, stories, with the contextual information, sequence, and, for lack of a better word, rhythms that automatically provide something enhanced and worth sharing. The one caution on using experiences in storytelling is not to adhere too closely to what actually happened. Stories have their own realities that may be damaged by sticking to the facts.
The elements of your life, especially those that involve struggle and change, provide insights – those special flashes of wisdom and truth that come with deliberation and analysis. In fiction, these may be delivered to readers in a single line of dialogue or in the denouement that answers the story question. I think insights are among the most valuable assets of a storyteller, and they are often revealed to the writer in the telling. In fact, the theme of the story may not come into clear focus until a full draft is done, and sometimes even later.
I have some more thoughts on writing stories only you can tell in terms of sharing emotions (and emotional truth), focusing on what you care about, celebrating the individual, and selecting projects based on care, devotion, and meeting challenges. I'll cover those in future posts, but I end here with the idea of perspective.
Is all too easy to share conventional points of view. This is obvious when it comes to social issues, where the right answers or the opposing answers embedded in our cultures are familiar to us. Here's a hint: if it is familiar to all of us, it doesn't need to be shared.
Instead, look for the perspectives you have that are not same as others. Dare to imagine that these points of view, which you may worry about sharing because they are unconventional or don't seem to matter, are among your treasures. Brené Brown says, "We're afraid our truth isn't enough." Yet, if you think about writers (and mentors and teachers) who have mattered the most to you and why, chances are you'll find that it is their truths that make them stand out.
These truths shape our lives. These truths cause us to seek out specific authors and read everything they've written. These truths open up worlds. So, while it's okay to create stories that don't reach to the limits, see if you can discover your own truths and find ways to share them.