I know I say this a lot, but I have some wonderful critique partners. I’ve learned so many things from all of them, both from reading their words and letting them read mine. In particular, I’ve learned what it means to write what you are.
Consider Amy. On she surface, she appears to be just another American housewife and stay-at-home mom, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find she actually spent most of her growing-up years in
Kong. (I think her parents were professors or something.) Then she
moved back to the States for college, got married, and—you guessed it—moved
overseas again, this time to mainland China. She and her husband lived there
for the first seven or eight years of their marriage, which means that, on the
whole, she’s spent a lot more time outside of the than inside of it. United States
But the really exciting part is that she lets that heritage seep into her writing. Her novels often have an American-Chinese angle, and why wouldn’t they? She’s kind of an expert, after all. And it’s such a part of who she is that not writing about it would deny the rest of us such a unique perspective on another culture (and even our own).
Then there’s Ben. To give you an idea of what he’s like, check out the bio sketch from his Blogger profile: “By day, I battle rogue robots for the good of society. [I think that means he writes technical manuals for a robotics company. (And after checking with Ben himself, I discovered he also gets to test these robots. Talk about a cool day job!)] I’ve been run over by a station wagon, have nearly run over a kangaroo, and would rather just ride a bicycle. I survived depression, found true love, and am living happily ever after. I love writing, singing, and lists with three items.”
Ben’s most recent manuscript is about two young people with depression who take a job with a robotics company. The company does contracted work for the U.S. Army overseas; at the moment, they’re developing a line of intelligent armored vehicles designed to carry out the most dangerous suicide missions. The problem is, the armored vehicles aren’t quite intelligent enough to run themselves, so they need a team of drivers, drivers who want to die.
Oh, and did I mention the main character’s pretty handy with a camera (and that Ben is, too)?
Writing what you are is similar to writing what you know and writing what you love; in fact, writing what you are draws from both of these more common refrains. But writing what you are goes even deeper. Writing what you are means writing the manuscript that only you could write. It means writing about the themes, the people, the places that are uniquely yours.
I think we forget sometimes that we’re characters, too, unique and interesting individuals with voices and idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. So when agents say they want to read something they haven’t read before or discover an undiscovered voice, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to give them OUR stories. Because if they truly are our stories, then they have to be unique.