Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Getting Creative, Part 3: Try Something New

When I was in a college journalism course, the professor assigned the class to report on a new experience. As a jazz fan, I already had plans that weekend to see Lance Hayward, one of my favorite jazz pianists, perform at his regular spot in New York’s Village Corner. On at least a half-dozen occasions I had enjoyed his swinging style and absolute mastery of the keyboard, so I was not about to change my plans. But I could not report on the event because it was not a new experience.

Then it dawned on me: While his music was not new to me, his personal life was. I would interview him between his sets, and if he declined to be interviewed I would write about his refusal and how it made me feel. I couldn’t go wrong. I remember listening to his set in complete anxiety, wondering how I would approach this musical genius, doubting I had the courage to even ask him for an interview, and feeling upset for not having planned the questions to ask him if he did grant the interview.

Long story short, I did ask him, he agreed, and I totally bombed as the interviewer. I did learn where he was born (Bermuda), how long he lived in America (“seven years”), for how long he was blind (“for as long as I remember”), and why he turned to jazz (“I didn’t turn to jazz; I turned to music”). But I mostly stammered, hiccupped, and blundered through those eternal five minutes, ending the conversation at the bar as uneasily and abruptly as I had begun it. I was so embarrassed that I left the Village Corner before he began his next set.

I went home and wrote an honest account of how a tongue-tied novice interviewer failed at this task at uncovering the life of someone he idolized but still succeeded at keeping alive for himself the mystery of the interviewee’s musicianship. My professor gave me an A on the report. He wrote, “You wisely refrained from dwelling on Hayward’s answers to your trite questions, but you described your passion—if not his—for a music that is always a new experience for you, which is what jazz is.”

Wow. In other words, my professor was telling me that a mediocre writer’s mediocre account of a mediocre experience could still unearth something new, something worthwhile, something memorable. And here I tell the story thirty-seven years later.

And I tell the story as reminder to do something new, something outside your comfort zone, to have something interesting to say. It could be an interview of a 92-year-old neighbor, a description of a remote corner in a community park, a reaction to a library shelf that you have never explored—it doesn’t matter, as long as it is new. You’ll see what happens: your fingers will not keep up with the images your brain evokes as you try to capture the experience. Your creativity will explode.