“That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes
We’ve all been there. We want to create something groundbreaking, something new and fresh. And we imagine that to do so we must start from scratch and create something never seen before. Forget genre! Forget tropes! Let’s make something truly original.
Problem is, it’s impossible to create something no one has ever seen before. Everyone gets their ideas from someone else. Stephen King learned from H.P. Lovecraft, who imitated Edgar Alan Poe, who got one of his best ideas (“The Raven”) from Charles Dickens. And so on. The work of every writer has a lineage, born out of a tradition. Step one in mastering the craft of writing, then, is to learn that tradition and make it your own.
What we call tradition is a set of conventions handed down — and embraced — because they work. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller put it, “A ‘tradition’ is just an innovation that’s been peer-reviewed. One that replicates, generation after generation.”
The reason these conventions work for us is because they are based on who we are. Carl Jung observed recurring personality types that he referred to as archetypal figures, which include: mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, and the hero. Jung rejected the blank slate theory of human psychological development, knowing that evolutionary pressures formed our bodies and personalities.
As beings with a long-established nature, we find ourselves confronting situations that are also long-established and recurring. Jung described these archetypal events as birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, and the union of opposites.
Underlying the superficial changes we experience is a timeless reality that repeatedly manifests itself in a set number of ways. That’s why there are only so many possible plots.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” used the term “monomyth” to describe the hero’s journey, a plot that appears all over the world. All cultures, he wrote, create their own traditions, including their own stories to express their experience with the unchanging reality behind human existence.
And that’s what we want to do. Tradition is not an obstacle to creativity, but a springboard. When we interpret our experience in the light of tradition, we reveal to our readers, and ourselves, the mystic union of the past and present. In the words of T. S. Eliot, we must uncover the “point of intersection of the timeless with time.” That endeavor, says Eliot, is “the occupation of the saint.”
The challenge, as Ezra Pound put it, is to “Make it new.” Somehow, we must honestly recognize, and then relate, our insights, our pain, our love, our hate, to the timeless truth of the human condition. That’s the vital component that keeps the tradition alive — us.