Seeing Things Differently

I heard a radio interview with Steve Jobs on the day after his death. No doubt you will ask, “What does being an aspiring writer have to do with talk from a celebrated entrepreneur?” I suggest that any writer who wants to make an impact in the publishing world has to help people do what Steve Jobs did – see things differently.

In January, 1986, the association where I was working provided IBM desktop computers for all operating departments. I found that it made many of my routine tasks go faster, but it didn’t do much to liberate my imagination. Remember this was back in the days of clunky, bulky machines using MS-DOS, which even at its best was not a helpful tool for the inexperienced user.

About three years later, I moved on to a job elsewhere. On my first day at work, I found an odd-looking box on my desktop. When I started using it, I learned that the Macintosh was indeed a different way of doing things. I learned over time to start visualizing my work tasks differently, thinking in terms of text, graphs, and images as an integrated whole. In other words, the aforementioned Mr. Jobs, was right: If a computer helped you see things differently, it might change the way you did things, not just the speed with which you did them.

That’s what’s creative about “creative writing.” There aren’t that many great original plots around. I mentioned to my students that The Odyssey is a tale that has been retold many times. When I mentioned O Brother, Where Art Thou? (perhaps the most recent example), the looks of surprise on their faces was a reward of the kind that teachers live for.

Different singers sing the same song in unique ways. That’s something even those of us who aren’t particularly original can do: we can make a song our own anthem and by doing that help others to hear it differently. While I conceded that there’s been much great sci-fi writing over the years, and while I find it sometimes to read Harry Turtledove, I don’t have the skill to create an entirely new world. I find it’s enough of a challenge to my writing skills to take an old story and express it in a new way.

Find a familiar song and make it your own. That’s one of the greatest rewards of any creative endeavor.

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