What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 1:9, NRSV
Nothing changes; everything stays the same. History repeats itself, and so do human stories. Over and over, we live out the same tropes.
A writer recently said to me:
“I can’t think of anything to say that’s any different than what everyone else is saying about whatever my topic is. How do you avoid this?”
My response is, you don’t avoid this. You can’t be completely different. No one can. But you can be you.
As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said 3,000 years ago — millennia before the age of mass publishing — “there is nothing new under the sun.” So, stop trying to be new. Instead, just be you.
Stop trying to be different
Originality —as it’s commonly understood — is a misnomer that often leaves writers blocked. The drive to create something new is a huge pressure to put on ourselves — and it’s unrealistic. We’re led to believe that art must be original. To an extent that’s true, but only in a limited sense. Art is best when it hits us in a new way. That’s not the same as being completely new.
Things can only hit us (literally, and figuratively) because they connect with us. Art is most powerful when it overlaps with our lives, when we recognize ourselves in what we see, read or hear. Creating art that connects is not about being completely new. It’s not about being completely different from everything that came before. Instead, it’s about filling your art with your life and unique perspective. That way, others see their own humanity reflected in what you create.
A monkey with a typewriter creates original work — but it’s not art
Give a monkey a typewriter, and you’ll end up with something that’s never been written before. But it also won’t make any sense. It will be a jumble of random letters. It’s too original — it doesn’t even connect with a common language, let alone a common experience.
Just because something is original, doesn’t mean it’s art, let alone good art. Works of art don’t start in a distant land of originals. They start here, in this world, with everything that’s already been said, thousands upon thousands of times.
Being original has nothing to do with seeing the future
We often treat the word “original” like we should create things plucked from the future, that have never been seen before. We treat the word “original” like it means having a time machine in your backyard, to visit the future and bring it back into the present. It’s tempting to believe that artists are clairvoyants who can see things from the future that no one else sees, and make them a reality.
Nobody does this. Not Peter Thiel, not Elon Musk, not Opera Winfrey. Nobody. Creators don’t pull things from the future. They pull together things that already exist. They create unique combos.
Original means diving into beginnings
What’s more, pulling ideas from the future is actually the opposite of what original means. Original is derived from the word “origin”. It’s about going back to the beginning. Sitting at the start-line of the world, and wondering at all the possibilities before you.
If artists have a time machine, they use it to visit the past. Original is about beginnings. It’s about the source of things. It’s about birth. At every birth, a unique child comes into the world. The child also bears the DNA stamp of their parents. They’re completely new, and they’re entirely ancient. Every one of us carries a history going back thousands of generations.
Being original means giving birth out of who you are. It means bringing together all the experiences, learning and stories from your life that you’ve collected over the years, and building them — like Lego bricks — into something new. You pull together the pieces of the puzzle in a way that no one else can. The pieces are old — it’s what you create with them that’s new.
What you bring is your unique perspective
When I wrote my university thesis — an 18,000 word essay — I researched first. I was reading and thinking for six months before I started writing. I steeped myself in the ideas of others. Those ideas became the foundation of my thinking. The thoughts of others became my own puzzle pieces. If I said anything completely new through my writing, it was in the way I pulled together those puzzle pieces — not because any of the ideas I shared had never been shared before.
I got good grades at university not because I was novel — I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t been said before. Rather, I pulled together old ideas in novel ways. I put things side-to-side that nobody had thought of placing together. I created something original out of something old. Ever since then, it’s all I’ve continued to do with my writing. I take the detritus of my life — my thoughts, experiences, and reading — and piece them together in interesting ways. I write quickly, and the ways things come together often leaves me surprised at what I’ve done.
3 methods to start writing when there’s nothing new under the sun
When you’re not sure what to write because it’s all been said before, then start with something that’s been said before. Find a quote — or set of quotes — that resonates with you. Then use them as building blocks to build an article or story. Here are three techinques you can use to do that:
Interpret: Explain the quote in your own words
Start with the quote, then explain what it means to you. You can use a phrase such as “So what that means is…” or “in other words”. Make your explanation simple to follow, and help the reader really grab the quote. People skim-read online, so if your explanation is easy to understand, that’s what readers will hold onto. You’ll become known as a trustworthy interpreter of what others say. I used this technique repeatedly in my article Paulo Coelho’s Bestseller in 2 Weeks Method. I shared quotes from Coelho, then explained what they mean to me, and how I use his techniques in my own writing.
Weave: Join quotes together into a story
When you’re weaving, you don’t need to say anything different to the original author. You just curate the quotes, then juxtapose them to create an interesting story for the reader to follow. I did this with my article Hard-Won Wisdom from 12 Years on the Streets. I linked a series of quotes and anecdotes from the writer Lee Stringer to tell his story in an engaging way, with takeaways for the reader.
Build: Tell stories that relate to the quote
With this technique, you take a quote as a starting point, then you build a story around it. This could be the story behind the quote or stories from your personal experience. I used both of these in my article Neil Armstrong’s Anti-Remedy for Your Existential Crisis. This story is based on two (fictional) quotes from Prince Phillip. I connect the quotes to my own experience of international travel, and to the story of when Prince Phillip met Neil Armstrong.
Instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, create beautiful wheels
Most blog articles follow established structures. As do many bestselling novels. Short stories too. And cookery books. These structures persist not because they’re new, but because they’re effective — and familiar.
Creating works of art that people love isn’t about creating something new under the sun. It’s about taking what we already have — this beautiful, ancient, messy world, and all the stories it contains — and bringing things together in ways that nobody saw coming. It’s a bit like building a mosaic or creating a collage, and it’s a lot of fun.
So, stop trying to be perfect, and enjoy making a mess. Find stories and quotes that resonate, and build them together into something new. Have fun, and happy writing. I wish you joy for every step of the journey.