Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

Recently I’ve been working with a group of young writers, offering feedback on their works-in-progress. It’s got me thinking about critiquing and about receiving criticism. In my writing life I’ve experienced two broad categories of criticism, and lots of variations between: the first kind delivers renewed faith in my ability and energises me to tackle my writing problems; the second leaves me paralysed with despair, questioning whether I ought not just give it all away.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

In this post I’m looking at tips to consider when giving and receiving criticism. A caveat: I am not a professional editor. I am a novelist and a teacher of creative writing with time spent on each end of the reviewing seesaw. If you’re up for it, join me on this crucial part of the writing journey. I would love your input.

Why have your work reviewed?

I have yet to find anything in the revision process that equals the value of frank, supportive feedback from a trusted reader. Novelist Robert Stone likens the revision process to trying to cut your own hair. You may sense that your story needs improving, but without a clear picture it’s hard to get it right. Stone says that an external reader may not be able to tell you how to style the material, but they can hold up a mirror to help you see beyond your normal range of vision.

Writer’s tip: during the manuscript process, carefully consider who you hope to review your work. Your family and friends may love every word you write, but unless they can pinpoint and articulate your story’s strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not the best means of advancing your story. An independent reviewer, a writing colleague, an astute reader, a teacher or mentor, one whose opinion you respect (perhaps even tremble at a little), may be better equipped to offer practical, productive guidance. This doesn’t mean you are compelled to agree with or act upon every point of call. You are the referee of your own story, free to consider each problem and solution.

First flush

The term first flush refers to the first plucking of a tea plant during harvest season, said to yield the purest tea the plant is capable of producing. A reviewer’s ‘first flush’ reading of your work, free of the echo of earlier drafts, is likely to offer the premium yield. That crucial ‘first read’ invites keen observations and astute queries. Unless you have an unlimited bank of trusted readers vying to see your work-in-progress, be strategic about who you will ask to read your work, and at which stage of the drafting process. If you have the luxury of more than one reviewer, look to each of them as yielding a ‘first flush’ reading. Invest wisely.

Writer’s tip: requesting someone to review your writing, especially a novel-length work, is a big ask, best approached with consideration. Such a review amounts to an extraordinary act of generosity and a monumental undertaking on the reviewer’s part. If the reviewer declines your request, be gracious. If they agree, be sure to acknowledge them for their time and input. Needless to say it would be poor form to expect someone to review your work if you were unwilling to contribute in kind.

Respect your reviewer

The degree of effort and attention a writer puts into their draft is sure to have a boomerang effect. When I read a work that demonstrates care and polish, I know I have been entrusted with something deeply important to the writer. But when a work is riddled with typos and poor grammar, where parenthetical notes indicate incomplete business, the review process feels disruptive, at worst dispiriting. You need your reviewer to be on your side, to see your commitment and to want you to succeed. Author Joyce Carol Oates likens the readers’ role to that of ideal editors: a friend of the text and a friend of the writer. Compare the interaction to any important endeavour: it wouldn’t be in your best interest to rock up to an interview without considering your appearance or preparing as best you can. Recently a writer emailed me their work for review. In the week that followed I received multiple updates with instructions to ignore the previous versions. A reviewer is donating their time and expertise. Enough said.

Encouragement, false praise and brutal blows

Do you remember your earliest days of creativity, when the act of forming letters on a lined page, or making up stories, or drawing or painting or colouring-in was unadulterated fun? Do you remember your earliest artistic creations and the joy you felt at a teacher or parent’s words of praise?

What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong, other than adulthood. The downside of developing and honing a skill is a rise in self-awareness and with it the inevitable onset of an inner critic. I respond positively to encouragement. We all do. I suspect so much of the child resides in us all. As I write, and when I review my writing, my inner critic is all too ready to give me a serve of self-doubt. I have to listen to that harsh little voice, I can’t ignore it, but left unchecked, our inner critic holds the power to unravel the positives: creativity, confidence, drive, motivation.

An external voice, one that is measured and perceptive, will look to both the strengths and shortfalls in your work. It will offer praise, encouragement, guidance. That said, is there a place for false praise? And how does the need for encouragement position words of actual criticism?

False praise is about as counterproductive as brutality. As a reviewer you are ultimately doing the writer a disservice not to be up front about areas of the writing that need work. At the same time, a sole focus on the negative does not offer a measured review. I haven’t yet read a piece of writing in which there wasn’t something to admire. Acknowledge those high points. I am mindful when asked to review a work of how far along the writer is in their journey. For some, this will be their first experience beyond school at receiving a review unquantified by a grade. As reviewers, the language we use is paramount. Match the tone and advice to the individual. Be clear. Be kind. Put yourself in the writer’s head and imagine receiving your review.

As for brutality, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. The objective of a review is never to crush the writer’s confidence, but to enable the writer to see both the strengths of their work and where it may fall short—to offer strategies that advance the work to become the best that it can be. Writing is a courageous undertaking, a commitment of hours and effort, a never-ending school of learning. I’ve always loved this philosophy from my creative writing professor Dan Mueller at the University of New Mexico, back when I was a writing student. Dan’s words introduce a creative writing workshop, but can as easily apply to any writing or review situation:

I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the blueprint, or seed, of what it ultimately wants to be. For the author, fully realising a piece of fiction requires carefully listening to what the narrative is telling you during the act of composition, from the first sentence to the last, and at every stage of revision. In this way, pieces of fiction are born.  —Dan Mueller

How will a review best serve writer and reviewer?

Picture this: the writer has completed her third, sixth, thirteenth, nineteenth draft. Whichever number it is, she tells you she feels close to completion and asks for your feedback. Before undertaking a late-stage reading, it behoves reviewer and writer to clarify their intentions. Is the writer being clear (and honest) about what they want from a review? If it came to the crunch, would the writer be willing to discard and rewrite, or have they travelled way beyond that point? You may be asked to review a manuscript limited to word and line-level comments. Does the writer fully appreciate the time and expertise involved in any form of review? I was asked once to review a multi-page grant application. ‘It just needs a light edit,’ I was told. More of a light kidney transplant. Perhaps you’re being called upon because your particular expertise in life fits the subject matter of the work, independent of writing craft. Are you willing to tailor your reading to the request? If not, think carefully about taking it on.

Writer’s tip: isn’t there a part of us all just craving to be told that the work we have produced is genius? Before surrendering your manuscript for review, interrogate your motives. Consider who you are asking to review your work and what you are asking of them. If you are unwilling to receive criticism or act upon it, set your manuscript aside or submit it for publication.

Your thoughts

Was there a mentor who helped you overcome adversity or gave you faith in yourself? Was there an experience that altered your approach to writing or reading? Do you have advice to share? Drop me a line in the Comments box below or email me via this link. I would really, really love to hear your experiences.

Readers on Reading

In this segment I invite an inspirational reader to share a little of their life and a favourite recent read.

“Fiction – particularly historical fiction – can reveal disturbing but significant truths for all of us; stories that need to be told, that need to be heard.”—Nicole Sinclair

Nicole Sinclair. Photo credit: Jessica Edgar

I first met talented writer Nicole Sinclair during my time in south-west Western Australia. Nicole, a secondary English teacher, was already highly regarded for her award-winning short fiction and non-fiction and had decided to tackle writing her first novel as part of a creative writing PhD. Any postgraduate study is a mighty undertaking, and for Nic it proved to be a remarkable, if not wild and crazy personal journey as she navigated a way through research and writing, in combination with falling in love, marrying, moving between towns, and bringing two energetic daughters into the world. Whew. I am delighted that dedication and perseverance has rewarded Nic’ with happy outcomes—a shiny new family, an academic degree, and the recent publication of her PhD novel Bloodlines. Here, Nicole shares two treasured experiences that have shaped her life, along with a favourite recent read.

Travelling solo

Traveling by a taxi in Dogon country, Mali, 2006

With local children in Dogon country, Mali, 2006

From a young age my sisters and I were encouraged to travel. See the world, our folks said, there’s plenty of time to settle down when you’re older. I was always interested in other cultures. History was one of my favourite subjects at school – I loved learning about faraway places, so vastly different to where I Iived. I have travelled to many different countries, and know I am fortunate to have done so. At a particular time in my life I was drawn to countries less frequented by tourists – Mali, Ghana, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea. This deepened my ideas of humanity, and the whole spectrum of human experience. I found the adventure of solo travel thrilling, but I look back now with an acute awareness of my vulnerability at moving through such countries alone. I know that this experience fostered in me a sense of my own power, an assertiveness, and the necessity of trusting my intuition. All these things are important – especially for a woman. Having said that, I have always had a strong feeling of ‘home’ too – often linked to my childhood farm in Western Australia’s wheatbelt. I remember feeling exhausted and sick with Giardia on the road to Timbuktu. We were caught in a howling sand storm at a river crossing and the sight of a lone gum tree brought me to my knees with longing. So many of my travels were woven into Bloodlines in some way, and I appreciate the depth and sense of expansion having access to travel brings to my life.

Mothering

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Traveling these days requires a different backpack and is limited to the south of Western Australia.

I have two very young daughters (aged four and two). I wrote my novel, Bloodlines, while they were babies, and although I often felt torn between my writing life and my role as a mother (that I was doing neither job particularly well), my children were lifelines in the busy period of writing and editing. I knew early on that I was never going to be a perfect mum, that this is just a fallacy and so the idea of being a ‘good enough’ mother resonated. I found this helpful for my creative life too. I have a tendency for perfectionism and I realised at a certain point my novel had to be ‘good enough’ – otherwise I might never finish it, never be ready to send it out. Small people also make us laugh and have fun. They give us permission to act like a goose. I’m inclined to live in my head a bit, so this is a real blessing.

My favourite recent read

The Sound coverThe Sound is a historical novel written by Sarah Drummond. Set in the 1820s, it centres on the sealers who sailed along Australia’s south coast. These men are a violent, rough mob – most evident in their treatment of the indigenous women and children they kidnap from islands and coastal communities. Based on much research (this novel was undertaken as part of a PhD), Drummond chillingly depicts this merciless world; she does not shy away from the brutality the sealers dish out to the women, animals or each other, yet her portrayal is never gratuitous. It is testament to the skill of a great writer when they deal with such confronting material so deftly. It is not all hard-going for the reader – through the protagonist Wiremu Heke (Billhook), we witness decency and tenderness. He is our moral compass. And the evocative images of the coastline around Albany (Drummond’s childhood home) are expertly drawn. Drummond is a fisherwoman and her knowledge of the sea gives real authenticity to the tale; she knows her stuff. I enjoy reading stories based on the colonial era in Australia – so much of it ‘left out’ when I was a student. Fiction – particularly historical fiction – can reveal disturbing but significant truths for all of us; stories that need to be told, that need to be heard. The Sound is one of these. I found it compelling from start to finish.

Bloodlines coverA big round of thanks to my guest reader Nicole Sinclair. The Sound has just arrived at my local bookstore and I can’t wait to read it. And I highly recommend Nicole Sinclair’s stella new novel BloodlinesFor more on Nicole and the story behind Bloodlines, check out this fab posting on Amanda Curtin’s Looking Up Looking Down.  

One Year in Tasmania

Videographer Simon Treweek. Photo: Robyn Mundy

In a recent blog about Maatsuyker Island, I spoke of an island visit from two shiny videographers Simon Treweek and his mate Nick ‘Noodle’ Nain-Smith. During their stay the boys experienced the full brunt of Tasmania’s Southern Ocean, with knock-down winds, lashings of rain and tantalising bursts of sunshine. I doubt anything could have dampened their enthusiasm, for in 24 hours the boys soaked up the island with their cameras to create the 3-minute video Maatsuyker.

Now, not one but two of Simon’s adventure-plus videos, The Edge of the Earth and Maatsuyker, are shortlisted in the One Year in Tasmania Adventure Film competition 2017, part of the Cradle Mountain Film Fest. I thoroughly recommend grabbing 3 minutes then another 3 minutes from your own crazy adventures to view them. Have your say in The People’s Choice Award, open now until May 2nd. To vote, simply like♥ your favourite(s). Links to my two faves below:

Photo courtesy of Simon Treweek


The Edge of the Earth: Surf photographer Stuart Gibson grabs inspiration from Shipstern Bluff, the heaviest wave on earth. Directed by Simon Treweek, this high-octane video won Simon an overnight stay at Maatsuyker Island, courtesy of Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.

Photo: Simon Treweek

Maatsuyker: Visit a mysterious island that Tasmanians hear about every day in the weather forecast but that few have ever seen. Directed by Simon Treweek. 

 

Beneath the rainbow

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Any title that includes Rainbow is bound to conjure images of crystals and incense sticks. Nope, there’s not a tinkle of glass nor a whiff of sandalwood to be found in this post, only photographic proof that it is possible to see the end of the rainbow, and live a serene life beneath it. We’re talking Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, the island where my novel Wildlight plays out, within cooee of the south-west corner of Tasmania.

Our six months of caretaking and weather observing at Maatsuyker Island has come to a close. Now, even more than our first few days of treading paved roads, it feels like crashing back to earth. The work on the island was hard, the living conditions cold, and the wind rarely stopped blowing, but perhaps all these challenges contributed to us having the time of our lives. And even though we turned into eating machines, we each left the island many kilograms lighter, and fitter, thanks to hauling lawnmowers up and down slopes, wielding brush cutters, digging drains and tending a large vegetable garden, plus all the walking. It’s a win-win formula that I’m naming The Maatsuyker Diet.

IMG_2302 Gary mowing*

Here is my partner Gary with ‘Helga’ the mower. There’s little scope for traditional gender roles on Maatsuyker Island. We divided the mowing and brush cutting work that tends a 2-kilometre-long grass road, 2 helicopter pads, 1 vegetable garden, the surrounds of 3 cottages and 1 lighthouse, 1 paddock, and brush cutting 7 bush tracks, paths and numerous slopes too tricky or hazardous to mow. One round took each of us 4–5 days on a 3-weekly cycle.

A corner of the Maatsuyker pantry at the start of our stay; strawberries from the veggie garden’s poly house; sushi rolls for dinner (my partner Gary’s speciality); during our stay we consumed 42 kgs flour transformed into sourdough loaves and baked goods.

During our first caretaking term in 2010–11 we barely saw another two-legged being, but on this stint we relished the company of several energetic visitors. Long-time friends Katherine and Kevin from Western Australia arrived on a crayfishing boat and stayed for five days. The permits and arrangements took them months, and even then it was nail biting times as the ocean swell and weather was against them both on their arrival and throughout their stay. Katherine and Kev were thankful for the handrails in the howling gales; they very quickly found their footing, embraced nature, and contributed to Maatsuyker with all manner of island work.

The wonderful Friends of Maatsuyker stayed over for two intensive working bees. This volunteer group contributes to almost every aspect of the island. Amongst the hard workers was Mark, who has turned his passion for lighthouses into restoring those around Australia that require serious TLC. Mark made his own way down to Tasmania and donated time and skills to continue work on restoring Maatsuyker’s lighthouse. During his days on the island we would regularly cross paths at first light as he headed down the hill to begin his day, working until late into the nights. He made impressive progress by removing damaging paint from a big section of the inside walls, and repainting top parts of the tower.

An unexpected visitation came from Dutch presenter-producer Floortje Dessing and her camerawoman Renée, who flew all the way from the Netherlands at short notice to produce a documentary about life as caretakers on Maatsuyker Island. Floortje To the End of the World (Floortje Naar Het Einde Van De Wereld) is a popular Dutch TV series which focusses as much on the people who choose to live in remote corners of the world as it does on the the natural wonders of wild places. While they were on Maatsuyker the girls got to experience the brunt of the Roaring Forties latitudes with 6-metre ocean swells and a record wind gust for January. Maatsuyker claims plenty of ‘personal bests’ when it comes to record winds: still to be beaten is its August 1991 squall of 112 knots (207.4 kms per hour), the country’s highest non-cyclonic wind gust. Floortje and Renée embraced every moment of the weather and were fun to be with. I only learned later how big a celebrity Floortje is in her home country, while to us they were simply two sparkling, energetic women who joined us each evening for dinner, washed up afterwards, brought a whopping great round of Edam cheese in their suitcase and followed us here and there on our daily routines.

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Lastly we welcomed Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife video competition winner Simon whose prize was a visit to Maatsuyker Island. Simon and his mate Noodle lobbed in for an overnight stay via helicopter, though with under-par weather conditions it was touch and go whether they could even make it to the island. Thanks to the skilled pilots at HeliRes they arrived safely after a short delay. Without losing another minute, the boys donned wet weather gear and bounded from one end of the island to the other with cameras in tow. In the evening, between ducking outdoors to watch a brilliant sunset, they joined us at Quarters 1 for curry and a pint of home brew beer. Next morning at 0400 they were up and at ’em to watch Maatsuyker’s thousands of short-tailed shearwaters launch off the island. In 24 hours Simon and Noodle succeeded in filming and later producing a professional 3-minute video which showcases the island. I will have that clip available to share in a week or so, along with an interview with Simon.

I could go on about Maatsuyker, but will close with the info below and a selection of photos which I hope express the magic of the island.

The nitty gritty of caretaking at Maatsuyker Island

The volunteer caretaker program is coordinated and managed by Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service who currently advertise the position through Wildcare Inc. every two years. Each applicant must demonstrate a range of skills and an adequate level of physical fitness, and will be responsible for purchasing their own provisions for the six-month term. Part of the Maatsuyker caretaker duties is to conduct daily weather observations for the Bureau of Meteorology Hobart. Many short-term volunteer caretaking opportunities across Tasmania are advertised through Wildcare Inc., the incorporated community partner organisation that provides management and support for volunteers working in natural and cultural heritage conservation and reserve management. Friends of Maatsuyker Island (Wildcare Inc.) is a volunteer group who contribute time and skills to the island, raise funds towards maintenance and improvements on Maatsuyker, run day trips to the island via boat, and conduct annual working bees.

Last gasp of a big year

dsc_3874-robyn-gary-at-maatsuykerWith my times away from home, my blogging pattern tends to be feast or famine. This week sees no nutritional lack. Despite spotty attendance I feel great personal reward in the interactions with readers and guests that maintaining a website generates. Imagine, then, a world with no internet, no email and no mobile coverage; then—as daunting as the prospect may be—picture me in that world for the next six months. Shortly, my partner Gary and I are off to remote Maatsuyker Island, site of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse, for a second term as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. While the island remains happily rodent and snake-free, it also remains staunchly internet-free, just like its old light keeping days, minus the carrier pigeons.

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground

Maatsuyker Island with Needle Rocks in foreground. ©Robyn Mundy

This has been a mega year for me with the launch of my second novel, Wildlight, a story set on Maatsuyker Island. I feel personally touched to have had many lovely responses from readers who in different ways have been moved by the story, along with the relief any writer feels on receiving favourable media reviews. This doesn’t come without the sting of the odd 1- or 2-star reader rating on Goodreads, but—Man-up, Robyn!—such is the nature of writing and reading. This year I also feel fortunate to be amongst the lucky few to receive a grant from Australia Council for the Arts toward my new novel in progress. Thank you, ACA, for considering the project worthy of support. Those of us who throw our hats into the ring for such funding understand how competitive and slim the prospects. There are so many talented writers deserving of success, combined with brutal slashes in funding for Australian Arts.

Between ship work and writing research, it’s been a scramble preparing for Maatsuyker Island, months in the planning with the need to provide 6 months of provisions for our island time. Imagine running short of coffee. Or wine. Or chocolate! Imagine forgetting to take books to read. It has been the mother of all shopping lists, let me tell you. As seasoned caretakers on Maatsuyker there will be no shortage of lawn mowing, brush cutting or maintenance tasks; thankfully, there will still be ample time to savour the beautiful island surrounds and to make solid progress on my new novel. Novel 3 will not be a sequel to Wildlight, though my Auntie Muriel is keen to know why I refused to write Wildlight‘s final chapter. 🙂 This new story is set in a vastly different wilderness, about as far away from Maatsuyker Island as is probable to venture.

Earlier in the year I was invited to write an article for Newswrite magazine on what attracts writers like myself to wild places. With permission from the New South Wales Writers’ Centre, I have reproduced the article below.

For now and always, keep safe and happy. Keep loving books. More from Writing the Wild in March 2017.

Robyn x

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Writing the Wild

This article first appeared in Newswrite Magazine, June 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre.

When asked to consider why, as a writer, I feel drawn to wild places and isolation, I initially grappled for an answer, which led to this confession: forget about being a writer; the urge to experience places such as Maatsuyker Island and Antarctica where my novels are set, originates from purely self-seeking motives, from some deep well of longing to experience nature. As a novelist, the fascination for wilderness precedes all else; from immersion in its landscape comes story.

The Nature of Ice frontcov smallMy first novel, The Nature of Ice, draws on Antarctica, the backdrop of my life for nearly 20 years. I have wintered and summered at Australian Antarctic stations, working as a field assistant on science research projects that included a remarkable winter on the sea ice with emperor penguins. I am doubly fortunate to spend several months each year aboard a small ice-strengthened vessel, guiding adventure tours to Antarctica, the Arctic, and other wondrous outposts.

While the Antarctic wildlife rates as a huge drawcard, the ultimate spellbinding seduction for me is the ice. Being within it. That is not to imply some trippy state of serenity. If wonder is one face of awe, the other is a guarded caution in knowing how easily Antarctica can turn from beauty to malevolence. You can’t be in a wild place for long without respect for its might.

The first draw to Antarctica began with someone else’s story. As a young adult I read Lennard Bickel’s This Accursed Land, a dramatised account of polar explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Along with the iconic images of photographer Frank Hurley, the story of that thwarted expedition ignited my curiosity and imagination. How might such a hostile place feel, where nature determines everything? I had to find a way to go.

when_the_night_comesAs a contemporary Antarctic novelist, I am not alone in this draw to the frozen south. Favel Parret’s When the Night Comes has its origin in the history of Nella Dan, a former Australian Antarctic supply vessel. I posed the question to Favel: what attracts you to wild places?

‘At first I was drawn back into my childhood memories of the south of Tasmania. Mostly it was the child’s fear of the wild that I wanted to understand. Then at 27 came surfing and the feeling of wanting to be on the wild water, and wanting to find remote wild beaches that were pristine and free of concrete car parks and cars and houses. The clean waters of Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean became vitally important to me.’

Reflecting on the genesis of When the Night Comes: ‘Nella came first. I had to follow her and experience where she went. I had to go to sea and visit the Southern Ocean properly. On my first trip, to Macquarie Island, I found that I was in love with seabirds and could easily spend the rest of my life watching them. That trip was not enough; I had only scratched the surface and I knew I had to go to the ice. It was wonderful to experience Antarctica for the ten-day resupply at Casey Station, but it was the long journey at sea that felt most wild. The moments always changing, the ship always moving, new birds to watch, different whales to see, different swells to navigate. The wildness of that ocean speaks to me in so many ways and I would go again in a heartbeat. It is the wildest place I know.’

chasing-the-lightAuthor Jesse Blackadder also travelled south to understand Antarctica. Her novel Chasing the Light draws on the 1930s history of Ingrid Christensen, wife of a Norwegian whaling magnate. Ingrid and two unlikely female companions are each poised to become the first woman to land on Antarctica. Serendipitously, I recently met up with Jesse and asked which came first, the draw to Antarctica, or Ingrid’s story? Like me, like Ingrid Christensen, Jesse’s personal longing to experience Antarctica stretched back years, driven, in Jesse’s case, by images of wildlife and ice. Place first, story second.

All three Antarctic novels are fictional works inspired by history, yet the authors’ personal experience infuses an undeniable verisimilitude into their sense of place. Similarly, the voyage across a vast Southern Ocean to reach Antarctica is as fundamental to each story’s narrative arc as it is to the writer’s personal quest. For writers where place sits at the forefront of the work, it behoves us to connect with its landscape, to fully know it through personal experience or memory or research.

Wildlight front coverMy new novel Wildlight plays out on remote Maatsuyker Island off Tasmania’s South West. Here, my partner Gary and I spent four months living in isolation as volunteer caretakers and weather observers. The inspiration for Maatsuyker Island was triggered by a childhood at our family shack on the edge of the ocean. Maatsuyker amounted to a dot on the wall map, to a reputation for wild weather and the home of Australia’s southernmost lighthouse. Evening weather reports on Dad’s crackly transistor radio conjured images of light keepers trudging to and from the lighthouse in knockdown gales, of a place riven by storm and fearsome seas. As a child I wanted to know such a place. As an adult, I wanted to write it. Yet I couldn’t—not with credibility—until I had experienced it.

The sheer force of wild landscapes—their capacity to slough away the noise and clutter of urban life, to command our full attention, to beguile us with their majesty then strike with their hostility—preoccupies me as both a novelist and traveller. Each season on polar voyages I see fellow travellers ‘expanded’ by these other worlds. For some, like me, the experience is a form of meditation, the likes of which is largely unattainable in the workaday world. For others, the journey may mark a pivotal turning point. As sites of transformation, places of wilderness offer a bounty of riches for literary fiction.

It feels important to qualify that a love of nature—of any landscape—is not sufficient to sustain a work of fiction. Within the layers of a compelling story lies human conflict. It must. ‘Without the friction of conflict,’ says author Stephen Fischer, ‘there is no change. And without change, there is no story. A body at rest remains at rest unless it enters into conflict.’

Even during the lead-up to being on Maatsuyker, the anticipation of the island performed its alchemy, stirring characters into being and offering potential conflicts: what would months on Maatsuyker be like for a teenage girl dragged there by her parents, removed from her friends and the comforts of home? What if that family were isolated from each other, grieving for the death of a child? What would the surround of ocean mean for a 19-year-old deckhand who fears the sea and holds a premonition that some day it will take him? And the big question: how do I make best use of island and ocean in a story where these lives collide?

I strive to make place dynamic, to function as a fickle, layered character. Landscape holds a capacity to not only reflect the inner turmoil of characters, but to shape and transform. Who better, it seemed to me, than two young people at odds with their landscape, still making themselves up as they go along?

On a recent walk to a wilderness lookout, I happened upon an interpretative sign with this, by author-environmentalist Aldo Leopold: Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The challenge for the writer remains one of language: to fathom the meanings of wild places through the characters that inhabit them.

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Readers on Reading

In this segment I invite an inspirational reader to share a little of their life and a favourite recent read.

It is a complete accident that we have been born here and now, as we could just as easily have been Neolithic farmers or part of an Inuit hunter’s family. — Carol Knott

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Grounded icebergs off Rode Ø (Red Island) in North-East Greenland. Photo: Robyn Mundy, 2016

RM: One of the nicest side benefits of shipboard life is working closely with a small expedition team from around the globe who feel as inspired by the remote places we visit as do our adventurous passengers. Our final voyage for the northern season came to a close a few days ago, our stout little Polar Pioneer having ventured to wild Scotland back in June, then most recently to Svalbard and North-East Greenland in the High Arctic. Our days across the Greenland Sea gave me time to entice onboard archaeologist and historian CAROL KNOTT into sharing a story or two, albeit reluctantly, of her own remarkable life.

Time travel

CK: I have always been fascinated by the idea of exploring time. Our lives are part of a continuum of past, present and future, bound together, for me, by a great sense of common humanity. It is a complete accident that we have been born here and now, as we could just as easily have been Neolithic farmers or part of an Inuit hunter’s family.

2015-06-26_RM_Mousa Broch_IMG_5075

At Mousa Broch in the Shetland Isles, Carol recounts stories of feuds and forbidden love that played out within the walls of this formidable iron-age fortress. ©Robyn Mundy

RM: Scotland’s beautiful Isle of Lewis is Carol’s home turf, though she has worked far and wide as a field archaeologist, exploring life as it was lived in previous ages, and sharing her discoveries with 21st century travellers. ‘I remember once holding in my hand a piece of pottery impressed with the potter’s thumbprint, and feeling a sudden shock of direct connection crossing almost 1,000 years.’ Carol is treasured for her ability to infuse the past with life, prompting us—even challenging our assumptions about past and present cultures—to think about new ways of understanding the things we encounter.

One special site has inspired her to explore, first hand, the experience of women from the past; however, like all good character-driven stories, in embarking on one quest, Carol has found herself bounding along an entirely unanticipated trajectory:

 Pilgrimage on horseback

P1000720 Santiago de Compostella

© Carol Knott

CK: Sometimes a voyage takes me to Santiago de Compostella in Galicia, Spain, where we witness the arrival of dusty modern-day pilgrims, at the completion of their long Camino to this ancient shrine. It was a remarkable cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages, and it is even more so today. Inspired by this, four of us, all women, resolved one day to do the Camino ourselves, but to try to do it on horseback, and from Lisbon — the Portuguese Way. We want to examine the experience of women travellers and pilgrims centuries ago, and compare it with our experience as modern women travelling today. I soon realised that my horse-riding skills were rusty in the extreme, so I started to do training rides wherever the opportunity arose.

DSC_0039 Carol at Keflavik

Carol takes to the reins in Iceland. Icelandic horses, unique in having five natural gaits, are known for their sweet temperament, sure-footedness and ability to cross rough terrain — all fine qualities to aspire to! ©Elena Wimberger, 2016

RM: Before voyages, after voyages, even in the few hours between voyages, Carol has ridden. She has ridden an Icelandic horse in Iceland. She has galloped, gaucho style, across the Patagonian pampas on a horse named Denis. She has taken up the reins in Svalbard, the world’s most northerly place possible to horse ride, with a rifle as protection from polar bears. And she’s ridden at the most southerly: Tierra del Fuego. ‘This quest to ‘ride around the world’, Carol says, ‘has taken on a life of its own, regardless of whether we manage to pull off our horseback pilgrimage.’

With the months and miles of travelling Carol does each year for work, she spoke about her sense of home being vital to her life:

CK: I live on an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and I treasure the meaning that adds to my life—a place where the traditional Gaelic culture is strong and informs every aspect of modern life, where people over millennia have come to terms with the realities of living close to nature in what seems like a wild place. Wherever I go in the world, this strong bond to my family home provides me with an anchor that sets me free. This balance between freedom to wander and a deep sense of belonging is something I treasure greatly.

Carol’s favourite recent read:

The AnchoressThe Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

CK: I picked up this book as something to read on my way home from Antarctica, and chose it because it touched on my current interest in women’s freedom versus confinement, and also because the paperback was small and portable, ideal for a traveller like myself. But I loved the fact that this thoughtful book, set in thirteenth-century England, portrayed ideas that are so remote from our modern preoccupations. The central character, Sarah, at seventeen, enters a closed cell attached to a church, where she intends to spend the rest of her life as a holy woman in fasting and prayer. Here is a girl whose spiritual journey, and indeed almost all of the action of the book, takes place, not over miles of dusty roads, but within the silence of a cold, dark room only a few paces long. Robyn Cadwallader’s writing makes this appalling prospect sparkle with colour and drama, and takes us, body and soul, deep into the medieval world. It is another great example of how historical fiction can communicate difficult ideas vividly and effectively to a wide readership.