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Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Writer Unplugged

By James M. Jackson

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?

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


Paula Gail Benson said...

Jim, what incredible photos of a wonderful journey. I look forward to reading how your experiences work themselves into your fiction. Thank you for sharing.

Julie Tollefson said...

Lovely photos, Jim. What an awesome trip!

KM Rockwood said...

Wonderful pictures, Jim!

I bet being unplugged for a little while gave you an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on some of the things that are going on in this country (and the world) And the news that did reach you certainly puts things into perspective. I've always wondered why we egotistical residents of the United States call ourselves "Americans" to the exclusion of other people who have an equal right to the name. Why doesn't "Make America great again?" include all Americans? Including those in Mexico?

Pamela Beason said...

Ah, a writer after my own heart! I unplug as often as I can to go snowshoeing, hiking, kayaking, or scuba diving. For me, it's a great relief to get out of the frantic civilized world and into the serene wild. Of course, as well as wonderful experiences with panoramic beauty and wildlife and lots of opportunities for self-reliance, there are great ways to kill or lose a few people there, which I use in my Sam Westin wilderness mysteries. Thanks for giving me a virtual visit to Antarctica!

Warren Bull said...

Neat pictures. Thanks for sharing about your travels.

Grace Topping said...

My husband and I have taken two long voyages and I enjoyed being unplugged immensely.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I enjoyed this blog, Jim, especially since I've been to penguin-land and loved seeing them live. So refreshing to hear that you don't write down every observation. I'm like you in that respect. I think that our life experiences seep into our writing without having to take copious notes. After all, we do want to experience the moment.

Rhonda Lane said...

Thanks for sharing your photos! It's like watching BBC America's "Blue Planet II" without David Attenborough intoning the dire straits for the cubs while the bull seals battle for the seal cub mommas. (Sorry. I digrees. I'm still reeling from last night's ep.) Anyway, so glad you took a trip of a life time. I'm also glad you didn't spend it all peering through a viewfinder or jotting notes.Sometimes, experience IS the best research. Welcome back.

Kaye George said...

I've been eagerly awaiting this! Glad you're back and took lots of pictures, even if they were afterthoughts. I looked up pelagic and know a new word now. As you do, I find myself recalling personal quirks I've seen later, when I need them. As long as me memory holds, this will work. I'm looking forward to the facebook posts. Thanks for taking me to a land I'll most certainly never visit.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

love your photos! Did a penguin present you with a rock or was nesting season over?

We were TV and internet free last fall during our Italy trip, though I did use hotel Wi-Fi to text message the kids every day (their request). Pure bliss.

Michele Drier said...

I loved your comment about the amount of U.S. news that was lumped in the "The Americas" Too often people here see the U.S. as the heart/brain/circulatory system of the world and it's good to be reminded on a regular basis that we're none of the above. There are billions of people and trillions of animals out there leading billions of trillions of lives.
And big plus, stunning pictures!

Jim Jackson said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

Pamela -- You're right I have figured out a few more ways to do folks in. We'll see if and how that ends up in any stories.

Margaret -- the nesting season is over, so no rock presentations. Lots of cute chicks though.

Lourdes Venard said...

Great photos, Jim. I find that being out in nature (usually photographing birds) can take me out of any negative head space. I try to do it several days a week, at least. Now I'm adding a trip to Antarctica to my bucket list!

Jim Jackson said...

Lourdes -- and I know you have some great places to get out into nature! Antarctica was spectacular, so glad I had it on my bucket list and had the chance to cross if off by way of completion.

~ Jim