This is what great writers do. They think deeply and critically about the human condition and they come up with a great idea for a story, such a great idea that they are possessed by it and the act of writing it carries them, like a rushing current, until they’ve produced a landmark work that we all read in enlightened amazement.
Not true. This is NOT what great writers do. This a myth.
Late last month there was an article in Time Magazine celebrating the 25th anniversary of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried*. On display was a page with O’Brien’s hand-written edits. In looking over that page I saw once again what I learned some time ago – the writer’s skill is not in coming up with a great story, the writer’s skill is in telling us what we already know in a new and interesting way.
The Things They Carried is a war novel^. There have been many war novels – even great war novels. It has been said that the first American war novel was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, a novel of the civil war. O’Brien’s landmark accomplishment was not in writing a great war novel. That had been done – many times. What makes The Things They Carried the book that it is is in how O’Brien goes about pulling us into the Vietnam War. He loops his forearm around our necks and yanks our heads down into the grit; he makes us look very closely at what is happening.
So, stop wandering around trying to come up with a great and original idea for a story.
Stop wasting your time. Instead, give us the most familiar anew.


^You might call it a short story collection. The line between the two is too thin to warrant debate.