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From the Writer’s Desk: Storytelling on Story Collider

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series, “From The Writer’s Desk,” I’ll describe what I do for a living as a writer and ideas I have for advancing my craft.

I recently had fun playing at The Story Collider, where people relate stories often dealing with science. The theme that night was travel, and my tale was about an unexpected discovery I made after venturing to all seven continents.

There’s a persona I put on here for the stage that I usually never do in writing. No one ever seems to believe my travel stories unless I inject them with some braggadacio, so I trumped up my voice in a way I only rarely ever do, or think I do. Everything below is true, mind you — it’s just that my own tales aren’t quite as exciting to me any more, but if I tell them in a matter-of-fact way, people not only seem to get bored but seem to think I’m bragging by being blase. So I pretend to brag to not seem as braggy as I might seem if I wasn’t bragging.

Um. Yeah, I’m probably over-analyzing that.

Anyhow, text of my story’s below. I also have annotations on the bottom, and some images here.

***

So I was climbing an iceberg in Antarctica, and I discovered that it’s trickier than you might think.

I mean, to even climb ice, you need claws of steel. Knives you strap onto their feet called crampons, ice axes in both hands. You scale the ice by fighting it, and breathing in cold air that burns down your throat.

But the often neglected variable about icebergs that makes climbing them tricky is that they’re floating in the water, bobbing like giant ice cubes. So when waves come, guess what? The iceberg start tilting, one way then the other, and you find the ice you’re hanging onto starts lurching back and forth on you.

And getting off the iceberg isn’t any easier. I mean, the ice is bumpy, which makes you skid. And there’s sun on the ice, so it’s slick with water. And you’re trying to walk on this while it’s rocking back and forth. And it’d be bad if you went over the edge, because you don’t want to find yourself swimming in the Antarctic weighed down in winter gear. But it’d be worse if you landed in the inflatable raft you came in on, because again, knives on your feet, and those and inflatable rafts don’t mix.

So yeah. Tricky.

I discovered a lot of other things in Antarctica as well.

I actually did swim in Antarctic water. In swim trunks, not winter gear. Keep in mind, saltwater has a lower freezing point than freshwater, so it was colder than freezing in that water. What I discovered then was just how nice it is to be in a sauna afterward in a former Soviet research ship.

I climbed three mountains, and on this one that no one had ever climbed before, I was hanging on the underside of a cliff near its peak with my rope snagged, with this constant feeling that I would fall backward hundreds of feet, lose everything, and positive reinforcement is great — love and friendship and hugs and all — but I discovered that I reached the summit through anger, that this was not the way I’d want to die.

And after I visited Antarctica, after I visiting seven continents, there was one other discovery I made I wasn’t expecting to.

*

Antarctica was the last of the seven continents I went to. That was seven years ago, when I was 27. Wandering from one continent to another has been… fun.

I’ve dodged thieves on the way to Shaolin Temple.

I’ve flown into a blizzard to look at Siberian mummies.

I roamed around the Outback in the back of a former jail wagon.

I squabbled with a male prostitute who called himself Mr. Pissssss — he hissed the ‘s’ — in Zanzibar, and had to put him into a joint lock so he’d leave us alone.

I helped dig in ice for woolly mammoth DNA in Yukon.

I snorkeled with sea lions in the Galapagos, which is much more relaxing than the nonsense I usually get to in Latin America. I mean, just last year I sparred barefoot on a former drug smuggler’s compound in Belize. By the way, tai chi? Surprisingly effective against ninjitsu.

You kind of get the point.

I never actually thought I might visit all seven continents when I first came up with the idea. It started off as just a silly dream.

But then I started crossing the continents off the list, you know? Asia, North America, and Europe as a kid. And then I went to Africa after journalism school. And then Australia. And then South America.

So then it was like, hell, there’s only one left.

I used to stay up night after night haunted by it. What seemed an impossible dream now seemed just within reach. And these questions began gnawing at me — Am I going to be one of those men who says he is going to do something but never ends up doing it? Is this the kind of man I want to be? Is that the kind of life I want to live?

So once you start asking those questions, you don’t really have any choice. I scrimped and I saved, and bought myself a ticket to the bottom of the world.

*

Now you might think this is one of those stories where, after I get what I want, I find out it really wasn’t as great as I thought it’d be after all. This is not one of those stories. Going to Antarctica was as great as I thought it’d be, even better than I thought it’d be.

The discovery I made came after I returned. After the initial euphoria wore off, everything in my life began to feel like one big anticlimax.

Now I know what I sound like. I sound like a whiny little git. “Oh no, Charles went to all seven continents. Oh, boo hoo.” I mean, I know. I get it. I’m not asking for pity here.

But it’s just that everything in life began to pale in comparison.

I mean, what happens after you’ve had a dream? You wake up, and the world seems all the less wonderful and strange for it.

And how do I follow up on seven continents? What, fly into space? Everyone tells me, “Fly into space.” Do I have a few million dollars to spare? What am I now, a broken astronaut?

And then it gets worse. I started having the kind of doubts that ambush you in the dark. I started to question whether what I did was all that interesting in the first place. I went to seven continents? So have hundreds. And, I don’t know, that person went to all seven continents on the back of an ostrich. I’ve climbed an iceberg, but they’ve climbed Everest three times. That was our mountain guide, by the way. Grandson of Tenzing Norgay. He climbed Everest three times. And I started to feel blander and blander, and more and more … meaningless.

I started asking myself if I’d ever do anything interesting. It’s like heartbreak. All adventures are like romances, and the greatest journey of your life is like the greatest love of your life. And I broke my heart just by coming home.

I went to the edge of the world. And part of me never really came back.

*

But.

My bunkmate in Antarctica was a guy named Andy. Australian. A really good guy. Always laughs. Life of the party.

I found out afterward that wasn’t who he was. We were drinking in the southernmost Irish bar in the world, in Tierra del Fuego, “the Land of Fire” at the tip of Argentina, named after the fires the people there burned all the time to keep warm, even in their canoes.

We were talking about why we went to Antarctica. And he told me he was actually a quiet man, a reserved man. And he had been in love. And engaged. And he had gotten cold feet. And he broke off the engagement. And he realized his mistake and tried to get her back. But by then it was too late. And he wanted to go to Antarctica because he wanted to go someplace as cold and as desolate as he felt.

Before he got to Antarctica, though, he traveled through South America on one of those group tours for about a month. And he really opened up, partied all the time, came out of his shell, until he became the man I knew in Antarctica.

I saw Andy again when he visited New York. I was in my funk. And in a bar in the East Village, Andy was still fun and outgoing, but he smiled and said he still felt that pain inside.

And I told him that pain would never go away. But he would change over time. And in changing, that pain would change too. He couldn’t forget it, shouldn’t forget it. But he would change. And he would be happy again.

And he later got married. Has a kid now. He’s happy.

Now I can end in something glib, and say that love can keep you warm, in Antarctica and everywhere. But I don’t really believe that. I mean, I’m glad Andy found love and got married. I really am. Deeply so. But that story might not have ended that way. You can’t rely on happy endings.

Getting what we wanted wasn’t our problem. Losing what we had was.

The climb down is always worse than the climb up.

You have to accept change. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find you changed for the better.

I don’t believe in happy endings. I don’t.

But I do believe there are hopeful ones.

And I think that’s an important discovery to make, too.

***

Hope you liked it!

I wanted to tell this story because for years, people kept rolling their eyes at me after this feeling of loss I had after coming back from Antarctica. That became an interesting storytelling challenge — how can tell this story in a way that won’t make people think I’m a douchebag? Hell, that won’t make me think that I’m a douchebag? The entire analogy to heartbreak was the real breakthrough, both personally and storytelling-wise — I could finally articulate the feeling I’ve had all these years about my experience, and it’s something pretty much everyone can understand the pain of. With that in mind, in the first part of the story, I built up to the nature of that discovery, the emotional climb up and the emotional crash afterward; in the second part, I wrote about how I think I’ve dealt with that discovery — with another discovery.

Y’know, I probably still come off as a douchebag in the story. Sigh.

In retrospect, it would have been nice to talk more about how unexpected — and certainly unwelcome — this malaise was. I mean, achieving a life dream should be a good thing, right? The downside of achieving a dream is ending a dream. You kind of leap ahead in your personal narrative to the end, and what do you do for the rest of your book?

I don’t often write in memoir format, or even first-person, so it was good exercise to switch from my usual “detached reporter android” persona to talking about my own feelings and experiences. I also write differently for spoken-word — I play around with word and sentence length for tempo, and mull over hard and soft consonants for euphony.

I think it’s imperative to have a good strong opening when storytelling to snag audience interest right from the bat. So I made the first sentence a bit kooky and put as much action and humor in the first few paragraphs as possible. I also layered in ‘discovery’ as a recurring motif, as well as the hints of the euphoria of the climb up and the desolation of the climb or fall down.

Oh, and most of us took off our crampons before getting back on the Zodiac (motorized inflatable raft). Near the end though, the iceberg and seas were pitching around so much, I recall the last few of us actually did go into the raft with crampons on, trying to land on our butts and not feet down.

In telling the story, apparently I had really high energy in the beginning. After a while, tho, energy lagged, and I started putting in a lot of “Y’knows,” “I means,” and “I knows” into the story. It’s something we all can lapse into in public speaking — something to keep in mind if you’re ever on stage!

You can email me regarding From The Writer’s Desk at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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