Top Shelf: Vi Wilson

Polar Bear Reflection2

Like to meet an exceptional photographer whose first camera was a Box Brownie, who has never had formal training, who neither markets her photos nor runs a website, but whose images of landscape and nature have won more national and international awards than many photographers dare dream?

14 July Glacier Icebergs

Meet VI WILSON, landscape photographer, fellow adventurer and friend. I have sailed with Vi several times to the high latitudes, most recently aboard Polar Pioneer on voyages to Svalbard and East Greenland. I invited Vi to speak about her photographic journey, and to share this selection of gobsmacking images, all taken during our September Arctic adventure.

If you listen quietly enough life will whisper its secrets to you.
—Rasheed Oghunlaru

Greenland Splendour

Markers of a Journey

‘Ever since I was a small child I have been drawn to the ever-changing beauty of land, sea and sky. It is inevitable that the focus of my image-making portrays this. But growing up in a working class family in Albany, Western Australia, money was always in short supply and at 15 I had to leave school to find a job. There was no encouragement to pursue a career. Out of my three pounds, five shillings and seven pence wages, I was required to give my mother one pound board.’

Bjorneoer

With hard-earned savings, Vi bought her first Box Brownie and the path to photography opened. ‘The world was there as I saw it. I never questioned or analysed why it was important to record it, although on many occasions I have been spellbound by the sheer magic and emotion of the moment. I was once told that I was an instinctive photographer, and to some extent I think that is true. Often you just know but the challenge then is how.’

Landscape Suspended

We see things not as they are, but as we are.
—H. M. Tomlinson

I decided it was time to learn about photography and it was on a 2005 trip to Antarctica that I heard the first whispers about why I make photographs. More recently at a photography workshop I was given an assignment to ‘identify images which are markers for your own journey.’ As I sorted through images something surprising happened. Similarities were emerging. I began to see things that really did say something about me. The images were serene but ordered. There were patterns and shapes; there was light and shadow, strength and vulnerability, emotion and rhythms—like music. My music. Music in landscapes. My need to capture the beauty around me had been ever present but the reason remained elusive. I feel enormously blessed and grateful to have discovered it.

Lillehookbreen

Arctic Light

‘It was such a privilege this year to travel to the Arctic with Aurora. The wildlife and scenery of Spitsbergen, the pack ice, and the absolute grandeur of Greenland have the ability to leave one speechless and filled with awe. I suffered from an acute case of sensory overload.’

Quiet Morning

‘Trying to capture and convey my emotional responses to this kind of splendour is not always easy, but when a viewer responds positively to an image, there is the satisfaction of knowing that perhaps I did – just a little bit!’

Landscape photography: pointers from Vi Wilson

Romer Fjord

The landscape is about light, and that can be capricious and elusive. Absolutely the best times are the golden hours in the mornings and evenings. This can be a challenge where there is 24 hours of daylight, so sometimes it is a good idea to change the camera settings to record monochrome, as it gives an immediate idea of whether a scene might work as mono. This can work rather well in the middle of the day, but the camera needs to be set to capture RAW data. The image can always be restored to colour in post processing.

Gateau Point

Sometimes trying to capture the whole scene can work, but at other times, it is good to explore shooting vertical, or zooming in to focus on details. There is the far landscape and the near landscape, and both have their place.

Sand and Foam

 

Arctic Garden

Tripods are a blessing and a curse! In some situations the circumstances just don’t lend themselves to using one, so it is important to keep an eye on the speed and ISO, especially when using a long lens on the camera and shooting from a bobbing zodiac, or a rolling ship. If you are able to use a tripod, also use a cable release, delayed shutter release, or mirror lockup.

Frozen World

Increasing the ISO can increase noise but there are some good noise reduction programs on the market. However, they should be used with care or they can make an image look over-smooth and plastic.

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Vi, in closing, a question I always like to ask my guests: will you tell us something you cherish about your life?20170707-RM-photographer Vi Wilson at Hamiltonbukta-IMG_6670 cropped
I cherish my good health and my family, and the privilege of being able to witness the wonders of the natural world.

 

My thanks to Vi Wilson for sharing her creative journey and these beautiful images of Svalbard and East Greenland. Photos ©Violet Wilson, 2017

Quotations from Rasheed Oghunlaru and H. M. Tomlinson provided by Vi Wilson.

 

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Conversations

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Robyn Mundy, 2017, at an old trapper’s hut, Hornsund, Spitsbergen.

 

For those who live in Australia, ABC Radio presenter Richard Fidler is a household name. His regular 50-minute programs Conversations with Richard Fidler have been an Aussie institution since 2006. As the blurb goes, Conversations with Richard Fidler draws you deeper into the life story of someone you may, or may not, have heard about – someone who has seen and done amazing things.

Last week I was Richard’s guest, which just goes to show that his selection of life stories really does include those someones you’ve never heard of. What impressed me—apart from Richard, who is as warm and vivacious in person as he sounds on radio—was the research and preparation that went into the interview. Leading up to the program I spent a couple of hefty phone sessions—two and a half hours—with Richard’s production assistant who eked out countless details of my life: highlights, difficult times, memories I rarely speak of. I nattered on while Nicola, with the occasional oh, wow, or grimace or, what year was this? tapped my history onto her computer.

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Auster Emperor Penguin Rookery, 2008

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MV Polar Pioneer in Keyser Franz Joseph Fjord, East Greenland, 2017

Thankfully, all that was winnowed down to a manageable interview. I think, at least I hope, those in my life know me as actively willing to let other people shine (one great reservation I have about the nature of social media is the relentless ME focus), so it felt decidedly weird and initially unnerving to have the focus redirected. Conversations aired live. We talked about Antarctica, about a year spent working with emperor penguins on the sea ice. We never got to speak about the guiding I do for Aurora Expeditions aboard the ice-strengthened ship Polar Pioneer, which takes me to the top and bottom of the world for several months of each year; or my ongoing pride in Aurora, the innovation of  two dynamic Australian adventurers Greg and Margaret Mortimer. I wish I could have shared a few gobsmacking, high-latitude moments, some of them life-shaping, that our shipboard adventurers take away with them.

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Maatsuyker Island off the south-west corner of Tasmania, 2017.

We spoke about living remotely on wild Maatsuyker Island but never delved into my recent novel set on Maatsuyker, and probably not by accident. I suspect Richard steers away from well-worn angles of conversation. But what has been so heartening in the days following Conversations, is the positive, heartfelt feedback I’ve received from those who regularly listen to the program, or caught our Conversation while in the car or sitting at an airport, who say they learned things they never imagined about my life—hard moments as well as shiny ones—that they found fascinating. Perhaps all down to the magic Richard Fidler consistently wields on his show. If you’re inclined to tune in to the podcast, or others in Conversations, click here.

Stoked on Stoat

A return from two months in the Arctic—Svalbard and East Greenland—ought to be brimming with epic tales of polar bear, muskox, blue whales, icebergs the size of apartment blocks. I can report shining moments with each of these wonders, but for now I’m here to introduce a creature, the first I’ve seen in my years of travelling to Greenland, best placed at the diminutive end of the scale. In North America these minuscule mammals, weighing in at ~200 grams, are called short-tailed weasels, while in North-East Greenland, where we spotted this little guy, they are named stoats (Mustela erminea).

IMG_9178-RMundy-Stoat at Blomsterbugten 2017-08-26

To track a stoat darting across a hillside is a bit like keeping pace with a fast-forward animation. When stoats stand still they are so well camouflaged in their summer coat that you could miss them altogether. In NE Greenland, stoats share their habitat with lemmings, an even tinier Arctic creature who, unluckily for the lemming, provides the stoat its main diet. If I could portal myself back to Blomsterbugten (Flower Bay), where I snapped this photo just weeks ago, you would see this stoat decked out in winter white, its summer coat moulted, only the tip of its tail black.

Greenland is a land of contrasts, where the mightiest of landscapes, seemingly barren from a distance, harbour lush tundra forests, their plants sized for a doll’s house, their branches of Arctic Willow and Dwarf Birch rarely high enough to meet your knees. Here, growing in a meltwater stream bed and bathed in Greenland sunshine, is Broad-Leaved Willowherb, the country’s beautiful national flower.

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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.