Friday, January 10, 2014

"Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness"

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

This quote is widely attributed to an ad placed in the early 1900's  by Sir Ernest Shackleton, recruiting men for his Antarctic Expedition. Until writing this blog post, I had no idea it wasn't a documented piece of history. I even used it in an epigraph to a poem I wrote about Shackleton 5 or 6 years ago. The reality is, no one has been able to verify that this 'ad' ever ran and there is an open contest offering $100 to the person who can track it down. Most likely it is apocryphal and has lasted because it sounds so dramatic and romantic. 

It's funny, because the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton has enough drama and romance without it.

Why am I thinking about Shackleton today? Because recently the New Zealand Antarctic Trust found exposed and unprocessed photographs cached in a  hut, left 100 years ago by the team who set up Shackleton's supply depots. And while Shackleton was able to return to rescue all of his crew who had been stranded by the crushing of the Endurance, three of the ten men from the supply team died before being rescued.The photographs, taken by the official photographer, likely represent the final pictures he ever took as he was one of the men who perished.


They call Shackleton's expedition the most successful failure of all time and he is taught as an example of leadership in graduate schools.

He must have been an extremely resilient and an extremely determined man. At every turn, when his goals were snatched from him, he simply realigned his goals and kept moving forward. He initially wanted to be the first man to reach the South Pole, but that prize was taken by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1911.

Then Shackleton chose another goal: to mount a successful expedition overland through Antarctica.

And his ship got trapped and crushed in the pack ice, stranding him and his men at the start of their journey. Ultimately, his goal turned to survival, and the eventual rescue of his men, which he pursued with a single minded ferocity.


It's easy to despair, when something you have worked for, have sacrificed for, have dedicated yourself to achieve, doesn't happen. And it is true by the standards of his expedition's goals, Shackleton was a total failure.


When I started writing novels 10 years ago, I was sure that with some hard work and a little luck, I'd be successfully published. Easy Peasy.

But, despite my optimism, the reality for creatives looking to make a living with their art is more like the promise of Shackleton's supposed ad: "Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness." Only substitute rejection for cold, and self-doubt for darkness.

It would be five long years and querying widely for three different novels before I secured an agent.

And then the book she signed me for didn't sell.

Neither did the next one.

And the one after that, she felt was too flawed to submit. So I kept writing.


That process took us to today, five more years after I first signed with her.  Eight complete novels written and a ninth nearly finished over ten years of work.

(And before we get the inevitable questions: yes, a reputable agent from a bone fide, well respected agency, submissions to big NY publishers, etc.)

 She's getting set to send another of my novels on submission and is optimistic about its chances in the marketplace.

But there are no guarantees. In this business "Safe return [publication] doubtful."


It would have been simple to give up.

Unlike Shackleton, no lives hinge on my success. If I pack up my laptop and stop writing stories, no one risks starvation and death on a glacier.

Once my goal was to see my name on the NYT best seller's list with all the recognition and financial reward that can come with it. (Go ahead and laugh at my naivety. I'll wait.)

My long term goals today are still lofty: make a decent living through my writing. But along the way, my day to day goals are much smaller, much more achievable. Write 1,000 words. Practice craft. Seek out and incorporate feedback.

Perhaps Shackleton was able to succeed in his monumental feat of rescuing his stranded men by focusing on the small matters of each day's survival, rather on the one goal he failed to achieve.

My adventure is far tamer than his. When I feel especially sorry for myself, I think of him and his men and what they endured for the barest, slimmest hope of survival. Then I  get back to work.

1 comment:

  1. I'll admit I first learned about Shackleton when I was visiting the New Zealand Arctic Centre in Christchurch, and thought, "That man's got some cajones." I think writers (metaphorically) have to grow some.

    Best of luck with your latest submission. Fingers, toes, flippers, and Cthulhu-like tentacles all crossed.