Writing About Extraordinary Things


Last week I stood on the deck of a supply ferry inside the Arctic Circle and watched heaven fall.

There were folded curtains made of green light dropping towards the horizon, as if we were witnessing the moment just after the play had ended. Or the world.

Higher up the curtains, where the light was thin and stretched, stars were sewn on like sequins.

In the north ribs of light shimmered and flickered in spasms. Someone screamed, ‘Look, look,’ and pointed overhead to streaks of white veins thickening and twisting.

I lay on the deck to try to take in the whole Aurora, but the lights were too immense, covered too much of the sky for me to see in a single view. But I couldn’t remain there. It wasn’t just the cold, although the temperature was -1C, and the icy breeze had numbed my nose and cheeks. The experience was too huge, too awe-inspiring, too exciting and frightful to stay still without being overwhelmed.


Of course, I felt the expected “insignificance of man” under the immensity of the phenomena. How could you not? But what came as a complete surprise was that some part of me felt a strange interconnection with it. It was as if here I was, an individual standing on the deck of a ferry in Norway, but at the same time, was also an integral and indistinguishable part of something much greater and unfathomable, cosmic even.

I tried to capture what I could on my camera but I found the images as inadequate as my words to recreate this extraordinary experience.

Today, back in Australia with the bushfires raging, I was looking through Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones and stopped dead at this quote about watching a tribal snake dance,

“We who watched thought it was unfathomable and fantastic because it was new and foreign. It was also ordinary and had been done for hundreds of years. In order to write about it, we have to go to the heart of it and know it, so the ordinary and extraordinary flash before our eyes simultaneously. Go so deep into something that you understand its interpenetration with all things. Then automatically the detail is imbued with the cosmic; they are interchangeable.”

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12 Responses to Writing About Extraordinary Things

  1. Margaret jackson says:

    Oh Karen! You have stopped me dead in my tracks with this post. It is something I had to read again and again because, like your beautifully described view of the Aurora, I couldn’t quite take it all in at once. Your descriptions are incredibly lovely and draw me into, if not quite being there, absolutely wanting to be there. The descriptions have enabled me to share some tiny bit of your experience. What an amazing writer you are. It sounds like this was for you one of those rare and amazing experiences that some have of being immersed in the All.
    Thank you

    • Thank you so much for your lovely words. I love the way you expressed the feeling I had. I don’t think I did the experience justice, but I intend to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice and try to write a story where the everyday interpenetrates the cosmic. Quite a challenge!

  2. Diana Threlfo says:

    Karen, what a deeply insightful experience, one that I imagine is so personal, so significant to the individual, that it is difficult to convey to those who were not actually there. However, with your talent with words, your finesse with language, you have managed so beautifully to paint an image and to produce an atmosphere, an enviable appreciation of the experience, to which I can strongly relate. Many thanks, Diana

    • Thank you, Diana, for YOUR insightful comments. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? To write so the individual experience becomes universal, and the universal becomes personal. Finding Natalie Goldberg’s words is so exciting because it gives me a concrete place from which to start writing about this incredible experience. Wish me luck.

  3. anne says:

    I have been fascinated by the Northern Lights since I saw Joanna Lumley’s documentary about them. I knew then that I’d never get to see them, even so, the documentary was inspiring and ordinary, universal and personal. Have you seen it, Karen? I don’t know if you can get it on DVD or not. Will check it out.
    I think it was on ABC at some stage a year or so ago.
    I love the way you described it. Felt I was right there with you. Can’t wait to hear and see what comes out of all this.
    Pleased to know you had a great time and are safely ensconced at home, recovering from your awesome experience.

    • I enjoyed the Joanna Lumley documentary a while ago, too. I think she went in the dead of winter when it’s easier to see them clearly. The next few winters are predicted to be spectacular because of high solar activity. What I didn’t expect was the entire sky swirling.

  4. Maree says:

    Karen, your first paragraph was a great hook. Just had to keep reading. You have captured that experience so exquisitely that I was able to mentally picture it and feel it at the same time.
    I love the quote from Natalie Goldberg, so thought provoking. Initially, I was relating her thoughts to some of my travel experiences, like Ningaloo Reef and the Buchaneer Archipelago, then I found myself making the connection to some parents that I know that live with children with autism. They perform daily ordinary acts that are so extraordinary simultaneously, because they have a unique “knowing” and are right at the heart of it. Some food for thought. Maree.

    • Thanks, Maree. The really wondrous thing about life is that the ordinary and extraordinary exist simultaneously in so many things. It’s seeing it, as your mothers obviously do, that can sometimes be the hard part.

  5. What a beautiful post, Karen. Your opening line…. stunning.

    I totally agree – the magnificence (and to a certain extent, indifference) of nature at work is humbling and awe-inspiring. The interconnectedness with the universe is something I treasure, and hope comes over in my own writing. Fabulous post – thanks for letting us share in the wonder with you.

    • Thank you for your lovely comment, Joanna. It was an awe-inspiring experience. I think the true challenge for writers to try to express the things we don’t have words for. Only a few writers like Virginia Woolf succeed. Her writing is awe-inspiring.

  6. I love the metaphor of the curtain falling on a play… Or the world. I think there you successfully connect the ordinary with the extraordinary.

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