By Bonnie Bartel Latino
Several years ago I heard Winston Groom speak at the annual kick-off dinner for the Alabama Writers Symposium held in Monroeville, hometown of our state treasure, Nelle Harper Lee. Groom said the most important trait a writer can possess is, “Imagination! Imagination! Imagination!”
Mr. Groom went on to reveal how imagination inspired the name of his best known male protagonist, Forrest Gump, arguably one of our generation’s most lovable literary characters. Groom is an avid Civil War buff. His latest work, published earlier this year, was “Vicksburg, 1863.” Groom’s imagination borrowed the last name of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to create his character’s Christian name.
Inspiration for Forrest’s family name took a bit more convoluted path. Groom served in the military during the Vietnam War, an event and place, which served as partial inspiration for the book that became a blockbuster movie. Groom said when he returned to America after his Southeast Asia tour of duty, many people in San Francisco spit on his uniform. He went straight to Gump’s department store, opened an account, and bought enough clothes so that he never again had to wear his uniform in public while stationed in “The City by the Bay.” Groom must have made a major purchase. For years, he said, Gump’s sent him a Christmas card. The department store’s name inspired Forrest’s last name. I can think of no more perfect name than Gump for the character, can you?
Those of us who possess DNA that demands we write might witness the same event and think only what if.
The creator of “Forrest Gump” is right about imagination being important to writers. Someone who doesn’t write for a living or for the joy of being a wordsmith might find an arrowhead in the woods or happen upon a gruesome car crash and think what or why. Those of us who possess DNA that, like it or not, demands we write, might find or witness the same thing or event and think only what if.
Sights, things, people, and places are tangibles that spur imagination as readily as they create memories. Intangibles like scent, taste, or lyrics often do the same. On rare occasions, an amalgam of all those things sparks imagination. As Winston Groom knows only too well, a keen imagination is perhaps the most powerful trigger for inspiration.
My Imaginary Rice-Catcher
On those fortunate occasions when writers are inspired to a high degree, many find metaphors and similes in practically everything they see and do. I know I do, but that can be tricky too. I place them all in my imaginary rice-catcher, toss them into the air, and try to allow only the best to “stick” … the others I let go like so much chaff.
Perhaps the best ignition for my inspiration is my subconscious. If I am writing a non-fiction article for a print publication, I often “sleep on” an idea or an interview—if the deadline affords that luxury. The same is true if I’m working on a challenging scene for fiction. I’ll often bang out a rough draft, but make no attempt to edit/polish until I hand the scene over to my subconscious.
Sleep Solves Problems in Unexpected Ways
Sometimes my reward is a unique way to begin what would have been a boring newspaper article. If I’m lucky, I might wake-up with an entire block of text in my head. When I have plot difficulty when writing fiction, sleep sometimes solves the problem—often in unexpected ways. That often means rewriting an entire scene, but the result is almost always worth the effort.
Nocturnal extra-sensory perception isn’t limited to writers. I once heard Barbra Streisand say that lyrics sometimes come to her in sleep. I wonder if the multi-talented Ms. Streisand keeps a notepad and pen bedside her bed too, to capture inspiration before dawn’s early light diminishes it to dust.
As for Winston Groom’s imagination, if you ever meet him, don’t be tempted to ask what inspired the most famous line from Forrest Gump, the movie: “Life is like a box of chocolate. You never know what you’re gonna get.” He loathes the simile and says it’s not in his book. He gives dubious credit to the screenwriters.
One man’s inspiration is another man’s trash. That’s what makes the creative process so intriguing.
Do you also get inspiration by sleeping on it?
Bonnie Bartel Latino recently received the Military Writers Society of America 2009 People’s Choice Award for her short story, “The Rush of Butterflies.” She is a former columnist for Stars and Stripes newspaper/Europe.