The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)

by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we’re diligent not to plagiarize. It’s a clear no-no. But what about ideas? When is it okay to copy an idea and “adapt” it for our own purpose? Is it a compliment, stealing, or a smart move?

I regularly listen to the NPR show/podcast TED Radio Hour. Host Guy Raz, who is leaving after seven wonderful years, is airing his favorite shows as he says goodbye. In today’s broadcast, “What Is Original?” from 2014, Raz interviewed thinkers who have given TED talks on the subject of invention and creativity. Their answers were fascinating. (Listen for yourself at

Raz’s premise is that every invention, song, piece of art, or idea is built on something that came before. So that pretty much answers the initial question. “Nope. Nothing is original.” He didn’t bring up Ecclesiastes but he could have:

“Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new” (1:9-10 NLT).

Stealing from a Samurai

One guest, Kirby Ferguson, had given a TED Talk called “Everything Is a Remix.” In it he played songs that Bob Dylan, one of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time, knowingly appropriated for his own melodies. According to Ferguson, Dylan was doing what folk musicians had always done. What people had always done.

“I think human beings aren’t really capable of coming up with something from nowhere,” Ferguson said. “Like, I think we just do not do that. We build out of materials. We use tools to make things. That’s what we do.”

Ferguson went on to show how George Lucas stole from a filmmaker of samurai films in the 1950s and 60s he admired named Akira Kurosawa. Think of how the Jedi dress; consider the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet. There’s even dialogue in the Star Wars films lifted from the Japanese movies.

That led Raz to ask, where’s the line? What’s copying and what’s building on something that came before? Ferguson replied that the line is between how much you “borrow” and what you do with it.

“So if you take a large chunk of it, to me that is where you’re being derivative. You’re being unoriginal,” said Ferguson. “I think you need to be transforming the things that you copy. You need to be recontextualizing them. . . . You need to be, you know, transforming and combining those elements in exciting ways.”

No Solitary Geniuses

Ferguson next talked about Steve Jobs—ever heard of him?—who announced in 2007 a new technology called multi-touch. Then he ran a tape of a guy named Jeff Han—ever heard of him?—speaking in 2006 about the same technology and saying it wasn’t new: people had been playing with it since the 1980s.

But here’s the thing: The multi-touch patents that Apple filed were for the small parts they had arranged in their own way. And then they went on remixing elements—touchscreen technology, GPS, the internet. And while there were at it, they they changed the world.

This isn’t the story of one genius inventing one amazing thing all by himself, is it? The individualistic narrative is easier to understand and repeat than the incredibly complex process over time involving multiple dreamers and inventors and leaders, culminating in a brilliant new thing.

Where Innovation Happens

What’s this got to do with freelance writers?

Raz interviewed another thinker, Steven Johnson. His TED Talk was called “Where Good Ideas Come From,” which is also the title of a book he published.

Johnson told the story of an 18th century British fellow named Joseph Priestley. He was friends with American founders like Benjamin Franklin. Priestley made huge breakthroughs in science, especially chemistry (for example, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen). Then he would share them with his friends. They’d talk together for hours, mashing up ideas, challenging one another.

From this, Johnson moved into a final thought, and it’s going to lead to my point, I promise. It has to do with something we’re all familiar with: the coffeehouse.

Did you know that coffee had a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment? Up to this point, water wasn’t safe to drink. So all day long, people drank ale and wine. You basically had a civilization of drunks. Think about that for a moment.

That is, until the rise of the coffeehouse.

“And then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant,” said Johnson. “You would have better ideas. It’s not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.”

But Johnson wants us to note where this was happening. The coffeehouse. A public gathering spot. “It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.”

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

“More often than not,” said Johnson, “[ideas are] cobbled together from whatever parts happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffeeshop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new. That’s really where innovation happens.”

So, there you have it. There is nothing truly original in this world, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes said. But we get to “borrow” and remix all the melodies and dialogues and discoveries and images of our culture and come up with our own creations.

But not alone. So turn off your laptop. Get out of your office. Grab a fellow writer or four and go have coffee. Set up a regular gathering with other creative folks. Together, let’s change the world.

Continue reading “The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)”

2020 Vision

The last day of 2019. Hard to believe, isn’t it? 

Most of us are probably taking some kind of inventory of the last year, reflecting on what we accomplished, where we failed, how we grew, what we learned. . . and hoping to do better in 2020, whether in our personal lives or in our writing careers.

Here at the Christian Freelance Writers Network, we’re looking forward to growing this blog and making new connections! We have some individual goals as well.

Joyce has shared three things she wants to focus on in the new year:
1. Submit more magazine articles for both adults and kids.
2. Complete a middle-grade book project she has started.
3. Devise a workable social media strategy she can be consistent with.

After years of neglect in her personal life and a foggy professional focus, Anita has been reinventing herself. She’s starting to feel whole again—and wholly dedicated to being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to landing a collaborative book deal, drumming up a magazine assignment at least once a month, and expanding a B2B client base. Her attitude? “Yahoo!”

Randy does a lot of different types of writing, including playwriting, and he’s been cooking up a couple of ideas in that genre.  One of his goals is to move forward with those. Sounds exciting!

Ann has chosen “NEW” as her word for 2020. Her goal is to create a book proposal for a new project. She’s also signed up for a Writer’s Digest class, something new she’s never done before. She’s also thinking about a second nonfiction book project, which she says would require some new actions on her part.

I (Ann-Margret) took a bit of a sabbatical from writing in the latter part of the year so that I could take time to read and reflect and let my well fill up, so to speak. My goal for 2020 is to pitch fresh queries to some of the publications I’ve written for in the past and approach a few new ones as well.

Have you set any writing goals for the new year? Do any of the targets mentioned above spark ideas? We’d love it if you shared them with us in the comments section below. Don’t forget to sign up to follow this blog, and visit us weekly for new articles and tips.

From all of us at CFWN, Happy New Year!

Ann-Margret Hovsepian


The Search for the Perfect Coffee Shop

Sometimes a writer needs to get away, but where?

My longing for a coffee shop has little to do with caffeine. I am an addict, but not an aficionado. Folger’s is just fine for me, and I make my own each morning. What I want is a place—a table where I can spread out a little, a bit of natural light, and a dim buzz of activity that I can ignore.

South Jersey—the region where I live and write—has many fine attractions. For instance, I’m five minutes away from an authentic Revolutionary War battleground. I’ve never been there, but if I ever feel the need to visit an authentic Revolutionary War battleground, five minutes, I’m there. In the opposite direction, there’s a mall. This mall is so popular, they built four other malls around it. We are thoroughly malled up.

Yet in all that commercial potential, there is not a decent coffee shop.

I’ve tried libraries. No coffee, but they do have, you know, books. My problem is that there isn’t enough buzz. I like knowing that human communication is going on around me, even if I’m not in on it. As a writer, I want to keep my finger on the pulse of society. The library doesn’t have much of a pulse.

We have more diners than we need in South Jersey, and there are times when I have sought solace at a diner when I grew weary of the search for a coffee shop. Diners do serve coffee, and they have tables. Their waitstaff also displays a unique charm. They generally call me “Hon,” an endearment I don’t receive at the library. Still, I need more.

For years I hated Starbucks, on principle. Their overpriced coffee was one thing, but it was probably their steady drive toward world domination that bothered me most. I still laugh when I remember a joke I heard years ago from Conan O’Brien. “It is now illegal to open a Starbuck’s inside another Starbuck’s.” And yet now I find that Starbuck’s is usually my best option. Coffee. Tables. Buzz. The only problem is that the nearest one is twenty minutes away, and that’s twenty minutes I could be spending at home complaining about the lack of coffee shops.

So if you have entrepreneurial skill, come on over to South Jersey. There’s a wide open market for the perfect coffee shop. And a cool battlefield. Or so I hear.

Randy Petersen