Places to Write: My Secret Places at The University of Toronto

notebook01In my writing guidebook The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice I write a section on finding the right time and place to write. I call them “sacred”, because that’s what they are. Without them, we struggle to write. In Chapter Two of The Journal Writer I write about the need for a sacred place in journal writing, particularly. The advice is equally important to any form of writing.

Journal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEBFinding the perfect place(s) to write … is important to creating meaningful entries. Journal writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment for you. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you relax, find a connection with yourself and your feelings. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your thoughts. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to the content of your entries. Entries you make while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from entries you make while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle. I give more details on how to feed the muse in Chapter 4.

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Sitting in Krave’s outside patio

Some of my favourite places to write are indie cafés that express unique character and rich ambience. Amid the desultory chatter and laughter of people and sipping my flat white, I find myself deep in writing. These days you can most likely find me somewhere on the University of Toronto campus where I teach engineering students, social science students, and health science students how to write.

It’s been four years since I came to UofT and I still feel a glow every time I walk through campus. Whether it’s past a century-old stone building, beneath a canopied archway of chestnuts, into a well-treed enclave, or through a high-ceilinged glass building; I am both home and on an adventure.

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Convocation Hall, UofT

UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, lofty yet humble—and beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Established in 1827, the University of Toronto is snugly located in the centre of downtown Toronto; yet, it’s not so much a part of the city as the city is a part of it.  UofT’s campus probes into the city’s infrastructure like a creative amoeba: interacting, absorbing and expressing. The UofT downtown campus sprawls dozens of blocks in all directions; embedding itself in the city with a blend of century-old buildings and avant-garde modern chic. It’s not so much re-inventing itself at every turn as morphing and co-evolving with the city.

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Clock tower, UofT

The UofT campus represents for me the very best the city—any city—has to offer: a vibrant, well-connected place of learning and activity, supported by original and tasteful landscape architecture: healthy trees and parkland full of songbirds, tasteful new and old architecture and alluring courtyards and doorways that beckon my creative soul. The UofT campus provides a myriad of possibilities and historic depth for the adventurous soul. Did you know, for instance, that Canada’s first electric computer was installed at UofT? Or that UofT is haunted? Or that much of UofT’s architecture was inspired by structures at Oxford and Cambridge? Or that an old nuclear accelerator sits fallow in the McLennan Physical Labs building?

My creative soul appreciates UofT’s integration of nature into its architecture and grounds. Its natural enclaves provide ideal settings for quiet contemplation and reflection. They’ve become my “secret places,” destinations along my journeys across campus to my various writing appointments. Places where I can sit, reflect and write. Here are just a few:

  1. Terrence Donnelly’s Bamboo Garden in Terrence Donnelly Centre:
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Steps leading up past bamboo garden of Terrence Donnelly Centre

The Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR) is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen.

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View of garden resting area from above

In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open-up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative and interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialists—biologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university’s groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

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View of Rosebrugh wall from the garden

The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).

 

The bamboo garden in Donnelly’s spacious atrium is meditative and calming; a lush forest of bamboo and shrubs amidst wooden floors, benches and steps. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several “picnic” sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

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Entranceway with bamboo garden of Terrence Donnelly Centre

Upon entering the complex from College Street, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-story atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. As I walk up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reach skyward, the tall bamboo forest to my left beckons. I’ve had many lunches there. I also spend many moments sitting there with a book, reading or just daydreaming beneath a texture of greens.

  1. Breezeway of Knox College Quad:
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Knox College breezeway in winter

I usually enter the perpendicular gothic style building from St. George Street; though, you can also come in via Kings College Circle, past the chapel—known for its Hellmuth Wolff organ. Once I pass through the heavy doors of the St. George entrance, I enter a dark foyer and instantly feel like I’m in a church. The chapel is on the other side, yet the deep quiet and surrounding dark wood of the floors, walls and stairways to the right and left of me, enclose me with a sense of sacred holiness. I walk the echoing foyer to the stained-glass doorway of the breezeway ahead. As I open the glass door, the complex scent of tulips and pine greets me with the warm breeze. I have entered another magic place.

The gothic archway that connects the Knox College Quad is an open breezeway that looks out onto the interior gardens of the quad. Tables and chairs along each side provide a peaceful place to read and write with a quiet view of the outside courtyard of flowers, shrubs, trees and benches. Hanging vines provide additional greenery in the archway.

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Knox College breezeway through courtyard

Whenever I come here, the hustle and bustle of the city just fades away. Busy St. George Street is nearby; yet I don’t feel its influence within this quiet haven, where the soft sounds of Nature embrace me with their songs and stories. I often come here to read and write. I listen to the birds and other natural sounds, letting them lull me into a meditative quietude of bliss. Life slows to a philosopher’s pace and my creative muse awakens. Sometimes I bring one of my indulgences—a poutine from one of the chip trucks on St. George—and feast in my secret place as Nature’s melodies feed my soul. On a warm day, the breezeway also provides a cool respite.

  1. The Laidlaw Quadrangle behind University College
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West gate into University College courtyard

When I first discovered this hidden quadrangle, I felt goosebumps of pure magic course through me. My discovery visit was through the west arched entranceway off the west green, past Bissell House. I passed the gateway into the Courtyard Colonnade, and faced a sunken courtyard shaded by large ironwood and maple trees and surrounded by gothic brick and stone. I’d entered an enchanting world of quiet reflection.

A paved walkway—supported by retaining walls and planted with flowering shrubs—runs on three sides of the quadrangle. The walkway broadens into a terrace to the north, forming an extension of the new Library colonnade. Mature maple and ironwood trees overhang the cloisters and the walkway.

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West colonnade of quadrangle

Designed by Canadian landscape architect Michael Hough, the quadrangle evokes the courtyards of medieval monasteries and old English universities. Built in 1964, when the Laidlaw wing (and library) separated the college from back campus, Hough’s design translates the essential feature of a monastery or college courtyard—access from inside the building to a covered walk around an open centre—from architecture to landscape.

 

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View of courtyard (to left) from west cloister of University College

I’ve since discovered other ways to enter and leave the quadrangle, each one presenting a new perspective to this peaceful place. Each time I come here, I feel my soul sigh with joy. Birds sing the poetry of Nature. Leaves rustle as the wind plays on them. When I’m here, I feel at peace in the city.

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UofT Faculty Club

UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally direct me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I enter the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomes me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminds me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar.

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Windows of University College

I feel both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I order the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provides a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day travelling writer.

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Pictures by Nina Munteanu

 

 

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