Years ago, I took a long, meandering walk through the streets of New York City with a woman I deeply admire. She wasn’t my “mentor” — not officially — but she cared about me, and she generously offered advice whenever I asked for it. She also happened to be a powerful writer with a distinctive, unforgettable voice, and a massive international fanbase.
So, you know, when a woman like that invites you to take a walk, you take a walk.
As it turns out, one walk can change your entire life.
“Tell me about your blog,” she inquired.
I’d recently started my very first blog, and I was pretty proud of it.
“Oh! I’m having so much fun,” I responded breathlessly, eager to impress her. We arrived at an intersection and paused for a red light. “I’m posting recipes that I like, and lists of books that I’ve enjoyed. Also, every week, I do a ‘link round-up’ where I post a bunch of links to various blog posts and other things that have inspired me.”
She nodded. “Uh huh, and what else?”
I gave her a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“What else are you putting on your blog? What else are you writing about?”
I didn’t understand the question. Hadn’t I just explained everything that was going on my blog? I stared awkwardly at my feet. The light turned green. We crossed the street, weaving through the crush of pedestrians. On the other side, she smiled at me, and said,
“Alex, nobody’s ever won a Pulitzer Prize for doing a ‘weekly link round-up.’ You should be writing about your own life. You should tell your own stories, not just re-hash other people’s work.”
I almost started crying, right there at the corner of Intensely Busy St. & Blaring Taxi Horn Ave., because I knew she was right.
I thought about her advice for the rest of the day. Actually, I’ve thought about her advice every day for the past eight years. I decided to accept the challenge that she’d issued.
I started writing (awkwardly and shyly) about my own life. My love stories. My break-ups. My foray into self-employment. My thoughts on discipline, motivation, and productivity. My brushes with illness. My set-backs and darkest moments. I took everything that had ever happened to me, extracted the lessons I’d learned, and poured everything onto the screen. Over time, my blog evolved from “a place where I celebrate other people’s creative work” into “a place where I showcase my own body of work.”
Look, I still love reading — and writing — “link round-ups” from time to time. I still publish a couple on my website every year to this day. There’s nothing “wrong” with scouring the Internet for cool resources and compiling them into a fun list. That can be a lovely creative project, and your readers will probably enjoy your list very much!
However, with a capital H…
Just like my unofficial mentor said to me, all those years ago, “What else?”
What else do you want to say to the world?
What are the life experiences that have shaped your identity, and that have taught you the greatest lessons? Do you ever talk about those experiences publicly? If not, why not?
What are the stories you’d like to tell online, and perhaps in books, on the airwaves, and onstage? What’s hindering you from telling them?
How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?
Would you like to be remembered as someone who “made a lot of really great lists and posted them on the Internet very frequently”? Or as someone who told honest, personal, courageous stories that gripped people’s hearts and touched people’s lives?
I know. It’s a lot to consider. Keep percolating about all of this as you’re meandering through the streets of NYC, or London, or Boise, or wherever you may be today.
Everyone is different. Every writer has her own goals and ambitions. If you enjoy “making lists” and that’s all you ever want to do, that’s totally groovy and you should do whatever makes you happy.
But if there’s a little voice inside of you that’s whispering, “There’s ‘more’ I want to say…” or “I wish I was brave enough to tell THAT story…” then I encourage you to listen to that voice, because it’s popping into your mind for a reason.
What else? What else? What else? Keep asking yourself that question.
Instead of rummaging through the Internet looking for things to re-post onto your blog, maybe, just for this week, just as a little experiment, rummage through the chapters of your own life. Rummage through the story of how you got your first job. The story of how you met the love of your life. Or that time that a close friend betrayed you and broke your heart. Or the story of how you finally learned to speak up. Rummage through the archives of YOU. That’s where you’ll find your best material. That’s your goldmine.