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The Happy Accident

by John Caruso

We’ve all experienced the moment when we curse in aggravation but before the last of four letters burst forth, we have an epiphany. We think we’ve made a horrendous mistake only to realize some unseen hand has slipped a genius-Mickey in our frustration cocktail. In other words, we’ve run smack dab into the happy accident. We write. We make a mistake. But, voilà, the mistake is BETTER than what we originally had in mind!

Recently, a writing friend and I stole an afternoon from our schedules to write in a café. (As a side note, it was so nice to change my writing environment. I just don’t get enough café-writing opportunities. Time constraints have a way of forcing a routine upon us. If you get an opportunity to change your writing environment, take it!) As we wrote, a particularly garrulous patron regaled the cashier and those of us with earshot (ok, the entire store) about his morning. After one emphatic statement, my friend and I exchanged glances and decided to write for three minutes based on what Mr. Loudmouth said. Inspiration guided my hand across my notebook. My friend, too, wrote wildly. After the allotted time, we switched notebooks and read. As we read, we realized at least one of us made a big mistake.

What I heard was: “He kept asking me for money, but then I realized he wasn’t blind.” What HE heard was: “He kept asking me for money, but then I realized he wasn’t lying.”

So I wrote several paragraphs about how some con artist asked for money, feigning blindness. Mr. Loudmouth was just about to give him a few dollars when the con man’s eyes flickered on a passing bird. My friend wrote about a homeless man’s sob story and how Mr. Loudmouth, in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity, saw the sadness and despair in the homeless man plight and gave him some money. And so we ended with two very different scenarios changed by the accidental misinterpretation of only one word.

Sometimes, the happy accident occurs and we don’t know it. For instance, I started a story with a character who had dark hair and green eyes. As I wrote, I somehow began referring to her BLUE eyes. I decided to change the original reference from green to blue, and go with it. As I wrote, a plot twist involving the color of her eyes emerged—a plot twist that would only have worked if her eyes were blue. Had I not let the accident flow over me, I may never have explored the different possibilities.

The happy accident may be a complicated series of events that eventually leads you to an epiphany or it may be a simple misunderstanding that provided an opportunity for you to look at your project from a fresh perspective. Whatever the case, this week try to keep yourself open and receptive to the happy accidents. Don’t rush to correct or edit. Study what you wrote, what you want to change, and WHY you want to change it. Furthermore, let your creative mind gambol through free writing, clustering, and other open ended exercises. This way, you stretch your creative mind, preparing yourself to accept those bolts of inspiration, those happy accidents.

© 2003 – 2004 by John Caruso

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