Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Rajasthani girls with Mendhi on their hands. (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first blog about maps and decided that I would write a series on that topic– maps, their history, the people who made them, and how maps have been used by people. I did this because maps are integral to the series of books I write in the Cartographer Universe and I wanted to understand more deeply what maps have meant to humankind.

What I’ve come to understand is that maps can be a truth, a lie and a metaphor. They can present the ‘reality’ of the physical world—the mountains and rivers and roads and cities and can inspire men to superhuman acts just to complete a map. Just as often, though they represent lies or half-truths—the imaginary island of Brasilia, the shifting landscape of Prestor John’s Kingdom or, more overtly, contorted landscapes intended to lure the unwary into towns, gold fields and department stores. And that’s a problem, because we tend to think of maps as representing the truth and we don’t  approach maps with a ‘use at your own risk’ mentality or with the realization that any map may only represent the reality that the map’s maker wishes to represent. They’ve been used this way for centuries, so that the modern-day Chinese maps which change the location of major city thoroughfares to stymie the advance of any potential invasion are only an extension of the same tradition that caused British mapmakers to make erroneous maps of the West Coast of Canada (presumably to stymie the work of Spanish spies), and the Portuguese and Dutch Kings who kept secret their routes to the spice islands.

Ship off the Portuguese Algarve, (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps are much more than simply tools to convey or obscure information. Maps are a part of our psyche so deeply engrained that the map metaphor has seeped deep into our culture. Cervantes wrote ‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of travelling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’ Shakespeare wrote “In thy face I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty.”

The Camino Inca Trail to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps themselves are not truth, but metaphors. Once, in Fra Mauro’s time, they represented the mythical extent of man’s imagination and potential. Once, they represented the adventure, the spirit of mankind in the terra incognita of the empty sections of the map. Nowadays they represent the world as governments want it to be when they represent contested borders (think the current battle over islands between Japan and China, or the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that three countries claim). Maps are used to represent presidential aspirations, shifts in battlefields, oil pipeline routes, and enemy and friendly countries—not that these presentations are the truth, but they are one truth—the truth that the mapmaker wants us to believe.

In this day and age when maps are no longer produced by a person hunched over vellum and ink, we must remember that many things influence the mapmaker’s pen. Everything from politics, funding sources and the publishing company’s allegiances represent what is filtered onto the page. Which brings me to my final conclusion about maps and the truth. They have always been creatures of the imagination and not of the truth, no matter that they grew out of scientific endeavors, but now that purpose of inciting the imagination is being used with more strategic purpose than ever before. Can we trust maps? No.

As Herman Melville stated so well:

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Porto boats at dawn , Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen L. Abrahamson

The Star Raft: They came from the rising sun (part 2)

Two weeks ago I wrote about the evidence showing contact between China and Africa long before the Portuguese sailed around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. More evidence of this appears from maps found in Korea and dating back to 1402 that show the WEST coast of Africa as far north as the Orange River, one of the longest rivers in Africa, which forms the international boundary between modern day South Africa and Namibia. This same map places Africa immediately opposite Indonesia with a string of small islands in between, suggesting that whoever drew the map, didn’t get there via India and the Gulf and down the African coast, but instead by sailing across the Indian Ocean. Records suggest some of these Chinese travelers came by way of a Star Raft. So who were these sailors and what is a Star Raft an how does this have relevance today?

Unlike later generations of Chinese dynasties, the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) was outward looking and venturesome. This continued with the Southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279)who had lost half their territory to the Tartar hordes of the north. To make up for their property losses, they looked to oversees trade to fill their coffers and China became, for the first time, a maritime nation.

The ships they built had five or six decks, and carried a year’s supply of grain, herds of pigs and jars of fermenting wine. They carried the world’s most advanced seafaring technology in magnetic compasses, water-tight bulkheads, advanced rudder systems, sounding lines, and a sail designed for steering into the wind that could have allowed them to travel into the trade winds that had deterred the Arab seamen. By the end of the twelfth century they were on the edge of the western Indian Ocean and had appeared in the Gulf and off Yemen.

Old woman and Brazier and Xi'an Temple (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

While many of these huge boats went no farther than India to trade, accounts from those few who went further also made their way back to China and described the port towns and the people they met. They describe the sources of ivory and rhinoceros horn, of frankincense, ambergris and a red gum resin called ‘dragon’s blood’ as a series of villages down the East African coast. News also came of the landscape and the African wildlife, including the marvelous creature called a camel-ox with a hide like a leopard’s, the hooves of a cow, no hump but a neck nine feet long perched above a body ten feet tall.

The contact between Africa and China continued, including embassies of African traders to the Chinese court. Proof of this comes both from Chinese records and from the diaries of Ibn Battuta, the many travelled Arab who wrote of meeting a man from Mogadishu who had been in China.

With the fall of the Song Dynasty and the coming of the Mongol hordes, the naval trade reduced, but the rise of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) saw the creation of a huge maritime fleet that in 1414 sailed into the western Indian Ocean led by General Zheng He, Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures. (See my short story here.) Zheng He was the Chinese Columbus, but the Chinese ships topped Columbus’s ships in every way. While Columbus sailed with three ships with single decks, Zheng He sailed with sixty-two galleons that each outweighed Columbus’s ships three to one. While Columbus had about 100 men, Zheng He had 868 civil officers, 93 commanders and 26,800 soldiers plus numerous others.

But unlike Columbus, who was a man of exploration, Zheng He led a Star Raft – an expedition planned to bring the ‘star-like radiance of the imperial ambassador’ and to win allegiance of distant people for the Chinese emperor. Yes, goods were traded during these voyages, but the symbolism of the exchange was unique to the Chinese. They believed that their trading partners were paying homage to the Chinese sovereign of the world. So unlike Columbus. the Chinese venture was based in looking inward – bringing the homage of other places to the center of the world.

Inside a modern Xi'an Temple (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Which makes me wonder about the state of the world’s economy today as China’s economic engine begins to overtake that of the United States. Are we watching a modern-day version of the Star Raft as western companies and governments seek their trade accords with the new China?



Ray Bradbury and Rewriting the Map of Canada

Woodland trail, Yukon, Canada (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ray Bradbury died this week and as a science fiction and fantasy writer, his was some of the writing that most inspired me. I will forever be haunted by his horrific short story “All Summer in a Day,” but some of Bradbury’s best work were his cautionary tales like Fahrenheit 451, a terrifying look at the death of freedom and the burning of books in a fictional future. You might wonder what this has to do with the map of Canada, but bear with me.

This post will probably be as close to getting political as I will ever get, but events here in Canada have pushed me to the place where I finally have been forced out of the silent majority. You see the map of Canada is about to change. Not the physical map, perhaps, but the environmental map and the map of our hearts and our place in the world, and our children’s future is under attack so badly that I have to speak out. It feels very strange for a business person and writer who has always focused on fiction. For those of you who don’t live in Canada, here’s what’s at issue.

Small fishing lake in the B.C. Interior. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

1. Our federal government is currently introducing legislation, Bill C 38, that will abolish most of our environmental protection legislation. They claim that they are trying to clean up the legislation in order to make it ‘make sense’ for municipalities and farmers, but in reality, while they might cut some red tape, they are getting rid of any legislation that might block the immediate implementation of major corporate initiatives, like the Enbridge Pipeline that will cross some of the most rugged and pristine landscape in Canada, from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean. This pipeline will cross hundreds of miles of wilderness and thousands of salmon-spawning streams to bring the dirtiest type of oil to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, this same legislation erases much of the laws in place to protect the pristine waters of British Columbia. It will allow oil tankers to ply the delicate environmental areas of the inland passage to take this dirty oil to China—one of the worst polluting countries in the world. Think Exxon Valdez. The legislation also removes the safeguards in place for many endangered species, because, the new legislation says, these species aren’t really important.

Kayaking the coast of British Columbia (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

2. At the same time this government is systematically silencing any opposition. Along with this salvo against the environment which shortens any environmental assessments and limits who can even participate in the discussions, the government has also launched an attack against non-profit societies and charities, by imposing restrictions that stop these charities from any sort of advocacy against government actions. This attack has specifically been leveled at environmental organizations because they receive donations from other countries and this government is threatened by the groundswell of reaction from around the world about what they plan to do. They are changing the rules to hamstring any opposition against the huge oil corporations.

At the same time, they either stop funding scientific research, or they place gag orders on all remaining government scientists who might provide a voice of reason or evidence that government actions are wrong. But then I shouldn’t be surprised. This government doesn’t believe in science.

Even Members of Parliament who try to express what their constituents want are silenced. And when members of the United Nations commented recently on the impoverished state of our First Nations population, this government told them to go away and focus on third world countries. It seems Canada, in this government’s eyes, is beyond criticism.

All of this paints a picture that should terrify anyone concerned for our future. For someone who has always been a proud Canadian these actions are only the tip of a blood-chilling iceberg. It leaves me to think that, instead of the great white north that has stood proudly for freedom, integrity and honour both here and abroad for 145 years, we are being transformed into a country I only read about as in Ray Bradbury’s writing.

Welcome to totalitarian Canada – next comes the book burning.



They Came From the Rising Sun

A Portuguese ship off the Algarve. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’ve spent much of this blog writing about the great European mapmaking tradition and the exploration that went with it, but long before European Kings considered funding a certain wild venture to reach India and China by sailing west across the Atlantic, and long before Vasco de Gama sailed round the Cape of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, the Chinese were venturing westward, too. They sailed from Canton and through the Malay straight and into the Indian Ocean. They mapped it, too.

Chinese records indicate that trade between China and Africa began as early as the Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 220). Two of Africa’s most powerful nations of the time, Kush and Axum had trade relationships through intermediaries. In Kush the remains of ancient pottery and bronze utensils indicate that they may have been copying the styles of the Chinese goods being brought to its ports by Arab traders. Axum may have been the source of the rhinoceros horn, ivory and tortoise shell that Roman traders took to China in AD166.

But this was trade by intermediary, not face to face trade. The first trade by Chinese with African is thought to have occurred not much later, but it probably didn’t occur on African shores. Accounts of ancient travelers indicate that in places like Ceylon merchants and sailors from as far afield as China, Persia, Homerite countries and Adulis (an African port city) came together to trade. One Chinese trader, Fa Xian, stayed in Ceylon for two years before returning home to write his accounts of the people he met.

Dhow off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

During the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) records show that a Chinese did set foot on African soil. Du Huan, was a Chinese military officer who was captured by the Arabs during conflicts near Samarkand. After spending twelve years in the Abbasid Empire, he reappeared and wrote a record of his travels. Of the bits of that memoir that have been preserved over the ages, he speaks of travelling south over a great desert to the land of the black people, where there was little grain and no vegetation and malaria was endemic. Researchers today think this was probably modern-day Eritrea.

A Chinese junk from the 1270s was discovered in Guangzhou harbor in 1974 with cargo such as tortoiseshell, frankincense and ambergris that strongly suggest trade with Africa. Between 800 and 1400 Chinese goods were also making their way to Africa so that Chinese porcelain became common as decorations on houses and mosques and broken porcelain still apparently litters East African beaches. Chinese coins from the Tang Dynasty (the kind with the square hole in the middle) have been found along the coast and on islands like the Bajun and Zanzibar.

Chinese tower, Xi'an, China (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course, the Chinese travelers to these distant shores in these early days weren’t representatives of the Chinese dynasties. No they were merchants and traders. Most of these went as far as India and no farther and were content to trade with the middlemen who brought goods from Africa. But a few travelled further and the routes were known in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the ninth century the Tang Prime Minister and geographer, Jia Dan, knew of the sailing routes that gave 90 days from Canton to Arabia and 20 days for a further voyage southwest to a country called Sanlan.

Cyclist on the western Zanzibar beach. (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course, if the Chinese were anything like the later Portuguese, this information could have come from Arab sailors as a result of the government confiscating all maps from visiting sailors, but a map compiled between 1311 and 1320 by the Chinese cartographer Zhu Siben clearly shows the triangular southwest pointing African continent at a time when the western world thought that Africa didn’t end, but instead the landmass continued on eastward before joining the mainland again and enclosing the Indian Ocean as a great inland sea.

Just think of what this map suggests: The Chinese were there first. If they had kept going, they could have discovered Europe long before the Europeans ‘discovered’ the route to China.



Powell’s Books: A glimpse inside the cartographer’s mind

Gondolas, Venice (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other day at Powell’s Books (Portland), I came across a wonderful little book called “The Mapmaker’s Dream” by James Cowan. The book is the translation of the diary of Fra Mauro, a sixteenth century Venetian monk and cartographer who set out to make a perfect mappamundi (map of the world) though he had never stepped outside the confines of his cloisters. Instead he gathered travelers’ tales through exchanges of letters or interviews of missionaries, merchants and soldiers travelling through Venice. His task became well known and he received envoys from as far afield as the court of the Chinese Emperor. Not only was this book astounding for the fact that word of his venture travelled so far in the 16th century, but the information he collected and the workings of his mind fascinated me.

Yes, his travelers brought stories of the Cyclopedes, beings in the southern hemisphere with only one huge foot that they used for hopping and also for shade when the sun in the antipodes became too fierce, but envoys also brought other tales that caused good Fra Mauro much reflection. This was what captured my attention for they showed a keenness of mind and a shifting view of the world much like new age philosophers. This seemed strange for his time; given Fra Mauro was a devout Catholic.

His encounters left him pondering whether the soul could possibly transmigrate into another person upon the death of the body and whether we are ‘all drifting towards a more complete life in someone else’. The visit of an old Jewish merchant from Rhodes left him contemplating how the loss of place (in the holy land) ‘condemned the man to inhabit his loss forever’ and how the rootless person came to inhabit a region of his own mind instead.

Schwedigon pagoda

Holy Schwedigon pagoda at sunset, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson)

Visits from others left him considering how venerated holy relics become something more because of that veneration, and how those objects take on their own life because they unite an idea that men aspire to. They left him wondering at cultures that worshiped Satan and yet were not evil, and others that determined their actions and their future through the calls of seven forest birds.

But most of all he wrote of the minds of travelers. He was struck by the notion that travelers not only travelled with their bodies, but also that they travelled in their minds and were transformed by that travel or, alternatively, transformed the place they had been. He wrote of the journeys of envoys sent to find the mythic kingdom of Prestor John and looked at the evidence of such a kingdom – the long letter still held in the Vatican archives that describes a kingdom so perfect it could not possibly exist. Fra Mauro concluded that the reason the search for Prestor John’s kingdom became all consuming, was not just the desire for aid against the Moslem hordes, but the desire to know that it was possible for paradise to exist on earth. Travelers longed to become ‘slaves’ to Prestor John’s perfection and bounty. But the country of Prestor John would never be found because it was only built on dreams.

Buddha face, Sukhothai

Buddha face, ruins of the ancient capital of Sukhothai (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ultimately, Fra Mauro realized the challenge of creating a perfect map arose because each man’s perceptions of place were different and any ‘perfect’ map must capture not only the land forms, but also the forms of the world created by men’s minds.

The lowly monk of Venice completed his life’s work, but today no trace of his perfect mappamundi exists, except in references in the pages of his journal. Perhaps, like the worlds he described, it faded away to become the world as we know it today, but more importantly what his journal shows is a man of deep thought who’s Sixteenth Century perspectives still resonate with readers today.

Thank you, Powell’s, for this gift.

The World Has Three Points

I mentioned last week how the ancient Egyptian, Eratosthrenes, used a column and a shadow as two sides of a triangle to estimate the size of the earth, which shows the importance of geometry to cartography. Nowhere was this more evident than in mapping the earth, where triangulation, (the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to an unknown point from known points at either end of a fixed baseline), was literally used to measure the location of everything in relation to everything else.

Geometry and triangulation had actually proven themselves previous to Eratosthrenes. They’d been used to measure the heights of the pyramids and had also had been highlighted by the ancient Chinese as an important principle of mapmaking. Unfortunately this wasn’t well known in Europe even though the Arabic influence brought such surveying methods into old Spain. Instead, Europe was still transcribing tourist tales and fanciful stories onto paper and selling these for parlor display based on their beautiful illuminations, rather than spending their time surveying the landscape.

Apparently the first European to get serious about the use of triangulation was a Dutchman named Gemma Frisius who suggested using triangulation as a means to pinpoint the location of places on maps. The technique gradually spread through the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the 1600s that Europe got serious. A Dutchman named Snell began the process of surveying the landscape with a chained line of triangles (much like the triangles the American flag is folded into)across the countryside for a distance of 70 miles. The use of Snell’s process led to a rise in the quality of the Dutch maps and, in comparison, the decline of French maps into dependence upon engraving and elegant color as their selling feature – all well and good as a parlor adornment, but not what you want if you actually want to do something with the map you made.

Enter Guillaume Deslisle: In the late 1600s this young Frenchman began to change maps from things of the arts to matters of science. At a time when the great rulers such as Louis XIV knew little about the countries they ruled, he began to use triangulation surveys to permanently shift and fix continents and islands on the map, and even settled the age-old argument about the length of the Mediterranean Sea (41 degrees). The work of Deslisle and his kin led to the first mapping of Russia, or Muscovia as it was known at the time, and eventually influenced the French Minister for Home Affairs and advisor to Louis the XIV, Jean Colbert, to push for the mapping of France.

In 1663, Colbert ordered that each French province’s maps be examined to see if they were of sufficient quality. If they were not, qualified surveys were to be undertaken. This eventually led to Abbe Jean Picard overseeing the first precisely measured chain of triangles and topographical surveys around Paris – the two preliminary foundations to accurate mapping. The extension of this process led to France being mapped and became the standard practice for scientific mapmakers. It was used in the cartographic expeditions used in Lapland and Peru discussed in my last cartographic blog, in mapping the Himalayas, the English countryside and, the Grand Canyon and everywhere else in the world.

But the work of Deslisle and Picard had unforeseen impacts. Like the magic in my books, the new maps seriously revised France’s boundaries and coastal outline. The world’s shape was changed again – all because of three points.

Myths, Latitude and the Financial Shape of the Earth

Despite the myths and rumors of a flat earth promulgated during the Middle Ages, most scientific minds over the centuries have known the world was a sphere. Clues to this came from the fact that boats sailing away disappeared gradually as if they sank from view, and did not simply diminish in size. The Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, hypothesized that earth was a sphere based on the fact that the sphere is ‘the most perfect of forms’. If the sun and moon were such a shape, why not the earth? It was Pythagoras and other Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle who cemented the idea of a spherical earth in European culture.

So people knew the world was round, they just didn’t know the size of it, nor did fully understand its shape.

Estimating the size of the earth also harkens back to the Greeks. Both Aristotle and Archimedes had erroneous estimates of the earth’s circumference, but history hasn’t left any clues as to what those estimates were based on. The

Going to market, Kashgar, China (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Chinese apparently sent two men to measure the earth and they walked it from north to south and east to west before coming up with the result of 134,000 kilometers (hopelessly in error).

The first (known) scientific measurement of the earth’s circumference came from an Egyptian named Eratosthenes during the time of the Ptolemy Kings. He knew of a water well in Southern Egypt where at noon on a certain day of the year the sun shone straight down to the bottom. He also had made observations that on the same day in Alexandria, at noon, there was still a shadow. He hypothesized that if he could measure the angle of the shadow on that day, he should be able to estimate the size of the earth. Using a vertical column he did just that, measuring the distance of the shadow from the base of the column. Then, with the length of the column, and the length of the shadow, he could calculate the third side of the triangle and determine the angel of the sun’s rays. Using basic geometry he was able to hypothesize that the earth was 46,000 kilometers in circumference – too large since we know today that the circumference is about 40,000 kilometers – but not too shabby for a man working with only a shadow and a column.

The debate about the actual size and shape of the earth continued over the centuries, with various other size estimates coming to prominence at different times. Contributing to the issue was the debate over the actual length of a degree, a debate that raged for centuries. This led to numerous ‘thinking men’ attempting to determine the length of a degree through methods ranging from counting the turns of a carriage wheel as it travelled between two points, to taking laborious chain measures of distance across the English countryside. It took debates of Newtonian and Cassini theories to help scientists realize that they were – in a word – wrong – about there being a definitive length of a degree.

You see, Newton formulated the theory of universal gravitation and that centrifugal force would mean that the earth could not be perfectly round. If he was right, due to the earth’s spin, the earth would be flattened at the poles and would bulge at the equator. Refuting this was the work of French scientist, Jacques Cassini, who had found that the length of a degree seemed to get slightly shorter at the poles compared to the equator. He theorized that this meant that the earth was shaped more like an egg, with poles drawn out and the equator flattened.

It took two expeditions in the 1700s, one to Peru and Ecuador, and other to Lapland, to settle the issue. While the trip to Peru dealt with altitude sickness, unfriendly Indians and disease, the expedition to Lapland had to race winters to take measurements. The team in Lapland completed their measurements after two years and found that the length of a degree was significantly longer in the north than a degree measured in France, thus proving that the earth was indeed compressed on the poles and bulging towards the equator. The poor Peruvian team spent nine years completing their mission, and confirming Newton’s theory, only to discover that their work was redundant.

But what they showed was that the length of a degree will depend on the latitude:

  • The east-west degree at the equator = 111.321 kilometers, however the circumference along a meridional circle is 67.2 kilometers shorter.
  • The north-south degree at the equator = 110.567 kilometers and the
  • The north south degree at the poles = 111.9 (or 1.4 km longer)

All of which may be where the phrase ‘giving someone some latitude’ comes from: What they do (and how far they go) will depend on where they’re standing.

Which could explain the disparity in approach the Germans and Greeks are espousing to deal with the Eurozone financial crisis. It’s all latitude.

Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

I’ve heard it said that if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know and they will accomplish it. Somehow these people have the ability to stretch a little more out of a minute or hour to get the conference planned, or the new report written. These people amaze me. Actually, I think they intimidate the heck out of me, because I am constantly finding myself scrambling trying to get things done and regretting my inability to say ‘no’ to new work. Of course, too much work impacts my ability to find time for my writing.

How do these people do it? Do they really have the magical ability to expand time?

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course the answer is ‘no’ (at least I don’t think too many of us have Hermoine’s magic watch), but these people have tricks that help them get things done. I figure I must have a few as well as I am frequently being asked where I find the time to write, or travel , or blog.

The first thing one must do is decide if writing or travel is something you really want to do. For me, there were years of frustration about finding the time to write and the time to market my writing until a friend and mentor made the suggestion that I treat myself as a one of my clients. You see, I work for myself as a consultant and I schedule my time based on the work a client has asked me to do. The suggestion was helpful to me because it did two things:

1. It got me to schedule time;

2. It legitimized my writing and got me to take it as seriously as I take my paying work.

The first of these points speaks to organization, a key point if you are trying to fit writing into your life. Along with organizing your life to allow writing time, you must obtain the buy-in from significant others like spouses and friends – otherwise expect writing time to be a constant source of relationship friction.

The second of these points is probably the most important. Taking my writing seriously gave me permission to make it a priority to write. I can’t tell you how many people I know who say they want to write a book or are working on a book and yet they never sit down to write. The first job of a writer is to write – not to talk about it. Not even to blog about it. But to write. Bum in chair folks, and no matter what else is going on in my life, I always find time to be there.

You have to decide the writing/travel/whatever is a priority because it will hurt you more not to do the activity, than to do it.

I’ve also had people tell me that part of their trouble is the challenge of moving from creative to mundane (e.g. work) projects and back again. This is an issue of multitasking. So how do people manage this shift from project to project?

I know people who work on two or three novel projects at the same time. I admire them greatly, but I don’t think I can do it. These folk can literally be writing one manuscript in the morning and another at night. For some it’s a matter of compartmentalizing their writing, so writing a certain type of book is associated with a certain time of day. I suppose I do something similar when I get up early in the morning and write creatively, and then turn to my work computer at eight a.m.

Having separate computers can help, as well. Having one computer for work and one that is strictly for creative endeavors allows your brain to associate a certain place with a certain type of thinking. Keeping your creative space separate from the internet has also helped some writers, and definitely removing all games from the creative computer. For me, I have to keep my photography on a separate computer because that is a time sink I frequently get stuck in, because it also feeds my creativity.

Other issues fledgling writers run into include knowing what to write and just getting started. I’ve talked previously about inspiration, but sometimes it’s just the fear of getting started. There are wonderful books out there that can help. I fondly recall Natalie Goldberg’s Wildmind, and the wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both helped me explore my voice and passions and taught me that my voice was valid. Books can teach you how to deal with the anxiety of starting through cleansing breaths, or meditation . Each writer has to find their own way to deal with the critics in their heads.

I’m reminded of a mantra Kris Rusch and Dean Smith put up at every workshop: DARE TO BE BAD. What this means is that all creativity (and travel, and just plain living, for that matter) is about taking a risk. We have to throw ourselves out there and only by taking those chances will something wonderful arise.

I’m reminded of one of my adventures: In China my travel companion and I decided to visit a remote area called Qinghai Lake. This is a wind-blown steppe in the mountains that has a huge lake that supports the massive migrations of waterfowl from Siberia to South Asia. So we hopped a local bus and travelled up into the mountains and were dumped off in a small group of buildings that were reminiscent of an old west town except there were no horses around, only yaks and monks.

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So we ventured out to the lake on foot (not an easy hike, because the lake was distant and the wind was high and scoured us constantly with dust). We were met by Tibetan women bringing their children to see Westerners. (I scared the children because I have blue eyes and apparently that’s not a good thing.) We saw massive stone cairns, strings of prayer flags, and wonderful kids who showed off by riding yaks to guard their herds and, in the distance, blue Qinghai Lake. I ended up going back to our room alone and was just washing the dust out of my pores when someone pounded on the door.


They barged in on me as I stood there dripping. I was shocked, to say the least, and my first reaction was to shoo them right out of the room again and bar the door. It worked. I stood there, heart pounding. Through the door I heard them whispering and laughing. And they went away.

Which proved to me, that if I could deal with the Chinese Army, I could deal with most anything – including anything that dares get in the way of my writing.

Destructive Forces, or The Beauty of Making Things Worse

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the destructive force of Ben and Shiva. Ben has his penchant for getting in behind breakable objects and purposefully shoving them off of shelves. (I have much less brick-a-brack these days.) Shiva has developed a penchant for shredding paper—cardboard—plastic. Anything he can sink his little teeth and claws into and I constantly am catching him at this lovely trick on things like – oh – my business license, or a manuscript stacked and ready to be mailed out.

I wonder if editors would understand a few chewed corners.

Hmm, maybe they would just figure I have mice, or was particularly nervous about mailing this one out?

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Anyway, in the midst of trying to preserve my manuscripts and various and sundry pieces of memorabilia from my travels, I got to thinking about destruction and its place in our lives and writing. At the same time a writer friend of mine sent me a link to some fantastic photos of the erosion and destruction of Detroit . The photos are bizarrely science fictional and evoked thoughts of Night of the Living Dead, Twelve Monkeys and War of the Worlds, and yet they are absolutely and utterly beautiful with their haunting look at faded glories. Maybe it’s just me, (but I think not, given the hordes of other visitors to places like Angkor, and Athens and Machu Picchu) but I am fascinated not just by the vestiges of what was once great and has now been destroyed, but also in the cracks in the great edifices and the things climbing through from the other side. As I watch the people of Egypt struggle for democracy I think of new life, like the fromages tree that grow from the Angkor ruins (one is on my website home page). Or maybe it’s the wisdom and laughter that shines through from an age-ruined face.

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

What does this have to do with writing?

A writer’s job is to make things worse and to recognize that destruction is life. This is hard, because even though I think we are attracted to destruction—fascinated by it, even, if you notice the way traffic slows next to a serious traffic accident—we hate to inflict it on other beings. We are fascinated and repulsed by news of a slaughter of others. Haiti’s earthquake, for example, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Tsunami that wiped out so many in Malaysia and Thailand. And yet as a writer our hands pause as we destroy our character’s beloved possession, or reputation. We hold back from hurting them physically or mentally. We take heed of the cardinal rule and DON’T kill their cat or the dog or the horse, but we don’t do other things to wound them either.

Which makes our writing boring.

Think about it. Are we interested in a character skipping happily through life? No. Even all those Jackie Collins novels of the beautiful people carry their own carnage. That’s what makes us read those novels and all those T.V. magazines: seeing the crumbling of those magnificent edifices of the cults of personality.

So it’s not just thrillers and action stories that should have destructive forces, whether they’re external or internal to our characters, we need them to ignite the passion in the reader and make them want to read on. The ‘oh-no’ moment. The tension of anticipation of when the lover finds out that they’ve been cheated on. The implications when a character finds their home, their family, their life (insert your character’s loss here) is gone. We want to know and we want to understand how character’s overcome, because we all have those forces in our lives and we want to see what comes after.

The difference is, in our writing (unlike all life situations), the edifices of the character’s old life may crumble or burn, but something lovely and fragile and – more – arises from the ashes. Like that fromages tree. Like the wisdom I see in those old eyes.

So get back to your destruction when you turn to your keyboard. I’m going to keep an eye on that chewed box in the corner to see what loveliness arises.