How are you “inspired” to write? Some people get inspired, no doubt, scraping the last peanut butter from the bottom of the jar, trying to get the last bit of that sticky chemical from the swirling plastic nub at the center of the bottom. The whirlpool scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean might have been the afterthought of the construction of a peanut butter sandwich. Probably chunky peanut butter.
I have no problem coming up with ideas; some are just more usable than others. I think one of the best jobs in the world would be those screen writers who come up with a movie by sitting around playing “what if…” Leaving Stephenson's Treasure Island out of this, what Muppet movie was ever based on a book? In The Muppets Take Manhattan, there was a great cameo of Mayor Ed Koch. That must have been brainstormed when they came up with the original idea, like “let’s make this movie take place in Manhattan and we can have all these hilarious cameos.” What Ed Koch said was immaterial; whatever he said would draw a laugh. Make it in the least way funny and you get double-plus laughter.
When I was a press card carrying reporter I had all these opportunities that came up in the normal course of business. I filed many of those instances in the back of my head and I find that I am drawing on more and more of them lately. That means that they were either fortuitous opportunities that don’t come around that often or my life has gotten a whole lot more boring since those salad days.
The point I want to make is that when an opportunity comes along, keep a very open mind and try to be as aware and observant as you can be in the moment. If something looks odd or curious or even unidentified, ask the question. You’re there, make it worthwhile. Last summer I happened to cross paths with a cousin I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He mentioned that he would be in New York in August and that we ought to get together. As it turns out he has an unusual job. He’s the captain of a yacht. I mean yacht as in capital “Y.” He said he would berth at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan (at 23rd street and the West Side) and he had to babysit the boat that night so we could sit and talk. He also promised a complete tour.
How many times have I ever had the opportunity peek into every nook and cranny of a large boat before? How about, never? So I made my way after work over to the Chelsea Piers that night, a pleasant balmy 68 degree evening in August. We sat on one of the three after decks and looked out at the Manhattan skyline as the lights came up, focusing straight ahead at the Empire State Building. My cousin was great, taking time to explain all the electronics, daily life on the ship, and how everything operated. He was patient with my 1001 questions. I’m not sure I’ll ever write about a boat but, should I have to consider a plot that involved a boat, I would be prepared or know where to go to ask a specific question, a great way to start. No pressure, just go and have fun and scribble a few thoughts.
Years ago, my publisher called me into his office, a paneled version of Ward Cleaver’s den, the location of many lectures to the Beaver. He gave me two tickets to a luncheon junket that was a promo for a movie. It would be the first review I ever wrote and a good start because I would be given identical opportunities in the next few years. I would be attending in his place and I could preview the movie and have a freebie lunch along with cocktail hour. I arrived at the huge movie theatre on Route 46, arriving several minutes early at a large dining room still being set up by the staff. The press corps, a motley crew of middle-aged adults, was bunched in a group at one end of the dining room and at the other was a collection of chairs, folded and stacked against the wall, some of those serving tray holders stacks, and a short-bearded man with a small felt hat, a trench coat and an umbrella. As I remember that day, there was not a cloud in the sky, no rain in days and no prospects of rain in the near future. Since he was clutching that umbrella on such a beautiful day I immediately figured out that he had to be the movie director. As he shyly backed away from the scene, he was moving into the stacked serving tray racks and they were pushing into the chairs and the whole arrangement was in danger of cascading down. I hurried over, caught the chairs and gently steered him away from the impending avalanche and introduced myself.
We struck up a conversation and I realized that I was a friend indeed and he needed an anchor because he was too nervous to face all those nasty press people alone. In fact, he was great one-on-one but looked like he was going to his execution when he was asked to stand up and greet everyone with a few words about his movie. He was 27 at the time. By now, he’s 61 and in between he’s learned to stand up to a bevy of reporters and calmly discuss his projects. Back then, he thought the press was the enemy, like they were going to find out that he was a canard. Success breeds confidence.
We had a great lunch and he was very open and friendly. He pointed out where the flaws in the movie were and told me to watch a scene were a man is being chased down the hall of a hotel and at the last instant jumps into an elevator, and into the open arms of four nuns. A close look reveals that the nuns were men, one even having a mustache. Naturally it happens so quickly the brain is fooled when the eye is not. The eye records the event but the brain only reports out what it’s used to seeing. Nuns don’t have beards.
For the record, that director was John Landis, whose next movie months later was Animal House. The movie we were previewing was Kentucky Fried Movie, made on a budget of $650,000 that eventually grossed $20-million. He went on to add to his credits: The Blues Brothers, 1941, American Werewolf in London, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Twilight Zone, Trading Places and Coming to America.
That whole experience got filed into the back of my brain file so that if I ever need to write about a conversation over lunch with a movie director, I’ll just know that it’s almost like every other lunch conversation. Having said that, I am sure the next director that I am discussing my movie deal with will be a vastly different experience.
The next time you have access to an extraordinary occurrence, flip on that recorder in your memory and then file the event for future “inspiration.” Some writers carry notebooks around, not trusting their memory. You could do that, and then toss that notebook onto a pile of scads of other notebooks and rely on some sort of personally developed filing system for a recall of which notebook had what experience. Or, have a memory like mine, wired for eclectic and strange recall. That’s how I am “inspired” when I write.
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