Ever since a trip to Antarctica twenty years ago — long before travel there was as popular as it is now — my writing shifted toward animals. Travel has always inspired my writing (see Forgetting English), but visiting the very end of the earth made me realize that, while the continent and its creatures are so very far away, we are all connected. And everything we do from other continents — from eating meat to fishing to driving — affects the rest of the world, including Antarctica.
My Last Continent focused on penguins — and my new novel, FLOREANA (coming in early 2025; stay tuned!) focuses on another species of penguin, as well as many other animals. And in the mystery novel I co-authored with John Yunker, Devils Island, the endangered Tasmanian devil plays an important role in the story.
Likewise, the boutique press John and I founded in 2011, Ashland Creek Press, has evolved: We still focus on environmental literature (which was hard to find in 2011), but now that mainstream publishing has embraced climate fiction, we’re focusing more on animals. For whatever reasons (and there are many), the close connection between animals and the environment still eludes most people — mostly the fact that eating so many of them is destroying our lands, rainforests, air, and oceans.
And because literature is such a powerful way to open hearts and minds (what’s better than a great story for learning something new?), John and I started teaching Writing for Animals, a four-week class based on the ACP anthology Writing for Animals. It’s available as a self-paced online class — and this March, we’re offering another live class via Zoom.
We were thrilled by the response of students and so happy to learn how many wonderful writers are interested in advocating for animals. Our aim with the class is to help writers convey animals with authenticity and empathy in their work … and we learn as much as we share along the way. We also talk about how to get your animal-themed work into the world. As with environmental fiction years ago, it could be hard to find a publisher to embrace the topic. But it’s possible — and so important to get this work out into the world.
Below is what a couple of our students are saying … see more writer reviews here. And for more on the class and to register, click here.
“John and Midge are knowledgeable, positive, and generous. Their class is one part support group, one part craft lesson, one part animal education, and one part industry talk.” — Heather Marie Spitzberg
“This class is fantastic. It changed my writing and I sold my novel afterwards!” — Sharon J. Wishnow, author of The Pelican Tide
When we read about global warming, we hear mostly about its effects on humans; I so appreciate this NYT article that takes a close look at scientists whose areas of research, from coral reefs to polar bears to penguins, are literally disappearing because the animals they study are dying in large numbers.
If you love penguins as much as I do, scroll down to the interview with Dee Boersma of the University of Washington’s Center for Ecosystem Sentinels. Dee is the scientist with whom I met my first Antarctic, Magellanic, and Galapagos penguins (and whose work inspired storylines in both My Last Continent and my forthcoming novel FLOREANA). As you’ll see in this article, penguins are in trouble — as are so many other animals.
Dee’s words in this piece are stark but also hopeful: “My view is that the penguins have a right to exist. I think we have too many people for the Earth’s resources. Overpopulation and overconsumption.”
The hopeful part of this, to me, is that if we choose to live carefully in the world, we can make room for these endangered animals. We can avoid taking up too much of their food, avoid making the world too warm for them, and avoid taking their much-needed habitat.
When I first volunteered counting penguins with Dee in 2006, the Magellanic colony at Punta Tombo was the largest Magellanic colony in the world. But its numbers have gone from 400,000 breeding pairs in the 1980s to about 150,000 in 2019.
We humans do have the ability to save the world before it’s too late. From small choices like eating mostly (or only) plants to driving less to voting in candidates who take our planet’s health seriously — it can be done.
The animals of the world already take care of the worlds they live in — we humans are the only species that does not. And now it is up to us humans to save not only ourselves but the animals as well.
The deadly bird flu H5N1, which has already killed millions of birds around the world, is now threatening endangered birds in such isolated places as the Galápagos and Antarctica.
In Antarctica, penguin populations are especially vulnerable, according to this article. And not only will penguins, terns, and other seabirds be affected but also seals and other marine mammals.
In the Galápagos, where dozens of sick and dead birds have been discovered, three of five tested birds — two frigate birds and one red-footed booby — have died from the virus. As this article notes, visitor sites have been closed on Española Island, where scientists are particularly worried about an endemic and endangered breed of albatross.
Sadly, because of the isolation of these places, the birds in the Galápagos and Antarctica have little immunity to bird flu and other viruses. And in the Galápagos, scientists are concerned about the endemic species that are found nowhere else and whose numbers are already small.
Fortunately, the dangers of this virus are on the radar of tour companies. As the Telegraph points out, “tourists visiting Antarctica this season may not be able to disembark from cruise ships if the worst-case scenario arises.” Biosecurity measures are being stepped up as well; while for decades all visitors to Antarctica disinfected boots before and after setting foot on land, now even vacuums are being used, and tourists are being advised not to sit or even to crouch near the ground.
And while protecting the birds is priority enough, we humans should also keep in mind that bird flu can spread to humans as well. As the Guardian notes, “A warning has been issued calling on tourists … not to try to touch affected birds. Avian influenza can be transmitted to humans.” And there is some concern that bird flu could lead to our next pandemic.
With record-breaking numbers of visitors to both of these remote and isolated places, perhaps this latest news will give tourists pause — and give the animals a chance at avoiding this deadly flu.
This startling subhead appeared in a recent Atlantic article about Antarctic travel, in a story that makes very good points about how and why travel to the last continent is becoming a lot less sustainable.
In the eyes of many, we have indeed reached the tipping point. The Atlantic story is just one of several I’ve read lately highlighting concerns with tourism in Antarctica
I was so fortunate to have been able to see this majestic continent nearly two decades ago, and I’ve always responded to readers’ questions about Antarctic travel in a positive way, in part because it is hardly fair to discourage people to go when I myself have been there.
But I also believe that the continent has many other problems that need solving — and that travel to the continent can, in fact, inspire visitors to save what they are bound to fall in love with: the ice, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness that exists nowhere else on Earth.
While decades ago, the human impact of travelers in Antarctica was small, now the impacts are greater — not only the carbon footprint of getting to the bottom of the world, but the introduction of bacteria, invasive species, and the effects on wildlife. As this article points out, “A recent study found elevated concentrations of black carbon – soot – in the snow around popular Antarctic tourism sites, which causes snow to darken and melt more rapidly. Researchers have also identified 14 non-native species around the Antarctic Peninsula, transported on clothing and in food.”
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) does an excellent job of encouraging sustainable travel and minimizing impact (yet it does remain a voluntary membership, and not all tour operators are members — those who do travel to Antarctica should be sure their tour company abides by all sustainable travel guidelines).
Ever since My Last Continent was first published, seven years ago, I’ve been pointing out that while tourism does affect the continent, Antarctica has bigger problems: global warming, overfishing, pollution from the fishing industry (from oil spills to discarded fishing gear). My own trip to Antarctica was life-changing — and the continent offers this experience to every potential visitor. If people return from Antarctica with a passion for tackling climate change, protecting endangered species, and making the world a better place, does this not make the trip worthwhile?
It’s not likely that every single one of the 100,000-plus visitors to Antarctica this season returned home and became vegans, stopped driving, committed to a net-zero lifestyle. But if each of them devoted their lives to some form of change for good, this would have an impact. For example, if we as a human species stopped eating seafood, much of the Antarctic’s problems would resolve — the myriad threatened species in the Southern Ocean, from whales to penguins, could have access the food we humans are taking from them, giving them a better chance at survival.
Of course, not all visitors will have such reverence for the continent. The Atlantic notes that “many sightseers bring a whiff of ‘last-chance tourism’—a desire to see a place before it’s gone, even if that means helping hasten its disappearance.” And as this Guardian article points out, “in some areas tourists have traipsed over delicate mosses and plants. Some historic structures have even been scarred by graffiti.” And for many tourists, there seems to be far less interest in learning about the unique landscape, history, and wildlife in Antarctica than in doing things they can do just about anywhere else: climbing, camping, cross-country skiing, paddleboarding, snorkeling.
There is no official cap on the number of tourists who can visit Antarctica, and, as the Atlantic advocates, Antarctica “is actually most valuable to us when left wild, so that it can continue to act as a buffer against climate change, a storehouse of the world’s fresh water, and a refuge for birds, whales, seals, fish, and even the krill that the entire marine ecosystem depends on.”
As this article notes, “Antarctica doesn’t need ambassadors; it needs guardians.” While surely one of the best ways to protect Antarctica may be to leave it alone, at the same time, seeing a place firsthand may be the most powerful way to let it change your life and vow to protect what you were able to witness firsthand so that it will all be there for others to see in the future. As acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says in this 2010 interview in The Sun magazine: “…the wildlife wouldn’t miss us if we didn’t visit. But the reality is that experiencing wilderness increases the chance that we will preserve it.”
Women at the end of the world have been getting more attention lately due mostly to publicized cases of sexual harassment and assault on research bases — and here’s hoping the focus on these women in science will soon shift to the amazing work they’re doing.
As this article points out, women’s work in Antarctica is recent — the continent was first sighted in 1820, and the women who arrived in the early 1900s were accompanying their husbands (check out the book Polar Wives to learn about the wives of famous Antarctic explorers, like Kathleen Scott and Emily Shackleton). It wasn’t until the middle of the century that women traveled to Antarctica to explore and research on their own. The continent was still primarily male dominated even when an all-women team worked there in 1969.
As Chilean biologist Dr Leyla Cárdenas, who’s been traveling to Antarctica for thirteen years, says in this article, work in Antarctica has long been “defined by gender roles.”
It’s inspiring to see more women engaged in polar studies, and perhaps now that efforts are being made to address sexism and harassment, more women will work and thrive in Antarctica, as they already are.
One of my favorite Antarctic stories, though fictional, celebrates women in an extraordinary way: Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “Sur” is about an expedition to the South Pole by a group of South American women — the first humans to reach the South Pole, and the only ones who know it.
When My Last Continent was first published (hardcover in 2016 and paperback in 2017), I found myself answering a lot of questions about Antarctic tourism. Is it ethical to visit this fragile place? What sorts of harm are travelers doing to the environment? Are visitors hurting the penguins’ chance at survival?
My answer, six and seven years ago, was that travel was the least of the penguins’ problems. These incredible birds are being profoundly affected by climate change and overfishing; the best way to help penguins, I used to say, is to stop eating seafood (especially krill) and to fight for climate protections and marine protected areas. Back then, the number of visitors to Antarctica was not enough to harm penguins directly — especially when considering the emotional impact a visit to this beautiful continent can have. I like to think that most people who see penguins in the wild will begin to devote at least part of their lives to protecting them, whether it’s making changes to prevent global warming or to eat less seafood, or none.
But things have changed quite a lot in the last few years. When I went to Antarctica in 2004, there were about 20,000 tourists a year visiting the continent. By the time My Last Continent was published, that number had doubled. Now, the 2022-23 season expects to see more than 100,000 tourists in Antarctica. That is mind-boggling — and seems to be a sign we’ve reached the tipping point at which Antarctic travel can no longer be sustainable.
There are many reasons why 100,000 waterproof boots on the continent are too many: pollution in the Southern Ocean, possible disruptions to penguins’ breeding cycles, the introduction of foreign objects and viruses — and this article highlights something many of us may not even think of — the effects of marine noise for the underwater animals in Antarctica:
The results of this noise “can cause immediate injury or even mortality” to such tiny animals as krill, which penguins and whales rely on for food. But underwater noise also causes stress to whales and other marine animals. The impacts of noise include “miscarriages; injury; disease; vulnerability to predation; changes in appetite; disrupted mother-calf bonds; panic; anxiety; and confusion.”
Of course, fishing boats also cause noise — and we need to limit their presence in the Southern Ocean as well — and scientific vessels are important and often necessary. But each of us can have an impact by considering why and how we travel. Given the animal lives at stake, is it really worth it?
Antarctica is among my favorite places on the planet, and I feel fortunate to have been able to travel there. But I would not make the same decision to travel to Antarctica as I did nearly twenty years ago. I’d like to see other humans discover the magic of this amazing continent — but the trouble is, the magic will be gone if we travel in numbers too great for the animals, and the environment, to handle.
I love reviewing environmental literature for EcoLit Books, and even better is reading the reviews of the other contributors and discovering new works that address our changing planet (and how we might save it).
At the end of a year, it’s always challenging to choose among the great books we’ve read, but it’s fun to see this list of the Best EcoLit Books of the year.
Check it out for books to add to your reading list, or your holiday giving list. And stay tuned for what’s to come in 2023!
Currently the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — established as part of the Antarctic Treaty System and responsible for designating marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean — is struggling, yet again, to create new MPAs in the Antarctic region.
As this article notes, for the sixth year in a row, CCAMLR members couldn’t agree on new MPAs, because two member nations, China and Russia, declined their support.
During a time of unprecedented climate change and mass extinctions across the globe, why is it so hard to agree to protect one of the most fragile (and rapidly warming) areas on Earth?
Scientific American offers a few reasons, from using “‘spurious science’ and other bad-faith arguments” to withhold support, as well as economic interests such as commercial fishing.
As is usual these days, politics seems to be getting in the way of everything, especially progress, and especially when it comes to human and animal rights.
The good news is that every individual has a way to help protect Antarctica. If we stop eating seafood (or even if we simply cut back), we can take away the economic incentive to increase fisheries in these areas where the marine animals need this food far more than we humans do. (We can also eliminate illegal poaching, which happens all the time in areas that do manage to get protection.)
Less commercial fishing also means less pollution, which is a major factor threatening marine species in the Antarctic, especially penguins.
There are bigger issues at stake, of course — the Antarctic Treaty’s environmental protocol is up for review in 2048 — and protecting the continent will ultimately require “concerted, high-level diplomatic activity.”
As the characters and circumstances highlight in My Last Continent, tourism in Antarctica is a tricky thing. On one hand, the Antarctic peninsula — where most travelers visit — is a fragile place, and the fewer humans who set foot on this region, the better. On the other hand, for many who visit Antarctica, it’s a life-changing experience that causes them to rethink everything, especially their commitment to the planet — this was its effect on me — I came home, wrote a story and eventually a novel, and have committed to major life changes in order to do my own part in protecting the planet and its animals.
For the narrator of My Last Continent, Deb Gardner, doing her research means supporting an industry that causes her great worry; she needs the tourist expedition boats to ferry her to the islands where she studies penguins. She encounters travelers who learn to appreciate the continent and who want to help protect it; she also encounters those who care little for its landscape or creatures and who simply want to check it off their bucket lists before it disappears.
A recent study from North Carolina State University (“Tourists’ motivations, learning and trip satisfaction facilitate pro-environmental outcomes of the Antarctic tourist experience,” published in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism) reveals that, in fact, a significant reason that many people travel to Antarctica is to socialize or celebrate with an exotic backdrop — not due to an interest in the landscape or its wildlife. Many were there for the same reason people visit the Arctic or the Great Barrier Reef — a chance to see one of the world’s wonders before it disappears.
This is discouraging, to say the least. If travelers don’t care about the wildlife, how can we inspire them to protect the penguins, the whales, the seals? If they only want to see it before it melts rather than keep it from melting, how can they be convinced that exactly this type of climate change will soon be in their own backyards?
And yet there is some hope: Researchers in this study looked at tourist groups (divided by motivation, i.e., whether they traveled to Antarctica for education, social bonding, adventure, or “to take a trip of a lifetime”), and what they learned, as well as what they felt they learned. Travelers in the education and “trip of a lifetime” group had a high perception of learning, which bodes well for teaching future visitors about conservation and the environment.
The study’s lead author, Daniela Cajiao, said, “If you feel you got something from the learning experience, then it will more likely change you and what you do after the trip. That has important implications for educators, communicators and tour operators.”
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)’s most recent visitor figures are for the 2019-2020 season (the same season researched in the study mentioned above); IAATO reports that 74,401 visitors traveled to Antarctica between October 2019 and April 2020 — this is double the number of five years earlier, and nearly four times the number of visitors who went to Antarctica back when I did, in 2004. Post-pandemic, the numbers are likely to climb again. And while in the 2019-2020 season, 18,506 travelers did not set foot on the continent, an increasing number of visitors are going deep into the continent, as air travel becomes increasingly available and as tour companies offer such opportunities as overnighting on the ice. All of this has a serious impact on the continent, its resources, and its wildlife.
With all this in mind, it’s important to consider why we travel, especially in this era of massive climate chaos. It’s not enough to visit a place before it disappears; we need to consider how we can help conserve these precious landscapes. Those visiting Antarctica need to realize it’s not a theme park but a wild, incredibly dynamic place that needs our protection if we want to continue to share our planet with endangered creatures like penguins and whales. We should absolutely travel to be with friends and family, to celebrate milestones — but we should also travel to educate ourselves, and to return home inspired to do a bit better for our planet.
I absolutely loved talking with Brighde Reed of World Vegan Travel about a few of my favorite things: writing, penguins, creativity, travel, and food. Check out her wonderful podcast here, where you’ll meet travelers, chefs, and many more fascinating and compassionate people.
Click here to listen to our chat, and if you’re ready to travel the world again (it’s been way too long!), don’t miss the upcoming trips with World Vegan Travel … from Japan to Thailand to South Africa to France to Italy, these trips look amazing!
It’s not a secret that many of us writers have had a hard time being creative during the troubling times of the past few years.
And, as I was preparing this post, I realized I have not even glanced at my List of Works since 2019. Granted, 2019 was the last “normal” year before the pandemic changed the world, so I could use this as a handy excuse — but not forever. Even though the world remains changed and the pandemic remains with us, we writers have to get back to our writing, if we haven’t already.
And the good news? Many of us have. In looking at my List of Works, I realized that while I haven’t been tracking my projects, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Updating my list of works has reminded me that though I haven’t felt very creative, I’ve actually been making some creative progress: I’ve been working on three separate book projects (which now, finally, appear in my List of Works), and I’ve somehow managed to publish three short stories during the pandemic.
And this is why I highly recommend keeping a List of Works (learn the how and why in this post), which I began doing a dozen years ago. Having a list like this reminds us writers of the ways in which we are moving forward (even when we think we aren’t).
So, while the past two years have apparently been too distracting to attend to my List of Works, I’m finally getting back on track. (Maybe this means 2022 will be different, and better!) But at the very least, it will remind me that even if I can’t control what goes on in the world, I can control my own tiny piece of it — and being creative is the best way to move forward with optimism during such crazy times.
I cannot recommend a List of Works — or whatever your organizational strategy may be — enough. Even if you’re not an organizer or a list-maker, give it a try. And even if you ignore your list for years at a time, that’s okay — it’s always fun to pick up where you left off, whether you learn you’ve been writing more than you think you have, or whether it helps you realize it’s time to get back to it already.
However you may decide to track your work, don’t neglect to set writing goals and to check in with yourself (or a writing buddy) to keep track of how you’re going.
Those who read My Last Continent usually have a strong reaction to the idea of traveling to Antarctica — they either can’t wait to go, or they decide they will never visit, in order to protect the continent.
This is a frequent question I receive at readings and events. My answer, so far, to the question of whether we should travel to Antarctica has been to point out that the animals, especially the penguins, currently face far bigger problems than tourists: climate change is disrupting their food supply and ability to breed, and the fishing industry is decimating the krill and other fishes that Antarctic creatures rely on. I tell people that not eating seafood and helping work toward climate action may be even better for Antarctica than forgoing a visit, especially if you travel there, return, and become an ambassador for the continent. The more people learn about the perils facing Antarctica and the potential losses we could witness there — from melting ice to endangered penguins, and far beyond — the more we can do here up north to help save it.
But this article should make us all reconsider traveling to the last continent. The article notes that in 2014, routine biosecurity surveillance detected non-native invertebrates at an Australian Antarctic station. These creatures have been eradicated, but it highlights the vulnerability of the continent to invasive species. This isn’t a one-time occurrence.
And climate change in Antarctica, as all over the world, is exacerbating all of the issues facing the continent:
As this article points out, we’ve been lucky so far — before the pandemic, the continent was seeing around 40,000 tourists a year, which is double the number back in the early 2000s. While this is a very high number, and I hope it doesn’t continue to grow, I also hear from a lot of people who say they want to “see the penguins before they disappear.” And this is a very sad reason to travel, especially if the very act of doing so hastens the demise of the species we’re traveling to see.
Scientists will have to deal with the possibility of non-native species in Antarctica no matter how many visitors the continent sees. But all of us who’d love to visit Antarctica should consider staying home for the sake of keeping it safe … or, if we do visit, we should make it a mission to return home to educate and inspire others with all of its beauty, so we can continue to learn how to preserve this beautiful, icy continent and its amazing animals.
For most of 2020, I was hopeful that COVID-19 wouldn’t reach Antarctica. But in December, it became the last continent to report an outbreak, at a Chilean research base.
There are few better places to contain an outbreak than Antarctica (though the isolation means it’s not a place where anyone wants to be sick). Still, the greater worry about the coronavirus and Antarctica is its wildlife. As this article notes, “while there is currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the Covid-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.” Click here to read on.
With travel to Antarctica still uncertain for 2021 (last year, visitors could see the continent via a 12-hour flyby on Qantas), this will help keep the virus at bay there. But research, of course will go on — and this is quite fortunate in that this continent needs protecting now more than ever. Among the many creatures that need monitoring and protecting are krill, the food of whales, penguins, and so many more. Yet overfishing has been threatening their existence, which in turns threatens that of the Antarctic animals who are more familiar. Click here for a wonderful interactive article about krill.
Though Antarctica may have been less affected by the pandemic than any other continent on the planet, it is being affected by climate change more than any other. So even when we’re allowed to travel again, we have to consider what it means to go to the world’s more vulnerable places.
Check out this piece posted on the Climate Fiction Writers League, a wonderful resource for all who are interested in climate change. What I love about fiction is how much you can learn about a place or a species by reading a good story, whether a YA novel or a thriller. You can subscribe to the blog here, and get updates on new books and the science and passion behind them.
Poet and teacher Janée J. Baugher is the author of two collections of poetry, The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and her new book, The Ekphrastic Writer, is an amazing text filled with art, poetry, prose, and inspiration for all writers. I’m thrilled to have had this email chat with Janée about her new book.
Q: With so many museums being closed due to the pandemic, are there any virtual spaces you’d recommend for ekphrastic writing inspiration?
A: I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and when he told me that on July 31st the Art Institute of Chicago was opening I raged with envy. I immediately opened that museum’s website and beheld an incredible article called, “Protecting Art in An Empty Museum.” Isn’t it curious to know that while many of us are jobless, distanced from our family and friends, and spending too many hours before the newsreel that fuels worry and fear, there are countless numbers of tireless museum stewards working around the globe to ensure that works of art remain safe? If you cannot experience art firsthand, museum websites are the best option. So, to answer your question, here are some resources:
This website allows you to click on the world map, which brings up a list of museum website links for that particular region.
The Smithsonian Art Museum, though still closed, recognizes that people remain hungry for art-viewing experiences. Since COVID-19, the organization has revamped its homepage—“Experience American Art from Home.”
The Getty Center is also still closed, but their internet presence is just stellar. Visit the website and you’ll see information on art conservation, research, education, and, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy tens of thousands of images from their collection.
Technology has certainly allowed for an easier way to weather the pestilence, and museums have embraced groundbreaking methods for virtual art engagement. You can search “virtual tours” and “art museums” on the internet, or you can simply visit your favorite museum’s website and see if those types of features exist. Are you lamenting your canceled trip to Paris? Now’s your opportunity to visit the Louvre virtually. What’s the good word from St. Petersburg, Russia? The Hermitage Museum is open! Can’t get there? Yes, you can.
Q: You recently participated in an art project for the City of Shoreline in which you wrote poems in response to scenes in the city’s parks. A lot of people are spending time outdoors during the pandemic. Can you talk about the possibilities within nature and ekphrasis?
A: Years ago I had a revelation about the similarity between writing on nature and writing ekphrastically. With both categories (objects in nature and objects d’art), the journey begins with aesthetics, reverie, and mystery. In my book I write, “Writers write concretely of the things they see, feel, and can name. Art of any type can be an extension of reflections on what you are looking at and how you are processing what you are seeing” (page 46). The possibilities within nature as it pertains to ekphrasis are infinite! While you’re spending time outdoors, keep in mind that public art is always open, and many museums boast sculpture gardens as part of their collection—most of which are still accessible for viewing and experiencing. Here’s an article that was highly informative to my chapter on nature writing: D. W. Meinig’s “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” which is available online. Read this article and then venture out into a landscape and you’ll see it through an entirely different lens, which can be a stellar start to ekphrastic writing.
Q: In your book, you wrote that you first “committed ekphrasis” in 1995. How much of your own body of work is based in ekphrasis? What is it about ekphrasis that captured you and continues to inspire you?
A: One summer during graduate school while I was drowning under the pressure of writing a book, I went to Europe in the hopes that I could find the poems there. Within two days of arriving I found myself in a Berlin museum swooning over a little Dutch painting. I opened my notebook on the spot and out poured a ekphrastic poem. The process was systematic—the poems, I discovered, were at museums, so I visited a new one every other day for six weeks. And the approach to writing was easy—if I just freewrote while in the presence of art, the poems composed themselves. By the time I returned home, I had 100 poems, half of which were ekphrastic. Ultimately, that trip resulted in my first collection of poems. Most of what I write now is ekphrastic. My current work-in-progress is dedicated to a single artist, Andrew Wyeth, which is a new challenge for me in that it’s an opportunity to deep-dive into one artist’s complete oeuvre and to see what connections can be made among his many paintings and drawings. My original impetus for turning to the visual arts is the motivation that holds true for me today: I seek to extinguish the personality. Ruminating on an artwork is, for me, a mode of transcending the quotidian experience. In other words, in the spirit of writing imaginatively, the approach I take to squelch the ego is meditating on an object of beauty.
Q: Which of the twenty-six types of ekphrastic writing from the first chapter of your book—from personifying the artwork to addressing the artist to considering historical context—do you most often employ?
A: In compiling a list of conventions for this book, I studied scholarly articles, as well as read hundreds of ekphrastic prose pieces and poems, including analyzing my own work. Some of those conventions include #3, narrating the artwork; #17, writing the absent; #19, adopting the artist’s artistic style; and #26, transcending description. Unless it were an assignment, I don’t suppose that any of us is truly conscious of what convention we employ as we’re in the drafting stage of writing. It would be a worthwhile exercise for a student of ekphrasis to take one artwork and attempt all twenty-six conventions. For me, the desires I have for my poems take a backseat to the desire of the muse. It’s only during the revision process that I look closely at whatever convention is at play and then work towards consistency therein. For my third collection of poems (on Andrew Wyeth), I write in the first-person point of view, giving voice to Wyeth’s thought process as he paints and draws. That is to say that I’m currently using convention #8, giving voice to the artist.
Q: If you could make one recommendation to a beginning ekphrastic writer, what would it be?
A: The best ekphrastic writing is born from a writer whose aim and delight is to look deeply and for whom there’s some feeling associated with the artwork they’re engaging with. In other words, writing to an artwork for which you’re apathetic will result in a piece of writing that’s dead. Additionally, if you’re too close to a work of art (you’re the artist, for example, or your lover is the photographer), you might be unable to plumb the depths of its mysteries. To rephrase, if you gravitate towards an artwork for which you feel something, and it’s an artwork that you’re willing to scrutinize deeply and well, and through which there’s space for your imagination, then perhaps you’re on the journey to making an ekphrastic writing of literary quality. Even if you have no literary aspirations, writing freely to any type of art is a blast.
Q: And lastly: Would you be willing to choose a writing invitation from the book to offer to readers?
A: Yes, there are 200 writing invitations in the book, but here’s a new one—Since most of us can’t currently access museums and galleries, let’s take this opportunity to start ekphrastic writing at home. What art exists in your home? For example: original art hanging on the walls, posters, postcards, or images of beloved art in a book? Select one piece and place it on a table. Cover the entire artwork with a sheet of paper. While the artwork is cloaked, spend a few minutes remembering its details. What’s the medium? Who created it? What mood does it evoke? What do you most recall about the piece? Next, move that sheet of paper (on the horizontal or the vertical) centimeter by centimeter thereby slowly revealing the image. Take notice of the lines, brushstrokes, hues, shapes, forms, and negative space. Once you’ve truly looked deeply at the artwork, perform a 10-minute freewrite. Afterwards, spend 5 more minutes writing about why that artwork exists in your home. How did you acquire it and from whom? What are your personal associations with it? What’s its significance? Lastly, involving family members in this exercise can be an interesting way to explore others’ relationship to the art that you share.
Even as I wrote the title of this post, I confess I found the notion of “pandemic writing” to be an oxymoron. As I’ve heard from many other writers, it’s difficult to be creative when life is so very stressful. For some of us, it feels indulgent or frivolous, in light of all the suffering in the world; for others, it’s simply hard to focus when so much of life is scary, out of our control, and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.
I’ve found great solace in reading, and it’s in part thanks to the many wonderful books that have given me respite from the stress of current life — or have illuminated aspects of current life — that I’m finally feeling inspired to jump-start my own writing again. Reading is a wonderful reminder that we cannot exist without books — without art in general — and this means that each of us must do what we can to contribute to a world that needs art more than ever.
I was delighted to rediscover this article by Janée Baugher, author of the poetry books The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and, most recently, the writing book The Ekphrastic Writer. In this thoughtful piece, Janée challenges us to find fifteen minutes to spend on our art, whether it’s playing piano or writing. (When I re-read this article, I had only five minutes between reading the last sentence and leaving for an appointment, and I was so inspired that I spent those five minutes writing. And you know what? It was worth it, and helped me get back into a long-neglected project.) You can read the article here.
At a recent virtual reading by the Writers Guild at Bloomington’s Spoken Word Series, I was inspired not only by the music and prose and poetry readings but by reader Katy Yocom’s advice to find an “accountability buddy” with whom to check in daily to keep each other accountable for the day’s writing. As the author of the award-winning novel Three Ways to Disappear and associate director of the low-residency graduate writing programs of the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University, Katy practices what she teaches. Learn more about Katy here, where you can find Three Ways to Disappear, see her upcoming virtual events, and sign up for her e-mail updates.
One of the best ways I’ve found to say inspired is to do one literary thing per week. This may be attending an online reading or event (in addition to seeing what your local bookstores are doing and finding your favorite authors online, check out LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel for a list of virtual events, or Book Riot’s list of reading series now being held online), or listening to a bookish podcast like Books Are My People (Book Riot also has a great list). You might attend a writing practice (such as San Diego Writers Ink’s Brown Bag, Pen to Paper, and Thursday Writers meetings, now online and offering critique-free free-writing sessions led by instructors; sessions are one hour, with a $5 donation for Brown Bag and Thursday Writers). And don’t forget that buying a book from your local bookseller or from a small press will not only enrich your literary life but will help support the literary arts during these tough economic times.
In the spirit of starting to write (or continuing your established writing practice), below are a few writing prompts from Everyday Writing, the book I wrote when I realized I would never have the time to write every single day but could still be a productive writer. (You can check out an excerpt of the book here.) In addition to writing tips I’ve gathered together (from my own experiences as well as those of my brilliant writer friends), the book includes prompts for just about any amount of time you may have, whether it’s five minutes or a week-long writing retreat.
The prompts below are for those who are short on time (which most of us are, these days); they may seem totally random at a glance, but sometimes that’s the idea. Don’t question; just write.
I hope you enjoy them and that they inspire you to be creative during those strange times we’re all living through. Happy writing!
Five-minute writing prompts
Write about what you’re wearing on your feet (if anything). Use as many details as time allows.
Describe your best friend as a two-year-old.
Write about forgetting something at the store.
Fifteen-minute writing prompts
Write about a time you guessed wrong about something, whether it was who might be calling, whom your daughter would marry, or how the polenta would turn out.
Write about a lie someone told you. Include everything, from how and when you knew it was a lie to what might have been different if you’d been told the truth.