Friday, November 20, 2009

Literary Inspiration

Playwright Neil Simon has written many funny plays in his life with many memorable characters and many memorable lines.

It would be hard to pinpoint which play — or which character or which line — would be his best (it's a matter of taste, I suppose), but there is one line from one of his plays that always makes me smile. It's from "The Odd Couple," Simon's play about a pair of divorced, mismatched roommates. At one point, they are entertaining a couple of British siblings, Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon.

One of the sisters (I forget which one) asks Felix, who is a newswriter in the play (and the movie version as well), "Where do you get your ideas from?"

With a bewildered look on his face, Felix replies, "From ... the news."

In Felix's defense, it does seem like a rather obvious thing. Especially to me, because I worked for newspapers for many years.

But I've been writing since I was a child, and inspiration is an important topic for me. Like Ms. Pigeon, I am curious about what inspires other writers.

And today provides an answer — in one case, anyway. It was an event that inspired Herman Melville to write his classic "Moby–Dick."

On this day in 1820, a whaling ship, the Essex, was attacked and sunk by an 80–ton sperm whale in the south Pacific Ocean. The sailors on board the ship got into lifeboats and managed to get to an uninhabited island in the modern British territory of the Pitcairn Islands, where they found food and water, but, after a week, they had just about consumed the island's resources and decided it could no longer support their needs.

Once again, most of the sailors boarded the lifeboats and left the island, although three of the crew members chose to remain.

From that point, the story of the sailors who left the island resembles the Donner Party of the American West a quarter of a century later. Some of the sailors did survive until they were rescued by another whaling ship about three months after the Essex was sunk — but only after they resorted to cannibalism.

Eventually, the sailors who had stayed on the island were rescued as well, but they were almost dead when they were picked up.

The first mate of the Essex wrote an account of the sinking, which, in turn, inspired Melville.

It's worth noting that Melville was born a little more than a year before the Essex was sunk, and he didn't publish "Moby–Dick" until 1851.