Botany and what-ifs. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

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The First Female Photographer

     She was actually a botanist. Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was in her early forties when she set out to catalogue the ocean specimens she was collecting . Rather than employing the painstaking process of drawing them, she used a process pioneered by her scientist father’s friends William Henry Fox Talbot and Sir John Herschel: she made “photogenic drawings” of them in the form of cyanotypes.
            Cyanotypes are “contact prints,” made by placing an object in direct contact with paper. In the case of cyanotypes, the paper is coated with iron salts, which turn a rich shade of “Prussian blue” when exposed to sunlight. The areas covered by the object and therefore unexposed remain white. Once the exposure has been made, the salts are rinsed away, leaving a white image on a blue background. You’ll recognize architectural blueprints as one familiar product of the cyanotype process.
            Atkins placed her botanical specimens on sheets of glass in order to print multiple copies of them more easily. She then bound the prints into a booklet which she titled British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.  The first of these was “published” by Atkins in 1843. Thirteen copies of this handmade, hand-printed book are known to survive, all of them slightly different because Atkins continued to print and update specimens even after she had distributed the book to friends and colleagues.
            Anna Atkins has a passing mention in my next novel (still in progress), which celebrates numerous women in the history of photography via the career of a fictional early 20th-century photographer. Cyanotypes play a slightly larger role in the story.
            You can easily make your own cyanotypes. In fact, it’s a fun summer activity to do with kids. Just follow these instructions

Gleichenia immersa (Jamaica), 1853, by Anna Atkins
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program






“How do you get your ideas?”

I’m pretty good at fielding questions. I’m a teacher, after all, so questions are lobbed at me every day. But when people ask me how I get my ideas, I tend to pull a fast one and talk about historical research. I realize I’m not answering the real question. What people really want to know, I think, is what happens when I sit down to write. How come when I sit down, a story comes out?

Some writers have impertinent comebacks to this question. Neil Gaiman says he gets his ideas “from a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement.” Stephen King just says he doesn’t know. But, for those of you who aren't satisfied with an answer like that, I thought I’d try to answer the question head-on.         

Newbury Medal-winning author Lois Lowry describes one source of ideas that I often use as well. She asks “what if?” As an example, she tells the true story of rescuing a toddler who had wandered onto Broadway in New York City. She delivered the toddler to his frantic mother, who had been searching for him, and all was well. Then she asked herself: “What if as I stood there holding that yowling child, his mother had yelled, ‘Grab that woman! She took my little boy!’ So now I am grabbed by a beefy passerby, a concerned citizen, while the woman dials 911 on her cell phone, and next thing I know, a black-and-white car comes up with sirens going, and in seconds the police have me in plastic handcuffs.” And there’s the beginning of a story.
           Often, ideas appear more mysteriously. I’ve noticed that certain activities tend to be especially fruitful triggers of new ideas and problem-solving. Sometimes this happens when I’m alone—on a long drive, for example—but more frequently it happens when I’m exercising. If I’m stuck on a plot point or in a thematic tangle, I’ll go for a walk or a swim. Even if I’m not consciously thinking about the problem, it will often resolve itself in the process, or something brand new will come to me. (See this quick video on the effects of exercise on the brain.)

The reason ideas come to writers, blogger Scott Whisler explains, is simple: writers “learn to pay attention.” They notice things that other people don’t, and those things are often the seeds of a story. I especially notice the ways in which strangers interact with each other in public—not just what they say or do, but how they say or do it. I intuit a lot from those social interactions, and that information gets filed away in my brain, returning when I need it. Sometimes I don’t even realize this has happened until long after the words are on the page. Often, I can’t identify the original source. I just “know” that’s how my characters would behave.

These are all quite practical answers to the question “How do you get your ideas?” but award-winning novelist, essayist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin gives a more thoughtful, nuanced response of her own in her essay “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” The word "idea," she writes, "stand[s] for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.” She goes on to suggest that writers work with "psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer  experience that has been, in Gary Snyder's lovely phrase, composted."

This may seem like a process that belongs to writers, but really it happens to all of us. We all get “ideas.” Yours come from the same place mine do. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably experienced these same phenomena: wondering what might happen “if,” getting an “aha moment” when you were driving or walking, noticing something that other people haven’t noticed, having an idea that emerges from the subconscious "compost" of your experience.

I’d like to claim that we writers have some magical shortcut to ideas, but our ideas come just like yours do. The difference is how we use them: to tell a story. 

     © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Lammeyer


I just read. . .

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. “Remorse, etymologically, is the action of biting again,” Barnes’s narrator, Tony Webster, observes. This line stopped me in my tracks because I’d never thought of the word that way, but remorse does, indeed feel like biting something again and again, or maybe being bitten again and again. This compact, insightful novel centers around Tony’s feelings of remorse over a girlfriend of many years before and a good friend lost to suicide in his youth. Tony would be the first to admit that he isn’t the most interesting guy. "I rarely ended up fantasising a markedly different life from the one that has been mine," he says. "I don't think this is complacency; it's more likely a lack of imagination, or ambition, or something." What makes him an interesting character, however, is his willingness to examine himself and his youthful actions. There are complications: a strange inheritance, cryptic e-mails, and most of all Tony’s own fuzzy memory. His remorse is misguided and confused, and we’re misguided and confused along with him until the very end of the novel, when things suddenly become clear. This is the kind of book that—if you’re like me—you’ll want to go back and reread as soon as you’ve finished it, in order to find all the little unnoticed breadcrumbs Barnes dropped along the way. It turns out that we readers are not unlike Tony: oblivious to what’s happening around us until it’s happened, then compelled to go back over it and figure it out anew. We’re also like him in that every one of us has experienced remorse, regret, and the self-protective slippages of memory that happen over time, often without our recognizing them. The Sense of an Ending won rave reviews and the Man Booker Prize upon its publication in 2011. It’s a deceptively quick, quiet read that’s likely to stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

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Copyright © Kathy Leonard Czepiel