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.
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.
The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.
Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.
The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.
If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.
We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.
More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.
I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.
One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.
And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.
At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.
I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!
On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.
So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.
It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.
And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.
We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…
…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.
John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).
Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.
As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.
We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.
We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.
Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.
Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.
And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)
We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.
It was more than a year and a half ago that Susan McBeth and I began planning our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure by the Book, and when we found ourselves in Buenos Aires at last, we could hardly believe the trip was finally happening (and a small part of our group would be headed to bigger adventures yet, in Antarctica). But we had three days in beautiful, balmy Buenos Aires first — and we knew the best way to overcome the jet lag after our early morning arrival would be to stay awake, get out in the sun, and walk around. So we headed to one of the city’s biggest treasures: Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.
This gorgeous ecological reserve comprises 865 acres on the banks of the Río de la Plata. It was only a couple of miles’ walk from our hotel, and once inside the reserve, it was hard to imagine we were still in the middle of a bustling international city, except for a few glimpses through the greenery. The birders among us were especially happy with the myriad species of birds found throughout the reserve.
Of course, the ecological reserve is only one of the city’s many treasures; this being an Adventure by the Book, visiting the gorgeous El Ateneo bookstore was another priority.
Located inside a former theater, this bookstore is a joy to wander through, even if it has only one small English-language section. We posed for a group photo with My Last Continent overlooking the former stage, which is now a cafe.
And no literary tour is complete without an homage to the typewriter — we stopped by this typewriter repair shop, which had a lot of vintage machines for sale. It was a good thing that we had weight limits on our baggage and couldn’t make any purchases, no matter how tempting.
We officially kicked off the Penguins & Patagonia tour with a welcome dinner in the lovely Puerto Madero district, with a gorgeous river view as our backdrop. (Just out of view is Santiago Calatrava’s breathtaking bridge, El Puente de La Mujer, or “Woman’s Bridge.”)
Book ‘N’ Brush is a bookstore in downtown Chehalis, Washington, that I never had a chance to visit but got to know because it was the official bookstore of the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. The display tables Book ‘N’ Brush set up at the conference so beautifully showcased the presenters’ books, with flowing fabric, flowers, and glass beads, and all of the books artfully organized among them.
By the time the conference ended and I walked past the bookstore in downtown Chehalis, it was already closed — but I do look forward to visiting the next time I’m in the area. From my brief peek through its cool vintage storefront, I could see that there’s a wonderful array of books and gifts, cards and games — as well as the art supplies that give the store its name. And the love of all things books that was displayed at the conference is even more evident in the store itself.
I’m also so happy that signed copies of My Last Continent are available at Book ‘N’ Brush, so if you’re looking for a copy, do support this lovely indie bookseller (you can find it in the store, and you can also order it online!).
The bookstore is located in a lovely historic area filled with gorgeous old buildings, like the former Victorian of the store itself. The two women who own the store, Karen and Mo, told us that the beautiful old house used to be a brothel (which, I’ve realized just now, is probably the reason for the lips on the front sign).
Had the day not been so chilly, it would’ve been lovely to relax outside on the expansive porch … but it was even better to be inside, with several rooms of books and plenty of comfy vintage chairs and sofas on which to sit — such as this plush purple chair on which the bookstore cat, Mary Tyler Moore, was snoozing when we visited (she clearly takes her naps very seriously, but she did wake up later and accept some snuggles).
In the back is a cafe where you can get tea, coffee, pastries, salads, and more, and in addition to plenty of places to sit and read chat are cozy nooks of bookshelves that are excellent for browsing. The bookstore has a varied and artfully curated selection of both new and used books.
Another bit of history that made the visit even more fun: I learned that the building apparently has a resident ghost (confirmed by a customer, who put a book on hold, and then it mysteriously disappeared — though it did turn up later — or, the ghost returned it later).
And of course it was beautiful to see a vintage typewriter on a desk overlooking the street, as if waiting to be used.
Don’t miss this sweet little bookstore next time you’re in Southwest Washington … it’s well worth a visit. And be sure to save plenty of time: You’ll want to eat at the cafe, browse for books, and have a few moments to spend with Mary Tyler Moore.
When I talked about travel writing at library events in the lovely coastal towns of Pacific City and Manzanita last weekend, I mentioned that one doesn’t have to travel far to write about place — that, in fact, sometimes the most fascinating people, places, animals, and history are right where we are, or closer than we think.
I discovered just how true this is when I encountered a new creature I’d never seen before — the Velella velella, which are also known as by-the-wind sailors. When I first saw a mass of white on the beach, it looked to me like feathers, or maybe plastic.
When I got closer I saw that some of these creatures were also indigo blue in color, and that they were in fact little marine animals. They are about three inches long and look similar to jellyfish but are actually hydrozoan. They get their whimsical name by the little “sail” that sticks up and makes use of the wind to propel them across the water.
By-the-wind sailors live in temperate waters, and so they are common on the coasts of California and Oregon, often washing up on beaches by the masses. They wash ashore bright blue and will eventually perish, dry out, and become white, transparent, and thin as tissue paper.
They feel a bit rubbery when still holding the sea’s moisture, but when they’re dry they’re frail and papery. (I touched them only after learning their venom is not dangerous to humans, but I did avoid touching any who were still living.)
Next time you’re strolling a beach in spring, be sure to cast your eyes downward on occasion and look for these beauties. Sadly, you’ll be viewing them in their final days or hours (and evidently massive numbers of them create quite an odor, which wasn’t the case in Manzanita), but they’re breathtaking to see.
One of the great joys of visiting Australia is running into a Dymocks in every major city.
Down under, Dymocks is chain bookstore, with each one independently owned. And thanks to Australia’s enthusiastic reading community, a Dymocks in any given city is always bustling.
When My Last Continent first launched in Australia, I stopped in to the Adelaide location to sign books (with Admiral Byrd, of course).
In Melbourne, the central business district store is gigantic, an absolutely heavenly place for book lovers, especially those of us from the U.S., where independent bookstores of this size and scope are more rare than ever.
Of course, you’ll find not only books but plenty of cards, gifts, and other bookish delights.
With row after row of bookshelves, filled with international books on every subject, the browsing is excellent.
And the Dymocks in Sydney’s central business district is equally impressive in size and style.
And it was a delight for Admiral Byrd to find My Last Continent in several places in the store, including Australian Fiction.
And Dymocks also provided bookselling at one of my Brisbane Writers Festival events, so I got to meet Dymocks people in every city I went to. All the staff are welcoming, helpful, and passionate about books. When you’re in Australia and see that cheery red-and-white Dymocks sign, prepare yourself to lose a few hours…and enjoy!
… and Admiral Byrd was of course on hand to assist.
Don’t neglect to browse the full length of this lovely store when you visit (there’s an excellent selection of travel books, as well as new books and local and international bestsellers) and as ever, make sure you have plenty of time.
I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”
Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.
I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).
One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.
I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.
Among the most amazing things about Antarctica (and there are so many) are the sounds. You can listen to the sounds of icebergs rubbing together here. It sounds a bit like furniture breaking apart, and then a little like a penguin colony from far away, and finally it becomes something completely otherworldly.
This wonderful article from Huffington Post offers a few sounds as well — including the voices of an Adélie penguin colony and the wind sweeping across the ice — as well as gorgeous photos and a glimpse of what life is like as a researcher on the continent.
These Antarctic sounds are incredible, but perhaps what’s most remarkable about Antarctica is the silence. The sounds of no human presence at all. It’s impossible to capture in a video or audio, but I did try to capture the feeling in My Last Continent:
” … we listen to the whistling of the wind across the ice and the cries of the birds. I savor the utter silence under those sounds; there is nothing else to hear—none of the usual white noise of life on other continents, no human sounds at all… “
I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.
Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:
And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:
Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).
Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).
The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:
And here is the traditional character:
It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.
When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.
I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.
It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.