David Attenborough, Antarctica, and Writing

- by Victoria Janssen

I had an unusual writing lesson recently. I watched the David Attenborough documentary on Antarctica, Life in the Freezer. It wasn’t specifically for research; I’m a fan of his, and was curious about the topic, and the DVD happened to be on sale!

Though this series isn’t new–it’s from 1993–I totally recommend it, for the photography if nothing else. Vast sweeps of snow and ice and icy ocean, gorgeous underwater seal ballet, vast fields of penguins. One caveat: several penguins poignantly meet their deaths, so if you’re a penguin fan, be warned.

I adore David Attenborough, and have since I was ten or twelve years old. Why? He’s so interested in everything, and he communicates his enthusiasm through a television screen, a pretty neat trick actually. Which is the first writing lesson I learned from watching this series–putting yourself and your interests into what you’re saying or writing gives those words more energy. The reader can both see and feel that you love what it is you’re trying to convey.

I surprised myself by how little I really knew about Antarctica and the animals that live there. It didn’t matter. Attenborough’s “voice” carried me through, not just imparting information but giving me a point of view to understand and love that environment, and those animals. He was the entry point to that setting. I found myself thinking not only about the writers’ voice, but about point of view characters.

Finally, I realized that a lot of what I learned about harsh environments could be applied to creating science fiction worlds; in fact the NASA Tumbleweed Rovers were tested in Antarctica.

I was impressed by the population of Weddell seals which can survive year-round on the ice cap by keeping breathing holes open in the ice; they can submerge during blizzards with only their nostrils exposed, and when they hunt, they can remain underwater for as long as eighty minutes. The footage of a human diver in their realm was incredible–I could only imagine the vast silence, broken only by seal calls. I couldn’t help but imagine an alien species. And a writer, submerged in story.

To sum up, everything I see becomes part of my writing. Some things, though, have more lessons to teach than others.

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