“There is nothing new under the sun… Nothing new under the sun… Nothing new.” For years now, these words have echoed in my head, haunted me, every time I sat down to write something creative. I would take up my pen, alight with inspiration, and tremulously scrawl out the first few words, only to come to an uneasy halt, realizing that sometime in the history of humanity, hundreds if not thousands of people have been seized by the same concept, the same feeling. “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Over time, I began to shy away from writing, from committing my own thoughts and feelings to the page. If there is indeed nothing new under the sun, is it not foolish, wasteful even, for me to attempt to write something worth writing? Am I not betraying an arrogant assumption that I somehow have something to say, something that needs to be said, when everything new has been said already?
And yet, I am an English teacher. I ask my students every day to read classic pieces of literature, works that have moved humanity for hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years, works that have been read, discussed, and “critical theoried” ad nauseum. When my students try to take the shortcut and Google the meaning of the work, I balk. “But someone has already found the answer,” they tell me, as if that is what we are looking for, the data amassed by an expert source.
I spend a good portion of time trying to convince them that it isn’t about the data, the “Answer,” but rather about the process of coming to understanding. Perhaps this piece of literature has been read by thousands of students, hundreds of thousands, and as such is “nothing new.” But my students have never worked through this text, have never experienced how it challenges their preconceptions and stretches their minds.
When my seniors read Beowulf and Gardner’s Grendel, we discuss how cultures heroicize or villainize people based on their own values and perceptions. And sometimes (as it did yesterday in class), the discussion turns to how even “villainous” people are often simply a product of the villainous choices of others upon them, how heroes are often illusions (perhaps necessary illusions, perhaps not), and how in our simplified, extreme-headlines-make-good-copy world, we must learn to see through easy labels to arrive at a more nuanced, more human understanding of ourselves and others. This is something they could not get by simply Googling.
It is in the process that we truly learn, that we become people. Indeed that is part of the power of good literature: thinking through important ideas and emotions broadens our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us.
And so I come back around to the question of writing. If I am going to push my students to retread the great human roads of literature so they can experience the journey for themselves, I too must wrestle with my ideas, with the million-and-one variables and indistinct elements of the world, in an attempt to arrive at some measure of understanding. Yes, the things I write may not be “new” in the grand scope of human history. But in the short day that is my life, I will dig them up, dust them off, and have a go at them.