Monday, February 26, 2018

A Writer Unplugged

Antarctic Peninsula

Earlier this week we returned from our 23-day journey in and around Antarctica. During that time, I had no access to electronic news feeds. I missed the Super Bowl – although I did hear the score the next day. I missed five shootings in or around schools: Lincoln High School in Philadelphia (1/31), an “unintentional” shooting of two in Sal Castro Middle School in LA (2/1), Oxon Hill High School, Oxon Hill, MD (2/5), the parking lot of Pearl-Cohn High School, Nashville, TN (2/9), and mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, FL (2/14). I missed (I think) Congress passing a budget. I returned to find Dreamers are still caught in a nightmare and the Olympics in full swing.

Sheep with Magellanic Penguins on Falkland Islands
Each day, the ship I was on printed a multi-page news summary. It covered the world. Cricket, Tennis, Golf, and English Premier League Football each had more lines of coverage than the two or three allocated daily to US news, which was included under the subhead “The Americas” (lumping our bit of drama with that from the rest of North, Central, and South America).

Striated Caracara - Falkland Islands
While all those events (and much, much more) transpired, I spent oodles of hours on deck watching pelagic birds, cloud patterns, the work of wind on the water. During our numerous landings, we visited new places (Argentina, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands), saw thousands of birds and unique landscapes.

The only time I consciously spent in writerly activities was during one day at sea. The birds had mostly left us, and it rained or drizzled all day. I stayed in my cabin and wrote the drafts of two blogs related to the April 3 release of Empty Promises. I suppose I should also count time I spent talking with fellow passengers about my writing. That should probably be counted as sales activity.

young Black-browed Albatross - Falkland Islands
Life itself is grist for the writer’s mill, and this was an experience unlike any other I have had. The problem is, if you tried to pin me down about what I learned or how I might incorporate something into my writing, I’ll have to admit that I have no clue. Maybe an expression I heard will pop up in a character’s dialogue. Perhaps I’ll describe how one passenger walked using a stabilizing boot on one foot—the way she shifted her body to compensate for the additional weight and bulk, or how she had to navigate the stairways in rolling seas. Wait! Maybe I’ll have a passenger use a fake boot to hoodwink an airport worker into moving her to the head of the customs line.

Or perhaps a character will incorporate some trait I saw a passenger exhibit: how they approached eating each meal, a sideways shift of his eyes when he didn’t agree with a statement but chose not to engage in argument, a chuckle that turned into a giggle that turned into a knee-slapping roar.

Chinstrap Penguin in the Southern Ocean
I’m sure some writers would have recorded everything in a notebook so they could tap those recollections as needed. I am not that kind of writer. I have no patience for that kind of recording. For some time I kept a diary—sort of. A typical entry might read.

Weather good. Beat Olympia 3-2. (Only by the date could I know if this was soccer or baseball!)

King Penguin colony on South Georgia Island
I’d rather experience something than worry about trying to record it. I only take pictures as something of an after-thought. I want to experience the scenery before recording it. I want to watch the bird, how it uses lift from the waves to pop high into the air, how it uses its tail as a braking device, how it hops on the ground kicking over leaves. Oh yes, I like taking bird photographs, but sometimes I forget in the joy of watching them.

Magellanic Penguin
"If I turn my back on you will you stop squeaking?
The trip reminded me how much I enjoy being outdoors and how little I enjoy talking back to politicians on the television when they lie or avoid tackling hard topics. I missed the part of social media that keeps me in touch with friends and acquaintances; I did not miss the part of social media railing against others (regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with their position).

I could choose to remain a Writer Unplugged. In some ways it would be easier to ignore all that’s wrong with the world and go my merry way without a care. Except, I prefer making decisions based on facts rather than beliefs, and by ignoring injustice, I’d lose the part of my core being that cares about the plight of others.

Cape Petrel in Southern Ocean
So, I shall return to being a Plugged-In Writer but commit to controlling how I gather news and interact with others about interpreting it. I shall not allow it to regain control of my time or my energy.

Oh, and so I don’t leave you with any false impressions, let me confess: I did manage to take 2,740 non-blurry pictures during the trip. How about you—what’s your biggest take-away from your latest trip or vacation?

This blog was originally posted on Writers Who Kill (2/25/18).

P.S.  I am posting photos and commentary of this trip on Facebook, as though you were traveling with me with a 20-day delay. You can follow me on Facebook at Be sure to check the Album as well as the daily posts. ~ Jim