A story that only you can tell

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.




A wonderful Sanscrit word I got from Rev. Mas Kodani when we were both much younger. He defined it as “many words that say nothing.” He interpreted prapancha into English as “bullshit.”

I now interpret prapancha as any words at all, in the sense that we cannot capture life in concepts or description, be they simple and crude or intricate and elegant. Even our most eloquent words serve only as pointers, as the finger pointing to the moon. My dog will only see my finger (unless I’m pointing to a gopher mound). A friend might see the tree in the garden and solve a koan I did not pose.

Who will see the sunlight reflected by the dust on Earth’s rocky satellite and experience what I do? Perhaps only me. Yet we have a conversation, tossing words and gestures to each other from our separate bodies. We make a community.


I am most creative when I trust myself, my inner resources, what I really want to manifest. Giving myself permission to express myself freely, to go where my characters and stories go and grow as they will. I set structure and expectations as milestones while staying open minded and ready to change directions.

At times I have found creativity an elusive resource. Of course it is in myself (for me) and in you (for you), but we often lose touch with ourselves. My favorite treatise on creativity – specifically about writing, but applying also to other arts – is Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury. This 1990 compilation of Mr. Bradbury’s essays has a wonderful preface that I highly recommend.

Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity offers several prescriptions for clarifying, nurturing, and protecting your passion.

I got my favorite statement on writer’s block from Stephen J. Cannell at a Sisters in Crime meeting: “The only cause of writer’s block is a desire for perfection.” Mr. Cannell said perfection was not a consideration for him, since he had dyslexia. It shouldn’t be a consideration for any of us, except – perhaps – in spellchecking a final draft. (BTW, he pronounced his surname CAN-ul. I am grateful to him for the many entertaining TV series he created in his long successful career.)

I have found meditating, noodling around, doodling, and writing for the trash can all good methods of initiating movement in my work. Exercising my physical and emotional bodies also raises my energy level. I get my energy moving when I do stuff I love. I get a lot out of gardening, rock climbing, puzzles and games like chess and go, and running with my dog. What it really comes down to for me is figuring out what I have a burning desire to say.

Let me know what gets you going.