Jumpstart Creativity: Playing Along

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

A few years ago on the PBS News Hour, I saw a report on jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who talked about an especially memorable time he performed with his mentor Miles Davis. Herbie hit a wrong note–flat out wrong. He momentarily was devastated.

But then he realized that Miles had improvised on his instrument in a riff that made Herbie’s wrong note sound right. The notes Miles produced put the note in a context that suited what Herbie had played.

Herbie, in the interview, commented that Miles didn’t pass judgment on that note or think of it as wrong. Instead, he thought of it as an unusual choice and then improvised his way in a direction he wasn’t expected to go.

Jumpstart #1: Try Something Crazy–or That Seems Wrong-Headed

We’ve all heard about how debilitating it is to pass judgment on our own work, but how do we alter our thinking when we  set aside our ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong? Is it wrong to write a novel in second person? Is it wrong to start your nonfiction book at the end rather than the beginning?

Okay, those are pretty crazy ideas, but maybe there’s a kernel of an idea in those questions that leads to a new way of seeing what you’re writing. Let’s not limit ourselves by right and wrong.  We can always pull back from limitless thinking, but if we never venture there, we’ll not see anew.

Jumpstart #2: Take the Old and Make It New Again

Along those lines of how to jumpstart creativity, in that same PBS interview, I learned that Hancock won a Grammy Award in 2009 for reconfiguring Joni Mitchell songs into jazz pieces. He talked about how being inventive often is taking what already exists and finding new expressions.

As you look at what’s being published nowadays, where do you see inventiveness, taking something old and making it something new? Ways of reconfiguring how we think about an idea or writing style and doing something new with it?

Examples of Old into New

  • Reconstructed fairy tales. Taking a fairy tale and wrapping it in contemporary clothing.
  • Mashups like Jane Austen and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
  • Books that imagine what happened in some dark corner of a well-known historical moment or a famous person’s life. The novel March by Geraldine Brooks explores what was happening to the father of the Little Women while he was off to war. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

What other books can you think of that borrowed something old and made something new out of it?

Using the ideas behind these two jumpstarts to creativity, how could you reconfigure a book idea you’ve been playing with?


Writers, what would happen if you saw your work-in-progress with new eyes? Click to tweet.

Set aside old formulas to create a new way of seeing your writing. Click to tweet.

13 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Interesting question, Janet. What comes first to mind is not a book, but a film, “Saving Private Ryan”, which viscerally connects with the central theme of the Iliad.
    * In the film, Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, says that perhaps finding the eponymous Private Ryan and delivering safe home through lethal perils will win him the right to return to his wife; so too is the sack of Troy a necessary condition for nostos (homecoming) for both the Atreidae and Odysseus in Homer’s work.

  2. Oooh, I want to be the one who gives glorious cover to other people’s innocent errors! I’m thinking you agents, Janet, do that quite well, thank you.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    Post-it notes were invented at 3M by someone trying to develop a super-strong adhesive who had the imagination to see what could be done with a failed experiment that made a pathetically weak one.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I remember reading about the development of Post-It Notes. If I recall correctly, they had office workers try out the notes, and when 3M realized the notes weren’t sticky enough, tried to get the workers to return the notepads. Only to find the workers refused because they loved the Post-Its.

  4. I do not believe this is something I am skilled at, but I enjoy it when I see it. At the moment, I am about halfway through Tosca Lee’s “Iscariot.” It is a fascinating read, and I think I’m going to find that she and I have drawn the same conclusion about Judas, a man almost universally painted as a scoundrel and a loser. I do not believe that is the case. I have long believed that Judas was deeply patriotic, just like most male Jews of his time. I believe Judas was impatiently waiting for Jesus to pull out the big sword and drive Rome from the land of Israel. When Judas ran out of patience, he tried to force Jesus’ hand, fully expecting that Jesus would begin the revolt when the soldiers came to capture him in the garden. He never expected Jesus to allow himself to be captured.
    * I don’t know if that’s where Tosca will end up, but it is looking that way so far. It is a new look at an old story.

  5. I love “Cress” Marissa Meyer’s retelling of the Rapunzel story where a girl is stuck in a space station orbiting earth and not given scissors for her hair lest she kill herself instead of spying on the earthlings like the evil Lunar queen desires. So so fun!

  6. Thanks Janet for the post. As an artistic individual, I have painted quite a few paintings and this very thing would happen. In fact, I allowed it, so new things and unexpected visual media pieces could be birthed that told a story. This also happened with my wife, mixed media sculptures. And so too, with words. I have a book I want to write for all those who think they’ve done too much wrong to be able to be accepted, redeemed and transformed by God. It will help them to connect with God, and help the understand that God meets us in our he’ll holes we created or ended up in. And we need to be honest, and accept responsibility for all the sin/dirt we’ve done. We have to lay it out, and let Him see the whole ugly mess, because then begins the miracle of rebirth and restoration. I want to title it, “Down and Dirty With God.”

    I love to do this sort of thing, make the gospel relatable .