Debut Authors / Essays / Experience Required

Experience Required: The Polar Explorer’s Guide to Writing a Novel

by Joseph M. Schuster

In 1911, two European expeditions—one English and one Norwegian—landed on Antarctica with the same aim: to be the first to reach the South Pole. Other than minor scientific research—they would measure temperatures and map portions of the continent, and the British planned to study the Emperor penguin— there was no practical reason for the expeditions. The main event: to stake claim to a piece of ground that is so unimportant that in the atlas I have on a shelf in my study it occupies a third of a page out of 213 pages devoted to maps.

Both parties would face months of brutal temperatures; one would see some of its members suffer malnutrition, scurvy, and severe frostbite before dying on the return journey. The men endured and succumbed to this in order to be the first to plant a flag on what is, if you think of it, an arbitrary spot on an uninhabitable, ice-covered plateau.

As Roland Huntford puts it in his book The Last Place on Earth, to which I am indebted for almost all I know about the race to reach the South Pole:

“For the privilege of being the first to tread this useless yet so desirable spot, both [expeditions] were prepared to drag themselves 1,500 miles across a frozen wilderness, and face any extremity of suffering and danger. The Poles of the earth had become an obsession of Western man. It could be argued against, but not argued away. Since the obsession was there, it had to be exorcised.”

It took me nine years to finish my novel, The Might Have Been, and as I worked on it, I was struck often by how the race for the South Pole is an appropriate metaphor for writing a novel. Like reaching that “useless yet so desirable spot,” there’s little practical reason to do it. Yes, I know that great writing can elevate us and reveal places in the human heart that we can’t find some other way; and of everything I do as a writer my fiction is the most important to me, so I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a burnt-out pessimist. But really, when we sit down at our desks day after day, what do we accomplish? For all but a very few of us, writing fiction doesn’t pay the mortgage, doesn’t get the kids through college. On two separate occasions, men whom I consider otherwise quite smart remarked to me that they didn’t read fiction since one could learn nothing useful from it. Certainly the sales of fiction make clear our culture’s feeling about it; on Amazon’s list of the 100 best selling books in the last week of December, only 28 were fiction and, of those, only five were “literary fiction.”

And yet, like the explorers who set down on the coast of Antarctica more than a hundred years ago, many of us are driven to do it.

The British expedition was led by a naval man and explorer named Robert Falcon Scott, the Norwegian expedition by Roald Amundsen, who had spent most of his adult life training for polar exploration. The quick version, as Huntford paints it, is that Scott failed miserably while Amundsen triumphed. (If you want to learn more, you can read Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth, Scott’s or Amundsen’s accounts of their journeys, or the interestingly titled The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard). Amundsen won the race, reached the Pole weeks ahead of Scott, and came home a hero; Scott not only was second to the Pole but also died on his return journey. Huntford even suggests that Scott deliberately died because he thought it better to be a dead martyr than a live failure: One day, despair weighing on him, Scott stayed in his tent and convinced the other members of his party to stay with him until they starved to death more than a week later, roughly 11 miles from one of the supply caches they’d laid on their outbound journey.

When we sit down to write a novel, we’re a bit like Scott or Amundsen—more like Amundsen, I hope. Something strikes us. We see a character, we overhear a conversation in a grocery store, a sentence occurs to us. Whatever the spark is, we start writing, making marks in the snow, and we stake our claim to the narrative continent.

At first, that narrative continent is similar to Antarctica before Scott and Amundsen began their journeys. If we look at a map of Antarctica as humankind knew it at the start of the second decade of the 20th century, it’s a vast blank canvas. On the particular map that Huntford includes in his book, the artist shades the areas that men had previously visited, leaving the rest—well more than 90 percent of the continent—white. From a particular angle, the continent in that drawing resembles a rubber duck. Graham Land, a peninsula that Amundsen helped to explore with a Belgian expedition in 1898, pokes up, reaching toward the extreme southern point of South America, and looks something like the duck’s beak. Another area slightly to the west could be an eye, and then there are other stretches along the coast: shaded back and tail feathers. The body of that continental rubber duck is pure white: unexplored.

On our initial forays onto our narrative continent we can see the land around us but not much more, and at first it’s quite enjoyable to be there. And so we write something that arises from that initial impulse. We discover a character that makes sense to be standing on the beach of this particular continent. A word begets another word; a sentence begets another sentence, and eventually, our spark that generated what we’re writing becomes paragraphs, maybe even an opening scene.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the entire story comes spilling out all in a rush; it happens that where we landed on our narrative continent, we were on the highest point and could see the shape of the entire land. I once wrote a story in a day, then sent it off to a friend with whom I exchange work. He said, “The ending doesn’t work.” I re-read my story, thought, “He’s right,” rewrote the ending in a day, and, a few weeks later, the editor of a journal called to say he wanted to publish it.

This was, it turned out, one of the worst things that ever happened to me as a writer, because after that, for a long while, I thought: I’ve paid all my dues. I’ve finally gotten it. It will be a snap from here on out. Then I didn’t finish another story for several years because I thought writing should be easy, and if it wasn’t, there was something intrinsically wrong with the piece, since it wasn’t writing itself.

One of the comparisons that Huntford makes between Scott and Amundsen is the manner in which each man responded to the harsh climate on the continent and the manner in which the harshness affected his progress toward the Pole.

Huntford characterizes Scott as incompetent and arrogant. Essentially, as Huntford has it, Scott—who began his military career during the Victorian era of imperial Britain—assumed that being British not only gave him priority to be the first to reach the South Pole, but that it was enough to guarantee he would be successful.

At one point, writing about Scott’s first journey to Antarctica, in 1902, when Scott fell 450 miles short of his goal, Huntford says:

Scott marched off into the unknown, singularly unprepared. Beyond a hazy hope of reaching the Pole, he had no plan of campaign . . . [h]e believed that British guts would see him through. He thought that snow and ice could be overcome by brute force. He did not understand the world he had chosen to invade.

Elsewhere, about that attempt to reach the Pole, Huntford says, “[At first] exceptionally fine weather and sunshine favoured Scott. He took these to be the rule, almost his right . . . he assumed the best conceivable conditions would continue and left no margin of safety.” When the weather turned, as it often did, Scott “was naively surprised and vaguely resentful.”

Nine years later when he returned to the continent, Scott hadn’t learned the lesson of his first trek. Huntford reports:

George Simpson, the meteorologist, observed in his diary that Scott’s plans assumed the best possible conditions, making no allowance for delays. “It appears that with all our resources,” he wrote, “there is little margin and few accidents or a spell of bad weather would not only bring failure but very likely disaster.”

Robert Falcon Scott

Robert Falcon Scott

​Scott’s expectations for ideal weather had led him to underestimate the number of supply depots he would need. While Amundsen, who assumed he would encounter bad weather, laid a depot roughly every sixty miles and even laid one of his later depots thirty miles from the previous one, Scott laid his sometimes as much as one hundred twenty miles apart. Amundsen also had his party carry nearly double the rations they would need if they made good progress from depot to depot while Scott’s party carried only the rations they figured they would need traveling in ideal weather.

At one point, Huntford quotes parallel passages from each man’s diary:

Scott had been stopped by a blizzard near the foot of Beardmore Glacier. “One cannot see the next tent,” he wrote, “let alone the land . . . I doubt if any party could travel in such weather, certainly no one could travel against it.”

As it happened, the weather was much the same facing Amundsen, although he was handicapped threefold by the rarified atmosphere of an altitude of 10,000 feet greater, a temperature fifteen degrees lower, and completely unknown country . . . His diary read: “It has been an unpleasant day – storm, drift and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.”

In other words, while Scott sat in his tent, complaining about bad luck, Amundsen pushed on, through even harsher weather, making progress toward the Pole.

The corollary for us as writers is clear:

When we set off on a new piece of work, the writing often comes easily at first. Maybe it’s the novelty of being on this new narrative continent. We revel in that novelty: Oh, we think, this is so easy and wonderful, no one before me has ever found such a place. We step ashore and our boot leaves a print in the previously pristine snow and we admire the boot print for a while: “Gee, I never noticed the pattern on the sole before,” and so we make tracks there, on the shore, beginning to find the shape and terrain of the coastline and it really is quite enjoyable.

Of course writing is often enjoyable when we begin. You don’t sit down thinking, This is going to hurt; I’m going to stare at a blinking cursor for three and a half hours while nothing comes. When Scott landed at his base on Antarctica, he didn’t think, I’m going to suffer and die. He thought, I will get to the Pole and come back, a hero.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

But then, like Scott and Amundsen, we come to a difficult point, a place in our novel at which the narrative seems to stall. Many of us give up. If we can’t see what comes next, we think, maybe there is nothing to see. Like Scott, if it’s not smooth sledging, we stay in our tent instead of venturing out into the blizzard. Fiction writer John Cheever even reflects this notion in his journal as he once referred to a period of difficulty in his writing as “winter.”

Putting aside Scott’s failings as a leader, and his cavalier assumption that walking to the Pole was like walking through a park on a winter’s day… the reason that Scott died was that he gave up. Eleven miles from a cache of provisions that could have saved him and his men, he holed up with his men, writing farewell letters to their loved ones.

He stayed in the tent and died.

Amundsen, on the other hand, once said, in the face of bad weather: “Nobody knows the day before the sun goes down.” He had a plan: four days for every degree of latitude (fifteen miles) and if it took him five hours, it took him five hours; if it took eight hours, he took eight hours. Fifteen miles a day on a journey of roughly 800-something miles to the Pole and 800-something miles back doesn’t seem like much progress in a day, but fifteen miles a day pushes you closer to finishing the journey, while sitting in your tent, lamenting the bad turn things have taken, accomplishes nothing.

Again, for writers, the lesson is clear: you’re not going to get the novel written if you don’t write.

Novelist and short story writer Richard Bausch once wrote,

“What you get done really doesn’t have only to do with how gifted you are, or how much ability you have. It has to do with your attitude toward [your work]. If your attitude is, ‘This is my work; this is what I do every day and I don’t have any expectations except that I will have worked today,’ then you will get a tremendous amount done.”

In an essay about the decade it took him to finish his first novel, Heaven Lake, John Dalton says: “This is what writing is, a long series of hopes and sudden disappointments on a small, daily scale and also on a large scale that occurs over the course of many years. This is difficult to bear.”

​This, in the end, is what separated Amundsen from Scott, and what separates writers who finish a novel from those who don’t: how they responded when the terrain, the weather, the writing becomes “difficult to bear.” Karl Marlantes took close to 40 years to publish his critically acclaimed Vietnam War novel, Matterhorn, starting from when he sat down in 1971 to write a first draft he came to describe as “C-R-A-P.”

​Some years ago, Margot Livesey sent a novella to Salmagundi, and the editor rejected it. Rather than despairing and giving up, she looked at the novella again and then set about the long and difficult process of making that novella part of her brilliant and complex novel, The House on Fortune Street, which Entertainment Weekly named one of the best books of 2008.

​Ben Fountain (whom we’ll be featuring here at Bloom in the coming weeks) had enormous success with his first book, the collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award. But Fountain had also been laboring on a novel, on and off for a decade, that his editor finally told him was not working. Rather than give up, Fountain went back to work, on a short story about a woman who, among other things, exchanges letters with her brother who’s deployed to Iraq. The brother eventually became the main character of his novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012.

​Fountain had no idea that Billy Lynn would lead him on the journey that produced one of the most celebrated books of 2012. He merely sat down at his kitchen table, where he wrote, and went to work. As Amundsen said about rough weather: “Nobody knows the day before the sun goes down.”

​ One of the things that has puzzled me about Scott and his eventually tragic assumptions is this: if it had been easy, others would have reached it long before he or Amundsen tried. Scott himself had tried and failed, and one of his former protégés, Earnest Shackleton, had also attempted to reach the Pole but failed. Shackleton had gotten to within 97 miles of the Pole but had turned back because he realized that, if he pushed on, he and his men would not survive the return journey. Scott knew that it was a difficult task, yet he nonetheless behaved as if the journey were not treacherous.

For us, we who attempt the work of novel-writing, perhaps the takeaway is not so much to be paralyzed by the prospect of a treacherous journey, but rather to recognize that if it weren’t difficult, it would not be a triumph to get there and back. Do we celebrate a trip to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread?

Instead of giving up when we find the writing difficult, we should think of it this way: if writing a great work were easy, books like MatterhornThe House on Fortune Street or Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk would not be so rare and therefore not as worth pursuing to their writers. When the writing becomes difficult, maybe it’s an invitation to push back the flaps of our metaphorical tent and slog our way through the day’s writing—to remember, as Marlantes, Livesey and Fountain did, that a day might begin in difficulty, a project may seem a failure, but “Nobody knows the day before the sun goes down.”

Bloom Post EndJoseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012), a finalist for the CASEY award for the best baseball book of the year and one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 25 favorite fiction books of 2012. A member of the faculty of Webster University, he has published short fiction in the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Missouri Review, among other journals.

Homepage Photo Credit:  Sarah Carmody Photography, St. Louis MO

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4 thoughts on “Experience Required: The Polar Explorer’s Guide to Writing a Novel

  1. Pingback: Bloomers at Large: Growing Into Voice | Bloom

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