The value of our own stories We do not realise why our own stories are so important

Good stories are hard to come by, or at least this is what we’re brought up to believe. There’s only one Tolstoy, one Dickens, one Bronte right? If you can’t tell a classic that’ll be remembered for 1000 years than what’s the point of telling any story at all? We imagine these big-name authors of the past sitting in their quiet loft or ‘studio’ by candlelight, carefully penning each and every word, finding the right place at the right time for that comma, that full-stop or that exclamation point. Whilst I cannot speak for Tolstoy, Dickens or Bronte it’s clear to me that writing is about more than just the language or verse, it’s about more than hard work and endless hours of writing and re-writing – it’s about recognising that our own stories are important and interesting enough to tell.

I remember when I first started at my current workplace, I was tasked with telling those who were already working there about me and my life; it was called, “doing a ‘this is your life’.” It’s a great way to give some context to your colleagues about the skills you have and how you’ve become the person you’ve become. I remember struggling with the content of this talk I was supposed to give. I remember sitting back and saying, “this is hard because my life isn’t interesting.” I also remember telling them my story; essentially a chronological list of events that happened to me since I was born and I remember the feeling of surprise I got when I listened to their dialogue about those key events that told me my life was, in fact, interesting to other people.

Fast forward 18 months and I attended the recent “Postcard from Melbourne: Jens Lekman” event at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on Tuesday. I’ve been a big fan of Jens’ narrative-style song writing for years so it was great to get the opportunity to listen to him speak about his own inspiration and process for writing his songs. Amongst many of the insightful and interesting discussion points, one struck home more strongly than the others – he said, ‘we don’t realise why our own stories are so important.’ This little sentence has stuck with me and I couldn’t help but ruminate on this point all week. He’s right! Our own lives are interesting to everyone but ourselves.

Why is this? Why are we fascinated by the events that occur to someone else but not ourselves? Do they feel more serendipitous when something happens to someone who isn’t us? Is it because we don’t have the contextual view of every connection and circumstance in that person’s life to lead up to an interesting event? If every experience we have helps to shape who we are and how we think then our own stories should be the most important to us, not the least important. In fact, the only thing more important than having our own stories is being able to see the value in sharing them with other people.

Inspiration for creative writing (or any writing for that matter) is not some stroke of genius or a whimsical moment where a lightning bolt descends from the heavens and strikes the plot, characters and entire collection of words (in order) for War & Peace in to our heads. This inspiration comes from living life. Where you’re born, how you grew up, who your friends were, how early you lost your virginity, what you ate for breakfast that morning before you fell sick in the biggest exam of your life up to that point – there’s not a single person on earth who occupies the same space at the same time as anyone else which means that each and every individual *is* a unique story waiting to be told with a unique way of interpreting the world. That, for me, is really exciting!

My recent pursuits in search of creative writing inspiration has seen me ask myself the same questions over and over – “What am I going to write about? What are the elements of a great character? Is this one good enough? When will that magic moment hit where the words will just fall out of my fingers and on to the page?” I’ve read endless blog posts from inspiring authors, thought about joining a writer’s society and watched video after video of the theory and technical structure of great creative storytelling. Of course, this loop of unanswered questions leads to one inevitable conclusion – staring at a blank page pondering the potential of a great story, not writing one. I recognise in myself a seed of an idea buried in my brain somewhere because I consider myself a ‘creative’ person but alas, nothing comes. We fail to realise that each and every person we’ve ever met in the way that we’ve met them is inspiration available to us that’s unique only to ourselves and not to anyone else in the world. Family members, friends, pets, that annoying guy on the same train at the same time everyday who chews his chewing gum too loudly – they’re all potential characters and they’re all potential plots – we just need to put pen to paper. Easier said than done of course.

Many published authors have quoted that annoying phrase to anyone who is not a published author, “You should write what you know,” to which my usual response is, “Yes, all well and good, but I don’t know anything.” They don’t say “Write your own stories, write your life down on a piece of paper and show it to others. They’ll tell you what’s interesting, they’ll laugh at the bits you didn’t think were funny. They’ll even share their own similar (or completely unrelated) stories with you.” Writing what you know implies some sort of excellent knowledge in a subject – maths, history, language, science. But, it’s not about writing what you know; it’s about writing what has happened to you! Who have you met? What did they say? How did they say it? It’s about writing down that time you went backpacking in Eastern Europe and stumbled across a gentleman called Enzo who promised to take you to his villa in the country if you gave him your patent leather shoes you bought when you were in Milan … not completely true, but I make my point. Every story will be interesting to someone.

It’s common knowledge that Charles Dickens used key events in his own life to form the basis for a number of his stories. Tolstoy writes about his home in Russia, while Bronte writes about the tragedy in love. These authors of classics use the same inspiration as our modern day television writers. A recent Seinfeld documentary showed that almost every plot on all 9 seasons of shows came from a writer’s own experiences – adapting people, places and times and exaggerating circumstances is simply part of great storytelling. Yes, there really was a soup nazi, Kramer is a real person, the character of George Costanza is based on the executive producer and co-writer of the show, Larry David. What did they do when the writer’s on Seinfeld started to dry up on ideas? They simply got additional people in – people with their own stories! Jens could not have put it better, we just don’t realise why our own stories are so important because we often don’t take the time to tell them to anyone and get that second, third or fourth perspective.

In a time where the barriers to a large audience are inversely proportional to the ease of being able to share, we’re living in a time that Dickens, Bronte & Tolstoy would no doubt envy. No longer do we require ‘approval’ from the readership of a local paper (like Dickens) before we’re recognised as a ‘writer’.  We don’t have to sit in a local market square doing public readings in the hope that a passer-by may take a liking to our words or our voice. The only barrier that comes between a story and its audience in today’s internet-enabled society is the author’s ability to recognise the value in their own stories and to tell them. Your own stories may not seem interesting to you but let others be the judge of that.

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