It’s hard to believe that one of the giants of children’s literature, Maurice Sendak author of Where the Wild Things Are, ever had doubts about his path as a writer. However I recently discovered in the wonderful book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom that Sendak feared his writing was “narrow” and that he was an “atom’s worth of talent” when compared to the likes of Tolstoy and Melville.
Ms. Nordstrom — herself a giant of children’s literature as the legendary editor for E.B. White and Shel Silverstein, as well as Sendak and many others — wrote back: “You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”
We each have our own unique way of telling stories. As much as I admire C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, I could never have created Narnia or Hogwarts. But certainly neither of them would have created the mythical America of my Clockwork Dark books. The Nine Pound Hammer and its sequels grew from my passions for Southern folklore, magical adventures, old-time country and blues music, and gunslinger Westerns. My novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky was the book only I could write because of my particular blend of interests in post-apocalyptic wildernesses, talking animals, Native American creation myth, and characters who grow to love one another despite the barriers of language and beliefs.
One of the most helpful exercises for discovering your own unique storytelling voice I learned from the writer Ray Bradbury. In an essay, he shared how at one point early in his career, he came up with a list of interesting sounding titles. The Ravine. The Town Clock. The Carnival. And so on. Years later, Bradbury came upon the forgotten list and was surprised to discover how many of his novels, such as Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine, corresponded to titles on those lists. He hadn’t done it intentionally. He hadn’t written the novels based off the lists of titles. His stories grew from his singular imagination. As Bradbury said, it was as if the list of titles had been “hidden under the trapdoor on the top of [his] skull.” They were ideas that captivated his imagination and were lurking about under that trapdoor just waiting for him to let them out.
Discover what captivates your imagination and turn those ideas into stories.
In writing workshops, I call these our Magnetic Nouns — the people, places, and things that we are drawn to uncontrollably like a magnet. I make lists of words that fascinate me. I look for ways to bring these provocative ideas into my stories, in particular in unexpected combinations, such as talking animals and post-apocalyptic wildernesses.
When you discover your own vast treasure hordes of unique Magnetic Nouns, when you bring in your personal passions and varied interests, you can use them to create the stories that only you could possibly write. Not the story that Leo Tolstoy or Maurice Sendak would write. But the stories that are each our own.