This letter from F Scott Fitzgerald was featured on Brain Pickings recently, and stuck in my mind:
I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present.
Yikes. Frances had just sent him one of her short stories for feedback. I felt my heart crash into my knees for her when I read that opening line.
He goes on, explaining where she's gone wrong and why he's not going to bother analysing her story (emphases are mine):
You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
Oof. That's gotta hurt.
It made me think about how hard I've worked to distance my story from my own experience, to give it a shape and the kind of lurid colours that didn't exist in reality. But maybe I'm missing something. The story needs to be new and unique, but the drive behind it should be - at least at first - personal.