Bestselling author and naturalist Helen Macdonald visited with high school students from Alliance High School at Meek Campus over Zoom on Tuesday, October 13th. Macdonald discussed how she keeps up hope, the swifts at Chapman Elementary School, and strategies to beat writers block and self-doubt.
Alliance High School student Sabina asked if Macdonald ever had writers block, and what helped her overcome it.
“The writing block, I have had that,” Macdonald said. “Often it’s if I’ve been very sad, and if I feel like my voice isn’t worth having. This is a secret I’ve told no one: I have this stuffed plush mammoth in my room. Sometimes, I’ll go hug the mammoth. Sometimes I’ve beat writers block by being nice to myself and hugging the mammoth. The ultimate nuclear option: I pretend I’m someone else. I pretend I’m a superhero, or I pretend I’m someone who is a really good writer. Sometimes that’s enough to trick myself into writing. Pretending you’re someone who’s really good and confident.”
Eulalea, a student, wondered if Macdonald ever regretted anything in her career, like an opportunity she wished she’d taken.
“I found it very hard to fit in in university,” Macdonald said. “For many years I didn’t do anything because I thought I couldn’t do it. I ended up getting a job at a conservation place working with falcons. I was treading water. The lack of ambition was partly because I was scared. I kind of regret that. I regret that I wasn’t braver, to be uncomfortable, to put myself in situations I might fail at.”
“How do you keep hope?” asked teacher Rebecca Rothery. “And express hope in your writing?”
“It’s the biggest question,” Macdonald said. “There’s always despair at my back. Grief and despair at what’s happening…The future is not certain. It’s grim but it’s not certain. To be brutally honest, what we need to do outside the pages of books is organize and mobilize. We need to make noise about the way things are. That’s happening. I’m so full of admiration of the number of young people…who are fearlessly stepping up and taking on people of my generation and older. I try really hard to be hopeful.”
Alliance High School student Ella asked about new projects that MacDonald was working on. Macdonald explained that her new book concerns Midway Atoll, one of the most remote places on earth. “It’s a weird spooky place. But it also has 2 million birds in two square miles. I went there a couple of years ago to help count the albatrosses. They are the most efficient fliers. They have six foot to eight foot wingspans. They look like very posh seagulls.” Macdonald said it was incredible to “be so close to these rare beautiful birds that are really threatened by climate change. (Midway) is so full of wings even at night, you can feel the feathers brush your hair. The island is doomed, the sea level is rising. But I hope there will be jokes in (the book) as well.”
She recommended students go there on Google Earth and walk around virtually.
When asked about the Chapman Elementary School swifts, since her new book, Vesper Flights, features them, MacDonald said that while she hadn’t yet seen them in person, “I have watched many times videos of those swifts…it’s one of the most beautiful and strange things I’ve ever seen. Crowds of people glorying in these sights.” She said she hoped to see them someday.
Huge thanks to our partners at Alliance High School at Meek Campus for making this event possible: Principal Bonnie Hobson, Amy Taramasso, Alix Reynolds, Joseph Ferguson, Mary Houghton, and Miaah Garrett for the beautiful introduction. Thanks to our Literary Arts staff and especially Olivia Jones-Hall for her work coordinating this visit.