It sucks to be a white sheep– a dime a dozen, part of the crowd, herding aimlessly around the prettier, shinier, russet colored sheep who’s standing proud and focused straight ahead.
I used to feel like a white sheep after I’d gone to a movie that was totally amazing and blew me away. Or after I read a brilliant novel. I’d walk out of the theater or put down the book and think, “Damn… I could never write anything that great.”
Here are some of the movies I’ve watched that have made me feel like a white sheep… FARGO, THE GODFATHER, FRANCES, SCHINDLER’S LIST, THE MATRIX, CAPOTE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, AMERICAN BEAUTY, PAN’S LABYRINTH, and just last week, CALVARY.
Fiction writers who made me “baaaaa” include James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Shirley Jackson, Anne Lamott, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ian McEwan.
I used to get down on myself and lament that these writers were so much better than I. But I had a huge epiphany when I realized that the primary reason I loved these books and movies was because NO ONE ELSE on the planet could have written them. And what I really admired was not just the talent of the writer, but the specificity and the particularness of that person’s point of view.
It was clear that I couldn’t be the Cohen Brothers, or Francis Coppola, or write Atonement. But why couldn’t I be ME? And instead of berating myself in the face of something beautiful that came from another writer’s heart and head, I started asking myself how I could use it for inspiration to find my own voice.
Here are some tips for avoiding “white sheep” syndrome and getting to the core of your unique writerly gifts.
1. Write a project that you are truly passionate about. Even if it doesn’t seem “commercial.”
2. Make your story specific and set it in a world that fascinates you.
3. Do you have a weird point of view? Quirky ideas? Embrace them.
4. Don’t copy other writers. Admire them. Study them. Figure out how they use craft to create style and theme, then find your own way to do it.
5. When you’re stuck, try writing as if you’re posting something funny to a friend, or writing a witty email to your sister. What is your actual writing voice? Can you use this in your work?
6. Ask people what they like about you as a writer. Identify your strengths. Lean into them.
7. Work hard. Just being a “snowflake” isn’t enough. You have to take your original idea and make it work. This takes hours, months, sometimes years…
Take Action! Fly your freak flag. Sometimes admiring another writer’s work can help inspire you to access your own voice. Make a list of the writers you love. Immerse yourself in their books or movies, figure out how they use the tools of the trade, then harness these tools and use them in your own unique way.
It’s easy to be a sheep. Not so easy to embrace the true color of your wool.
But this is, in fact, the path to great writing.
Have fun with it!