Living with Covid-19

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MV Greg Mortimer

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During a March 2020 voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, working as Deputy Expedition Leader aboard MV Greg Mortimer, our ship experienced an outbreak of Covid-19, the subject of my previous post.

Through the voyage our expedition team remained upbeat and resilient, with one or two quiet moments when the exit home, which seemed possible one day, became unattainable the next. During that rollercoaster it felt important that the concept of home—of getting home—remained in focus. Onboard we got to talking about what each of us would do when the happy day came. For kayaking guide Dan it was reuniting with the Australian bush, the smell of the air, standing at a lookout. For climatologist Ian, it was deciding which from his collection of surfboards would best fit the happy task of hitting the surf at Sydney’s northern beaches. For expedition leader Flo returning to the Netherlands, it was visiting her parents and sitting down to her Mum’s legendary cooking. For all in the team, after reuniting with loved ones, came a wish to reconnect with nature and the outdoors, to return to the simple domesticities of home cooking, baking, and easy conversations far removed from Covid-19.

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Our Expedition Team: Back L–R: Mountaineer Kevin, Doctor Jeff, Historian Carol, Climatologist Ian, Mountaineer Jane, Naturalist Alan, Photographer Peter. Front L–R: Naturalist Isabelle, Assistant Expedition Leader Thérèse, Expedition Leader Florence, Deputy Expedition Leader Robyn. Absent: Naturalist Roger, Kayaking guides Daniel, Matthias, Eamon, Expedition Coordinator Justine, Zodiac Master Sergeii, Mudroom & Shopkeeper Reza.

The image that stood as my beacon was one of working in our garden. I am no gardening guru, but along with my partner Gary we are ABC TV Gardening Australia tragics, mostly to find out what we should already have done in our garden where it’s survival of the fittest, and where we gain joy from the vegetables we manage to grow. The vision I held was planting the organic garlic I’d ordered before leaving home.

During hotel quarantine I looked to another goal. Trials had begun using Covid Convalescent Plasma; that is, extracting antibody-rich plasma from post-Covid donors to use for experimental transfusion and research into finding a vaccine. Along with some of my expedition team mates, I contracted Covid-19 aboard. Just to have got through it, to be well, has me so grateful to be alive. I wanted one small good thing to come from all the bad. Donating my plasma seemed to fit the bill.

I am partway through writing my third novel, a story set in the High Arctic with a reference to the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Well before Covid-19 I had done due research on the virus, studied statistics, read articles detailing the influenza’s devastating symptoms that targeted young, strong adults, often men, and those who cared for them. This verse of the time, skipped to by children on the streets, found a place in my story: I had a little bird  / Its name was Enza  / I opened the window  / And in-flu-enza

I thought I understood something about the fear of contracting such a virus but until Covid-19, I never gave enough thought to how fear might transfer to stigma, a mark of disgrace that gives rise to shame, not just for those struck down but for loved ones in the same vulnerable household. In my novel-in-the-making I imagine the grief of a bereaved young widow speared with lonely solitude, friends, family members, even the local priest keeping a safe distance from the ‘Unclean’.

Five weeks after testing positive for Covid, I battled the State’s Health Department to be retested. Their resistance held logic in that PCR nasal testing post-Covid may return a positive result if a swab picks up dead, inactive virus. I was repeatedly told the test was ‘not recommended’, that any positive result would be discarded as misleading. Fourteen asymptomatic days in isolation was considered sufficient quarantine. I was close to finishing 28 days. Put it down to obsession, dogged determination, or simply an emotional vulnerability that comes with having had the virus: that rationale, those assurances, refused to settle. Even if the risk of contagion was deemed non-existent, or minuscule, I shuddered at the consequences of passing on the virus to my partner at home, to friends and those in the community who may be vulnerable. During one phone call I asked the health practitioner, ‘Is ‘not recommended’ a euphemism for refusal?’ ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t make the rules.’

When it looked as if retesting would be denied me, I announced to a group of local friends, people I was likely to have some contact with, that I had contracted Covid-19. Any misinterpretation is my own, but what I felt in response was anxiety, even alarm. The subject soon turned to lighter-hearted topics. I felt dispirited. If good friends, all smart and kind, felt apprehensive, how would it be telling someone who was not so smart, not so kind? My courageous friend Jenny proclaimed that she would be coming around to visit me as soon I got out of quarantine, keeping social distancing exactly as she had been with everybody else. I had other strong support. I valued conversations with my good friend Dr Ann, a ship’s doctor currently working on a Covid ward in South West WA. Ann is fascinated by the epidemiology of the virus and remains actively busy keeping up with latest findings. Hers was an evidence-based voice of reason, talking through things that aren’t yet known, that are changing by the week, along with what seems to be consistent findings. Our tour company, too, had thoughtfully contracted Kristen, a New Zealand counsellor, available to those of us on the ship. She is a no-nonsense, evidence-based psychologist who has spent years working with front line responders such as firefighters, medics and soldiers. In my final, fourth week of quarantine I have her to thank for prising me from the solitary confinement of my hotel room, down to the hotel’s ballroom modified to a walking circuit where there is a strict limit on numbers to ensure adequate social distancing. I would venture down at meal times to clock up some laps.

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The Grand Ballroom transformed in a quarantine walking circuit

A few days before I was due to go home, my ongoing requests for Covid testing finally reached the State’s Director of Public Health. The Department relented. I took a deep breath. A positive result would likely do my head in—could I trust it to be a false positive, might I still be contagious? I had to know, come what may. Ambulance transport arrived at the hotel and whisked me away to a pathology centre for a PCR nasal test. Twenty-four hours later the result returned ‘No Covid-19 detected’.

On arriving home and doubling my garlic order, Gary asked if I was branching into garlic farming. I’d been inspired by Letitia at Tas Gourmet Garlic who taught me more about garlic during a single phone chat than I’d ever known. Five varieties to suit different cooking styles, staggered times of harvesting, a range of storage capacities—a far cry from the unidentified garlic we bunged in last winter, this season’s elaborate array well beyond our personal needs and my dodgy cooking prowess. I didn’t care. Turning over the soil and planting those eighty cloves proved every bit as heavenly as the shipboard anticipation.

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Now, seven weeks post-Covid, I understand and empathise with the fear I see and feel around the virus. There’s nothing quite the “social distancer” as telling people you’ve had Covid. I have had people literally take an extra step back as I rush to assure them that I am now Covid-free. Stigma, the shame it carries, are big human emotions to wrestle, but rocking up to Hobart’s Red Cross Life Blood this week to donate my second round of plasma continues to be a celebratory experience. The Centre is a happy place of wellness, its practitioners capable and genuinely enthusiastic professionals who are doing good work to help us all.

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Donating Covid plasma at Hobart’s Red Cross Life Blood Centre

Covid postscript: a Covid study of all who were aboard MV Greg Mortimer is the subject of a scientific paper recently published in the BMJ medical journal Thorax, the results significant for the cruising industry.

Gardening postscript: local garlic lovers, all being well, next summer I hope to have a bounty of produce and will be delighted to share.

Photos ©Robyn Mundy 2020

 

 

A Radiance of Women

When I began working in my late teens, I was largely innocent to inequities between work opportunities for women versus men. It seemed the unquestioning norm that men, primarily, took up leadership roles while women, primarily, took supporting roles. After all, things had come a long way since my mother’s time. Back then in the fifties, as a young married woman her bank would not allow her to have a savings account in her own name, and employer rulings meant that many in her circle, once married, were compelled to surrender their careers.

Mrs+D+front+coverRecently I read Lynne Leonhardt’s meticulously researched Step Up, Mrs Dugdale, a novel based on the life of Australian suffragette Henrietta Dugdale. Henrietta’s story set me firmly down within the awful confines of a late 19th and early 20th century world, where married women were regarded as property with no legal rights of their own, where the efforts of a few battled long and hard for a move toward equity, for changes to unjust marital laws and property ownership, for a woman’s right to vote—freedoms I take as givens in this cruisy 21st-century world.

2017 Robyn at the Helm -- by Karen Povey Arctic 2017

Photo ©Karen Povey

Thanks to the courageous voices of each generation, women in Australia are largely afforded choice and opportunity. I am thankful for the choice to take up writing studies at a time and age that was right for me, for the opportunity to forge a self-made career rich in experience. In my seasonal shipboard role, which began in 1998, I am part of an exciting momentum that places women as leaders, acknowledged for their skill, experience and personal qualities. May such recognition cast itself across all the colours of the spectrum.

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As thoughts turn to International Women’s Day 2020, my shout of cheer goes to the radiance of women I know, whose extraordinary lives enrich and inspire my own. Amongst them are adventurers, artists, archaeologists, ambassadors, animal lovers, bush walkers, biologists, birdos, carers, caretakers, climbers, climate crusaders, coordinators, educators, editors, gardeners, graphic designers, glaciologists, garlic growers, heroines, historians, hairdressers, kayakers, killer cooks (the harmless variety), larrikins, life savers, leaders, literary agents, managers, mothers, mentors, medicos, naturalists, novelists, performers, peace makers, potters, poets, polar guides, photographers, publishers, playwrights, readers, recyclers, swimmers, students, scientists, stewardesses, snowshoers, ship’s officers, speech pathologists, station leaders, Scrabble lovers, travellers, teachers of little ones, teachers of big ones, trail blazers, tireless volunteers AND fellow Zodiac drivers.

Top Shelf: Donna Mazza

Photo: ©Sarah Mills

Fauna lays bare an electrifying genetically re-coded future so real, so terrifying, so close, I can feel its baby breath soft against my cheek.’—Robyn Mundy

I am thrilled to introduce fellow author, friend and colleague Donna Mazza. I have known Donna since we were postgrad writing students at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Donna about to graduate, me just beginning. More recently we were colleagues at Edith Cowan University South West in Bunbury, Western Australia, where Donna, lover of fine literature and funny looking chickens, works as an Arts lecturer.

The south west of WA is an extraordinary region of farmland, vineyards, tall tree forests, beaches and surf—a place that beats a little more slowly than city life. But how might the future look for Stacey, a young mother, newly pregnant through genetic engineering? How far will a mother go to save her child? Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna artfully navigates this terrain. As one of its early readers I found this story to be a chilling, entirely arresting window into the reachable future.

I posed some questions to Donna about the work and her writing:

Your new novel Fauna is about to enter the world, to give birth, you might say. Its main character Stacey is a pregnant mother of two, living in a familiar though somewhat bleaker Western Australia, 17 years into the future. The title itself is a sobering choice for a story that offers a different slant on motherhood. Tell us about the story and the questions you set out to explore.

The story has a provocative concept about Stacey carrying a child who is not entirely human, but I feel that there are many issues that it raises about motherhood. I particularly set out to consider the invasive nature of contemporary childbirth and its relationship to technology. I think it has changed the way we think about life. Having the window that we now have to look into ourselves as we create life is quite a wonder and as we unpick the code of our DNA that seems to raise even more wonders.  That doesn’t only apply to humans, of course. In Fauna, I wanted the sense that the characters are also living in our own aftermath: that the damage we are doing to the world sits all around them as the world goes on, continuing its journey and leaving its wake, and its consequences.

How did the ideas for the novel first come about? 

It was reading about the new CRISPR technologies and the potential to raise extinct megafauna that started my wondering for this novel.  I first wrote about it in my short story ‘The Exhibit’ and applied what I had been reading to extinct humans instead of extinct animals.  The short story never really felt like enough to fully tease out the ideas and the more I read around it the more I realised that eventually we would be able to do this and if we were able to then somebody, somewhere probably would.  As I deepened my research on the Neanderthal people, I found that contemporary science has a much more sophisticated understanding of them, their intelligence and their lives. I gathered all kinds of precious details and wove them into Fauna through my research.

How would you describe your process of writing? I mean, do you set plot points along the way, or does the story carry you along to where it wants to go?

I like to have a scaffolding when I write so I had some structural plot points as guides along the way for Fauna, helped by the markers of pregnancy, birth and childhood.  But it was a loose structure, with plenty of creative space in it for taking the story where it needed to go. I don’t have a failsafe method of writing but I do my best writing in intense bursts. These don’t come out of nowhere and I am always ‘working on it’ mentally, building the scaffolding for the story.

Your debut novel The Albanian was published in 2007 after winning the illustrious TAG Hungerford Award. You began writing Fauna around 2017. I remember you quietly saying to me that throughout that hiatus you felt you had become a stronger writer. Tell us more about that realisation.

I think if you’re a writer and an avid reader, like me, you never stop learning and I hope that I can say that to you again next time I have a novel written.  I learned a lot between novels by writing short fiction and poetry and also from my reading and teaching.

In 2018 you were named the Mick Dark Flagship Fellow for Environmental Writing and awarded a residency at Varuna, the National Writers House. How did that residency influence your writing?

That was a wonderful three weeks of reading and writing and writers. I met some wonderful and encouraging people who urged me forward with my journey to publishing Fauna.  I also realised something about myself and my relationship to writing that I will carry into the work that I do in the future – that I try to share the emotional and physical experience of my characters in the hope that the reader can empathise and feel something of it too.

What advice do you have for fellow writers?

Make time and don’t give up.

Do you have a favourite paragraph from Fauna?

The nights and the days. I have forgotten my name and the chapters that have gone. I have no knowledge of what will come or how I have moved from place to place. How they have all lived around me. Their coming and going in a world above the surface, where the wind blows and sun shines. Down here, inside this thing we slip into the gullet. So slick with saliva that little force is required to swallow it down. So many things here that I cannot name. Through the miasma all I see is her eyes, her cheeks drawing in, the rim of milk at her lips.

Donna Mazza’s novel Fauna, published by Allen & Unwin, is available in bookstores from 4 February 2020.

Readers on Reading

In this post I invite an inspirational guest reader to share a little about their life and a recent favourite book. 

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Rachael Mead

I first met Rachael Mead in 2011 during a writing residency at Varuna the Writers House, a sanctuary set on the edge of Australia’s Blue Mountains. I spent my time there with an inspiring group of women writers, sharing dinners, ideas, snatches of our own writing. During a casual conversation Rachael told me of her husband, a paramedic who, on Rachael’s birthdays, would paint her a replica of a favourite famous painting. The image of that gift as an expression of love grabbed me. Rachael gave me permission to explore the idea in short fiction which slowly, glacially, led to ‘The Forgeries’, most definitely NOT a story about Rachael or her husband, but about the fragile nature of creativity.

TFITP coverThis small window into Rachael’s life introduces a talented poet and short story writer, arts reviewer and bookseller, who lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Rachael’s had an eclectic life, working as an archaeologist, environmental campaigner and seller of books both old and new. She has an Honours degree in Classical Archaeology, a Masters in Environmental Studies and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Rachael is the author of four collections of poetry, and I recommend all of them: The Flaw in the Pattern (UWA Publishing 2018), The Sixth Creek (Picaro Press 2013) and the chapbooks Sliding Down the Belly of the World (Wakefield Press 2012) and The Quiet Blue World (Garron Publishing 2015).

I invited Rachael to share something she treasures about her life.

Rachael: Being able to travel. My husband and I met on an archaeological excavation and since then we have leapt at every chance to experience the wild and lonely places of the world, whether it’s throwing the swags in the back of the car or heading off on overseas adventures. I’ve been extremely privileged to have visited Antarctica twice, camping on the Ross Ice shelf in East Antarctica and crossing the Drake Passage by ship to the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The only continent I’ve yet to visit is North America but, with an Iranian stamp in my passport and a history of environmental activism, ticking this continent off the list may prove a little challenging under the current administration. In the meantime I’d love to do a little more long distance hiking, so early in the New Year we hope to lug our backpacks around the western end of Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast of South Australia.

Clockwise: Kayaking in South Georgia, 2013; Rachael with orphaned Lowland Mountain Gorilla while volunteering in Limbe Wildlife Rescue Centre, Cameroon 1996;  Imax Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf, East Antarctica 2005. Photos ©Rachael Mead

On Instagram I’ve been following Rachael’s recent wind-whipped adventures around Iceland and Scotland. Was there a favourite book along the way?

Living MountainRachael: I love researching the ecological and cultural histories of the places we visit, so while driving through the Scottish Highlands I read a title that had been on my ‘must read’ list for a while. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is a gorgeous piece of nature writing and deservedly a classic. The book is a loving, lyrical and ecologically precise account of the Cairngorm Mountains by a woman who spent much of her life exploring this harsh and beautiful landscape by foot. Shepherd wrote this book in the mid-1940s but it remained in her desk drawer until 1977, finally finding a publisher at the same time that other classics of the genre by male writers such as Matthiessen, Chatwin and McPhee were being published to great acclaim. As a lover of nature writing, reading this book was an absolute delight, not only as a poetic and intimate account of a wild landscape but as a landmark piece of nature writing by an extraordinary woman. Every time I used a Scottish five-pound note (which bears her portrait) it felt like I was paying tribute to a newly discovered literary heroine.

Another ‘must read’ piece of nature writing is this poem by Rachael Mead from The Flaw in the Pattern, the first in a sequence of seven poems chronicling each day of a trek though the Tasmanian wilderness.

These clouds that cap the world

Walking the Overland Track, Tasmania – Day 1

We set out, climbing towards the tight lid of clouds,

our whole week hanging from our collarbones.

This land casts timelessness at our feet,

unfurling like an old rug, ragged and enormous.

We are superimposed here, stepping into an epic.

Trees glow in wet light, the sky flat as an ironed sheet.

Everything is so magnificent it feels ridiculous, like words

in the mouth of Dorothy Parker. This is beauty beyond

necessity, the way it usually is, but on its own terms,

the golden mean redundant and symmetry just a neat idea.

For seven days we will walk, each carrying our own burden

of what we think we need, our sweat and aching joints.

We tread the silvered vertebrae of the track

one foot after the other, learning the bleakness

of repetition. The sky drops on our heads,

fog enfolding us in silence and cold.  Ahead,

I watch my partner’s shape dissolve then reappear

fiercer than ever, like love over time. I draw endurance

from my aquifer and keep pushing through this weather

that has nowhere better to be, striding among

these clouds that cap the world, my hair netting sky.

Read more of Rachael’s poetry and see her photographic images at: http://rachaelmead.com/

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).

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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.  

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.

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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.

The reluctant writer

Author Annabel Smith, who I interviewed a little while back (just scroll down), has launched a new series on her website called Coming to Writing. Annabel invited me to share my circuitous journey to becoming a writer. I’ve titled it The Reluctant Writer and you can link to it here.