How to Write Something New When Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

How to Write Something New When Nothing Is New Under the Sun

If you have ever wondered if is at all possible to write something new, I will kindly direct you to anyone who has studied the western classics.  By this I specifically mean the literature of the Greco-Roman world.  Not just The Metamorphoses, but the military texts, the philosophy, even the graffiti.  Even in the mudane texts, it is possible to see our own experiences reflected. In “On Scipio’s Villa” a philosopher named Seneca writes to a friend, complaining- young people these days are terribly soft!  They have fancy public bathing areas that are situated so the sun hits the bath all day long so they can get a tan- how decadent! Baths used to have slits in the walls for windows and they were cold! Now they are heated and there are artificial waterfalls.

Sound familiar?  To me it calls to mind the current media glut about the dread millienial generation that is lazy, entitled, and just generally terrible. They are certainly nowhere near as virtuous and accomplished as their forebears.

It may seem pointless to even attempt to write something new or compelling with this track record- 2500 years of recorded history behind you- but there is a way.

The blog post that has been seen by .03% of the world’s population

A friend of mine, and now a Berrett-Koehler Author, wrote a blog post a few years ago that has been seen by over 30 million people. The post went insanely viral within a week of being posted; I still have never seen something appear on my newsfeed wall so frequently and from so many different corners of my various social circles.  The post was called “Marriage Isn’t for You” and the message it offered is one of the oldest and most commonly cited pieces of relationship advice: in a partnership, you are in it for the person you love, not yourself, i.e.- love is selfless.  This message echoes through the ages in books and poetry and music; it is one of the oldest ideas in the world.  And yet, this blog was passed from hand to hand (Newsfeed to newsfeed?) millions of times in 2014.  Why?

Yes, what I am getting at is the HOW

Old messages re-told in a beautiful, heartfelt way tend to have an incredible power. If there were only one way to say something, literature would not exist. Have you ever tried to explain something and have the other person say to you "no, you are wrong- it is like this" and then say exactly what you were trying to convey without realizing they were agreeing with you? There are as many perspectives as there are humans, and humans contain multitudes of perspectives even within themselves. This is where the opportunity lies for writers.

We seek ourselves

Humans are communal, connecting creatures.  We seek universality, and while generalizations are often harmful, they come from a deep human desire to connect and see ourselves in each other.  While you may not be able to write something new, think about the context of your particular message instead.  What anchors it to this moment in time? What aspect of this thought, that other humans have certainly had and written about before you, is most compelling to you?  What happened to lead you to your conclusions? “Write what you know” might seem like the oldest writing advice out there, but there is a reason it endures.  It is only in recounting the stories we can authentically tell that we can move the hearts and minds of others.