Repeat Yourself: How to Write When You Have Nothing New to Say

Life has a way of teaching you the same lesson over and over. It doesn’t care if you think it’s redundant. It will not apologize for repeating itself. Life goes on and on and on. It never shuts up. When life keeps giving you the same education in suffering it’s up to you to find new meanings in it.

Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”

The same can be said for how we cope. When I first learned to deal with depression I did it destructively.

I had a habit of calling friends under the guise of a casual hangout only to turn it into an impromptu venting session; the old gripe-and-bitch-bait-and-switch. I used social graces to bully people into playing spontaneous therapists. I was a bad patient, rarely stopping to take a breath to let people get a word in edgewise. When my hoodwinked shrinks tried to give advice I picked it apart with all the furor of a Yelp reviewer, when they sat back I quizzed them to see if they’d paid attention, and when they tried to escape I’d up the urgency factor.

These weren’t the worst of my friendship faux-pas. The worst was when I lulled my friends into a false sense of security, convincing them I’d taken their advice to heart and I was planning on fixing my bad situation, only to loop around and tell my story over again, as if my presence was a blackhole, swallowing light and warping time.

Later I learned the best way to process my problems in the heat of the moment was to write them down. Rather than rely on the memory of friends I could give myself something tangible to reexamine. I could review my thoughts until I found the language to best express them aloud.

Rather than serve my friends a hot plate of word salad I could give them a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. I could edit myself before I vented.

I learned to ask questions see if what I was experiencing was universal. I adopted metaphors to give foreign feelings relatable forms, and I learned clinical terms to help me from getting too abstract.

I’ve always loved this phrase, but I don’t know who to attribute it to, “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re doing it wrong.”

Wisdom can be found in the repetition. This is why I would never discourage authors from recycling their favorite philosophies, situations, and themes. I encourage writers to repeat themselves until they get their stories right.

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If You Can’t Say Something New Rephrase Yourself

Authors are always afraid that they’re going to run out of things worth saying, that life will ground down their passion, and they’ll be left to describe the world in empty grey tones. I respect authors who can jump genres, throw out their formulas, and change without fear of change, but there is no shame in chiseling away at the same brand and polishing it until it shines.

I used to resist telling stories with similar elements. I gave myself rules to force myself to evolve. If I’d just written a story in the first person the next one had to be in the third. If I’d just written in the past tense the next story had to use the present, and if I’d just finished a supernatural story the next had to be earthly. I felt at home telling creepy stories set in the past from the first person perspective, but I challenged myself to do things I wasn’t as interested in for the sake of the challenge. I tried so hard to write like somebody else, but I became more and more like myself.

I’ve been telling many variants of the same creepy story for over a decade now and I’ve found it’s getting better with every retelling.

Not only do I have a much better understanding of the mechanics of narrative writing, I have a much better understanding of myself too. I can tell that same old story with much more authority.

Self preservation is a common theme in all of my writing. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to approach it from different angles. In my stories, depression can take the form of a seductive succubus, a mimicking demon, or a Kafkaesque courtroom. As I’ve come to understand how my depression gets to me my stories have gotten better informed, they resonate with more truth.

Closing Thoughts

If you feel like you’re stuck in your writing don’t feel ashamed to retread the same ground. Sometimes you can observe an old subject with clearer eyes. You can bring new ideas to an old topic, and a fresh style to an old story.

A copy of a copy will always have some artifacts. Those nuances matter. In restating something you’ll see how your opinion has evolved. You might feel the same way you always have, but you’ll have found materials to support those feelings. Life lessons are never taught to us all at once.

The book of life is full of rhymes, broken verses on hard times, flowery prose that always cycle, and stanzas that appear identical. It’s filled with common themes: words of hope on endless reams, with pages so rife with symbolism, it’s hard not to sense a pattern in them, to see the hand of fate with poet’s pen, writing the same lyrics again and again. It’s the subtle variation, in the constant repetition, that makes time more forgiving, and life worth living.

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This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

2 thoughts on “Repeat Yourself: How to Write When You Have Nothing New to Say”

  1. Wise wise words.

    I also get caught up in head games, and used to be terrible for constantly feeling I had to write every new story as if it were the most original story ever written.
    Nothing is original really, and once I got past that it got easier but I still go through it now and again. Just because soemthing I’ve written is stale to me, it doesn’t mean it is for the reader.
    What you wrote is important to keep in mind, when agonising over a plot, or what word to use in a sentence.

    Like

  2. Great post and very apt considering I am presently going through what you have experienced. Your last paragraph was particularly poetic. I got a lot from this.

    Liked by 1 person

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