What I Wish I Wrote

July 13, 2016 § 11 Comments


Jealousy

And that’s how Becky with the good hair got started…

Yesterday, a writer I work with confessed her greatest fear–lack of originality. She felt she didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said. What could she offer that was new, different, worth reading?

I’ve felt that. The sharp stab when seeing an essay gone viral, or a book about an experience I’ve had, too. The feeling of that should be mine.

In The Millions, Kaulie Lewis writes about seeing other writers’ books and essays and wishing desperately that she’d written them:

…I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first…My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?

It’s not just us. Everyone (well, maybe not Jonathan Franzen) worries that what they want to write has already been done, probably better, by someone else.

It doesn’t matter.

There’s room for Wild and A Walk in the Woods. For Bird by Bird and On Writing and The Art of Memoir. For Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. What matters is not the subject, but what the writer brings to the table. It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the rarity of a specific expression of that idea. I went for a hike–why? I learned to write–how? My family won’t stop fighting so I can find love–guns or swords?

Lewis writes:

When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.”

But we do. No-one else can tell our particular, unique, specific story. It’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.

It’s up to each of us to discover not just the general appeal of our work (cancer memoir! lost a parent! recovery!) but the nature of the story that is so personal, so intimate, it can only be told by one person. Here is a topic that everyone cares about, and here is a new way to think about it.

We are seldom original. But we can always be rare.

Kaulie Lewis’ essay at The Millions is well worth reading, and mentions what to do when you feel like your piece has already been written.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her most recent essay, at Story Club, is generally about being really angry, but specifically includes a goat sacrifice.

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§ 11 Responses to What I Wish I Wrote

  • anneharrison says:

    I read somewhere (sic!) that there are only 7 stories, all told by the ancient Babylonians. As you say, it’s the twist and interpretation which brings life to these old tales.

  • thuolilian says:

    We mostly repeat what has already been said but our originality stands out by using our own words. We might have same message but put it differently. This does not mean that we are weak or someone else but shows human beings are one in needs and pressed by same issues.

  • consumeristminds says:

    I’ve been staring at my computer for an hour now just trying to think of something to write that hasn’t been written before. Very nice article – I wish I wrote it 🙂

  • Jan Priddy says:

    I always appreciate your posts. Thank you for this one too.

  • herheadache says:

    Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    I know these feelings extremely well.

  • dennyho says:

    Happy I fell upon your post today. Very true, we all have personal stories with perhaps similar ‘themes’ but it is in the telling that will set us all apart. And this is where the hard work lies. I needed this today!

  • […] via What I Wish I Wrote — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Yep, know about those stabs. More some days than others. But today your thoughts will create a barrier. Thanks.
    Linda Stallman Gibson

  • […] every artist, there is room to tell the same story, again and again, only […]

  • Great post. Very important topic. I agree that this is about self-confidence, not jealousy. I am a fan of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” She talks about the tendency of creative people to are “frustrated artists” to hang out with or hang near other (successful) artists. It’s true that creative works, even if similar to works already published or presented, are specific to the individual. We all bring our own voice to a project. In fact, we typically bring our own lives to our writing projects. But what if someone figures out what or who we wrote about? Especially family. I’ve learned from reading books about writing that most writers don’t have a writing problem. They have a “telling” problem.

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