A couple weeks ago Oscar Hokeah blogged about a feeling he had that there was a story that he had to write, that only he could write. I drafted my immediate reaction to this, but found I was writing two different thought processes and both were overlong for a comment. (Besides, I wanted to come back later, to get some distance, and comments seem best if done as a quick response.) So here is one of my thoughts on this question.
A story that only you can tell. That could be true in two ways. Could be a story that only you know. Could be a story that only you can write. Either or both could be true.
If you were alone, the only human present, then only you know the story.
If other people were present but you alone were aware of a salient aspect of the story, only you know the story that covers that aspect.
If you welcome a story from your imagination, only you know the story.
However, some other people have similar stories, maybe a lot of people. Maybe tons of people. So what really counts is that you are a writer. Not a court reporter, nor a stenographer. Furthermore, for YOUR story, you are THE writer.
If you or I wrote a story about long line fishermen who go out to the Grand Banks and die in a storm, neither of us would write A Perfect Storm. Each of us would create a different cast of characters, even if only difference in nuance. Only Sebastian Junger could write the story he wrote.
If you or I wrote about Navajo Tribal Police officers, we wouldn’t write the same stories as Tony Hillerman. Not if we were true to our own voices. Not even if we consciously copied; we could only imitate.
You can write any story and it is your story. Only you will write your stories. You might start with someone else’s life or experience, or just an idea. Once you begin writing, the story is yours. You are expressing your life experience and your craft as a writer, using that wonderful, strange engine of creativity, your subconscious.
Any story becomes a different story in another writer’s hands. “Write what you know” means write what your subconscious knows. Did Mark Twain know riding a raft down the Mississippi with a black man escaping slavery? His subconscious did. Did Ray Bradbury know life on Mars? His subconscious did. Your subconscious knows a lot of things that don’t show up in your external reality. It’s all realized in your subconscious, and you can take us readers along for the ride.
Write the story. Write your story.