The most important thing every writer brings to their writing is his or herself. Within each of us are the tools, concepts, and attitudes needed to create. Add to that a smidgeon of grammar, a dash of style, and a vehicle of some sort to transmit our writing beyond our psyche -- be it a computer, typewriter, or pen and paper -- and we're set.
Our basic tools are the ability to put thoughts into words. Thoughts themselves, are pretty much unstructured, non-verbal things that simply exist within our consciousness. Rarely do we actually think in complete sentences. If I hear the dog outside barking, I don't think "I need to let her inside so she doesn't wake anyone." I visualize people complaining that the barking woke them up, and myself opening the door to prevent that.
The process of encoding our thoughts into language comes fairly naturally to most people on a verbal level. Most five-year-olds are reasonable adept at it. Suddenly words become more than things we say, they become things we read. We learn that words are made up of symbols called letters. And we all learn that little jingle that arranges these symbols in alphabetical order.
We learn how each complete thought creates a sentence and how a group of related sentences makes a paragraph. At some point we realize that we can draw on our inner world to create our own sentences and paragraphs, although this is sometimes discouraged by those who feel threatened by creativity.
What is imagination? On a basic level, it's simply the ability to re-arrange various thoughts into a complete artistic entity. The artist creates a personal universe from which to draw upon. We can combine dozens of people we've met or read about into a small cast of principal characters. Our settings are built upon memories of past vacations, photographs of far-away places, and the towns, villages, and country-sides of other writers.
Plotting comes largely from a combination of the specific genre and our literary influences. Genres often come with their own sets of standard plots; templates for the writer to build upon. These usually evolve over the years, yet science fiction will probably always have humans meeting alien species, and worst nightmares coming true is likely to be always a part of horror.
Themes are product of our sensibilities. Optimist/pessimist, liberal/conservative, gregarious/taciturn; our opinions, attitudes, and values will all make a difference in what we say within a story.
And the sum of all this is our individual style, our literary fingerprint. Our writing is always latently (and abstractly) autobiographical. No matter how much we change characters, create plots that have nothing to do with our real lives, and experiment with structure and theme, we place our unique stamp on the final product.
People often fear delving too deeply into their subconscious for fear of what they might find. We've been trained to suppress our inner world for sake of appearances. The truth is the "deep, dark secrets" in the vast majority of people are really neither. Some may be embarrassing or things you might not want your boss or aunts to know about. But in most cases it is better to be honest with at least yourself about them. Besides, they will provide you with a lot of story lines to use.
Others have the mistaken notion that they already know themselves one hundred percent. Hardly; life is a continual process of self-discovery. Sure, we have a good overview of who we are. But we usually hedge -- either rationalizing our faults or undervaluing our abilities. Sometimes there are even traits others see that we do not. So being open to outside opinion is helpful. We can learn a lot about ourselves from hearing what people think about us -- not all their opinions will be accurate, but we may pick up on things we have not seen.
A person who keeps their psychological make-up separate from their writing is doomed to be a poor writer. We breathe life into our characters and that breath is the sum of who we are. If we are too guarded in opening up, we will create weak characters. Our protagonists need flaws, sometimes very serious ones. Our antagonists need to be three-dimensional characters, not stock villains. Secondary characters need to be as real as the main characters.
We can only gain the vital spark that makes characters come alive by looking into ourselves, blessing our characters with our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears, our hopes, and our kinks. This reality we bring to our writing will improve whatever we are writing. Readers know when they are being lied to by stories that do not come from the writer's heart and soul. A poor writer may be satisfied with a half-baked, by-the-numbers story. A good writer should never be.
It doesn't matter how long you've studied writing or how many years you've been pumping out words. Until you are willing to let down your guard, lock away your inhibitions, and write from the depths of your being, you will never be the writer you have the potential to be.
It is all within you.