They say you can't make something out of nothing. I think they're wrong.
This week, friend and fellow author Sarah O'Donoghue came to visit from England. She had never been to New York. When you only live an hour's train ride away, there's no excuse for failing to remedy this sort of cultural gap, so she sent me her list of Places to See, ranked from most wanted to least, and I put together a vague itinerary, with some input from my brother who lives in Brooklyn (and thus does not have to consult a subway map as much as I do to figure out the best plan of attack). She wanted to do some of the usual things you do when you've never been to New York, like go to the top of the Empire State Building (tourist tip –not only is the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center less crowded, you get a better view of the city because you're further up the island, and the view of the ESB itself is fabulous–see Sarah's photo at left!), but she also told me she wanted to go to Flushing Meadows.
I'll be honest–I'd never heard of Flushing Meadows until Sarah mentioned it, and since I'd only ever been to Queens once, many years ago, to see a taping of the short-lived Madigan Men at Kaufman Astoria Studios, I was way out of my comfort zone, but willing to check it out anyway. The reason she wanted to go? Flushing Meadows is home to what little's left of the wonderland built in 1939 and again in 1964 for the New York World's Fairs, which is the rough equivalent to the remnants of the Crystal Palace in London.
It also happens to be where the climactic moments of the first Men in Black were filmed, and where something was definitely made out of nothing. I'll confess that I've never read any of Lowell Cunningham's MIB comics, so I don't know if he deserves the credit or not, but somewhere in the course of making this movie, someone looked up at what's left of the '64 fair's observation towers and said, "Hey! They look like flying saucers!" And the end of the movie–at the very least–grew from there. (The original theatrical trailer is here, if you need a refresher.)
It's sort of like looking at clouds when you're a kid, when you stretch out on a nice piece of grass and ask yourself—or a friend—what those clouds look like. Even the person who believes s/he has no imagination can look at a fluffy white cloud and see whipped cream instead, or a rabbit, or maybe even a person given the right cloud. I imagine that Lowell Cunningham, or whoever came up with this part of the script, had been to Flushing Meadows and seen the observation towers, in their fairly ruined state, and had no idea what they were. In the course of asking, "What the heck are those things?" conjecture led to flying saucers stored on high, perhaps stopping first at giant metal flowers or a sculpture of plates balanced on the end of a pole. Once settled on flying saucers, the next question was probably either, "Why?" or "Whose?"And that trail of breadcrumbs, propelled primarily by continuing to ask questions, could very well be where the whole story started, working backwards from the Bug who landed on earth.
In my experience, a lot of creative endeavor begins this way. "What the heck is that?" is a question that can lead to a blockbuster movie, a bestselling novel, an exciting new dish featuring an ingredient you never noticed before, an invention that solves a daily problem for thousands of people. It might also be something smaller–a bedtime story made up on the spot, a sketch that inspires a painting or a play, a way to fix that shirt that tore in a spot that's difficult to repair. The size of the venture isn't important; the way it draws in your imagination is what it's all about.
Inspiration is everywhere. We just have to keep an eye out for it.