When Writing a Book, Start With Your Own Story

Donald Miller

If you want to write a book about physics, you’ll have to know a lot about physics. And the same goes for psychology and botany. But to write a humane book, be it fiction or memoir, all you really need to know is your own story.

We read books for different reasons, sometimes to learn a craft or for a perspective on current events, but most of the books most people read aren’t approached with a specific ambition at all. What we want most is to not feel alone, to allow somebody to rummage inside our minds and souls and point out all the ways we are alike. And to write this sort of book, you only need to know your own story.

*Photo by Victor, Creative Commons

Like a painter, a writer writes with colors and textures. Sure there’s form, and it helps to know how a story works, but the real genius lay in the ability to remain human and to connect with other humans.

Here are a few of the colors and textures to keep in mind as you write:

1. Fear. What makes you afraid? Fear is the most dominant human emotion, and it’s the seed of so many other emotions: jealousy, rage, insecurity and detachment. A good writer knows this and won’t mistake one for the other. And so in your work, mine what it is you’re afraid of. Are you afraid of losing control? Are you afraid of death? Are you afraid to succeed? The more you can paint with that color, the more people will recognize themselves in your work and the less they’ll feel alone.

2. Vulnerability. Even if you’re writing fiction, you should feel like you’re telling secrets. And they should be deep, dark secrets you’d only tell your most trusted friend. Remember, when we write we are becoming the temporal companion of the reader, and if we want them to trust us, we have to give up our secrets.

3. Love. I know it sounds mushy, but it helps to actually love your reader. While a non-fiction diatribe may work to insist a theological point, a person who doesn’t love their reader will never write a classic. It’s not been done. Never write from a defensive posture. If you do, you’ll never be able to be vulnerable or honestly talk about your fears, and your reader will smell it out and move on. If it helps, imagine writing a story for your closest friend or significant other.

4. Don’t apologize. Your story may frustrate some people, but if they don’t accept you as you are, they really wouldn’t have been your friend in the first place. If you’re writing a memoir, you don’t have to apologize for drinking too much or bingeing on ice cream. Just report the events like a loving journalist. Nobody gets to steal your humanity. Speak from the heart.

When it’s all said and done, any human being can write a very human book. But of course, the trick is to become human again. Critics, scolders and conditional lovers can have you living in fear. Forgive them. We’ve all done it to each other. And rather than return evil for evil, let’s just walk gently with each other in our writing and in our lives.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is a student of story. He helps people live a better story at Storyline through this blog and the Storyline Conference. He helps leaders grow their businesses at StoryBrand, where they get an entire marketing education in 2 days at his Workshop. Donald lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their chocolate lab, Lucy. For regular updates, follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller) and Instagram. To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.