It’s all been done…breaking writer’s block

So, writers: ever get the feeling that it’s pointless to write because surely everything worth writing has already been written? Do you ever get a feeling of existential dread in bookstores or libraries (which are supposed to be such heavenly and inspiring places) wondering why you should write, because there are already enough books on those shelves to last a lifetime? Just me?

I’m currently participating in Tara Lazar’s “Storystorm” challenge– write down one story idea per day (for a story, poem, screenplay, whatever– it’s flexible). I’ve done this challenge twice before, but I’m finding it so much harder this year! Driving around running errands, I searched for inspiration. What could I write that was novel and intriguing?  Here’s what I came up with:

  • A story from the perspective of a house (Uh, no. Ever heard of Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House”?)
  • A story from the perspective of a tree (Never mind…there’s Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”)
  • A story from the perspective of a car (Well, duh, there’s the whole movie franchise “Cars,” not to mention the adorable “Race Car Dreams,” by Sharon Chriscoe)
  • A story from the perspective of a stuffed animal (Margery Williams’ “Velveteen Rabbit,” anyone?)

As the “Barenaked Ladies” lamented in their big hit, “It’s all been done before…” So, what’s a writer to do? What justification do I have for writing a new story when it feels like every theme, every character has existed before?

Well, here’s where having a Ph.D. in literature actually does come in handy.  Ever heard of philosopher Carl Jung?  He’s the guy who said literally that same thing: every character has existed before. They’re called archetypes, and they are what makes us identify with everyone we read: universal patterns, images and characters that exist in our subconscious. Examples include the “mother,” the “trickster,” the “wise old man,” and “the hero.”  Inspired by Loki in the Norse myths (or the Marvel movies?) Yes, a million others also have been, but that’s why he’s popular! These characters draw on our shared experiences. We know what to expect in a way that can be very comforting (or which can be subverted…but I’m getting ahead of myself).

So, lesson #1: Don’t be afraid of archetypical characters. Just be afraid of cliché usage of them.

Another example of the “It’s all been done,” phenomenon can be found in the post-modernist movement. Let me preface this by saying that most philosophy makes my head hurt: Part of why I’m no longer in academia is that the complex theories of thinkers like Derrida and Foucault which my colleagues were all quoting in their journal articles just didn’t make sense to me or my life. That said, one course I took in post-modernism managed to get through to me with a discussion of architecture, which I find fascinating.  The professor discussed the concept of architectural “quoting”– echoing a style from the past in a way which makes it new or ironic. Here’s an example (thank you, Wikipedia):

Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (Architect Charles Moore with Perez Architects) Photo credit: By Colros – Flickr photo, CC BY 2.0,

Note how there are homages to Roman style architecture all over the place, but it’s not a copy of any specific building, and it uses decidedly modern materials like stainless steel and neon. Neat, huh? And yet…we could say, Roman architecture has all been done before, right? Well, not like this!

Which brings us to lesson #2:  How can you “quote” the classics in a new way? (For example, one of my WIPs gives a modern twist to Robert McCloskey’s “One Morning in Maine” by putting the girl in a modern Maine town).

So how does this help my writer’s block? How have I talked myself off this ledge and back on track writing? Look at my words at the beginning of this post: “How can I justify writing a new story?”  Well, because it will be precisely that– a NEW STORY. Furthermore, it will be MY story– I might write a story about a tree or a house or a race car, but it will be a story only I can write.  Sure, as writers we always have to be aware of not repeating stories or characters that are already out there, but there’s a lot of room for new stories. Stop and think about how many hundreds of dog stories are out there. Did we really need “Because of Winn-Dixie”? You BET we did! And we need the story I’m about to write, too.

I just don’t know what story that will be, yet…

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