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.
If you’re stuck on how to approach your latest writing project, try these two ideas. Click to tweet.