Inspiration comes when you least expect it, as I found when I was in a bit of a writing slump a few years ago.
Dissatisfied with my career, unsure what to write next, I did what turned out to be the smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life; I hopped on a train and went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Intending simply to breathe some fresh air and look at some wonderful paintings, instead I found my muse.
Or rather, I found someone else’s muse. Lewis Carroll’s, to be exact. For at the Art Institute that day, there happened to be a traveling exhibition titled “Dreaming in Pictures: The Photography of Lewis Carroll.” I had no idea Lewis Carroll had ever taken a photograph in his life; I only knew him as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I walked into this tiny basement room, where I was instantly confronted by sepia-toned images of young girls. Startled, I read a brochure informing me that Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of a man named Charles Dodgson, who had taught mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, and was one of the earliest enthusiasts of the art of photography long before he penned his classic book.
Well—curiouser and curiouser! I continued my way around the room, gazing at all these photographs, until one image stopped me full in my tracks. It, too, was a photograph of a young girl, but even among all the others, she stood out. It was her face, her eyes; bold, worldly and, I couldn’t help but think, oddly womanly. She looked so modern compared to the very Victorian attitude of the others. The caption informed me that she was seven-year-old Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. She was also the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland.
I was stunned. I had no idea there was ever a real little girl named Alice. I wondered what happened to her, after she grew up. I wondered what happened between the two of them—artist and muse—to result not only in Wonderland, but also this very startling photograph. I thought there might be a story there.
I went home, and eventually, I decided to write it.
In the process, I learned so much. I learned that the relationship between a man and a child could remain the subject of speculation and rumor 150 years after its mysterious demise. I learned that Victorian clothing was almost as stifling as Victorian etiquette. I learned that immortality as a child does not spare one tragedy as an adult.
I learned about a remarkable woman of great strength and character.
And I learned that inspiration can be anywhere, even in the basement room of an art museum. We only have to keep ourselves open to every possibility, every topsy-turvy notion.
Just like a certain little girl in Wonderland.