The Paper Hound Bookstore—A Peculiar Stop in a Peculiar Journey

Rod and Kim, owners of The Paper Hound Bookshop, Vancouver

It was a warmish sunny Friday in the deep of summer and I was in Vancouver for the first time in three years since COVID-19 stopped me from travelling.

I found myself wandering Gastown, retracing the steps of the indomitable character in my upcoming thriller Thalweg.

My wanderings took me along Water Street, past the Steam Clock, south on Cambie, then east on Blood Alley where my character has a sketchy scene with two enforcers involving Gaoler’s Mews, a solid red brick wall, a scurrying rat, and a 9 mm Glock…

Gastown steam clock about to steam out 6 pm, Vancouver, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

But I was in the general area for another reason: to meet my son and his lady for a wonderful meal in the exquisite Italian restaurant Autostrada Osteria; a Christmas present he’d owed me since COVID hit. Located on the corner of Homer and Pender streets, Autostrada Osteria nestles comfortably in an eclectic mix of old and slightly dilapidated next to trendy and posh chic. Something Vancouver seems to do well.

The Paper Hound Bookshop on Pender Street, Vancouver

I was a little early for our reservation at 7:15 pm, so I wandered down the street. Immediately east of the restaurant was a character bookstore selling new and used books, The Paper Hound Bookshop. It’s located in the Victoria Block, a 1908 addition to the old boutique Victorian Hotel.

Always curious about books and wishing to kill some time, I wandered in, blissfully unaware that I was entering another dimension…

I nodded to the young woman at the front desk who exuded friendly intelligence through kind but impish eyes. I ventured deeper, perusing the shelves, high and low. I noted that the books were arranged with lots of front covers on display in tiny category-labeled alcoves that literally covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Several sliding ladders were judiciously placed to provide reach. The categories were odd, bizarre, somewhat arcane, and peculiarly amusing. There was one that proclaimed “Rodent as Hero.” Another read “Indomitable Orphans,” (populated with several Harry Potter books, of course, as well as other lesser known orphans).

Whoever had created these categories—was it the woman at the front?—was either strange or had purposefully flouted the norm to draw attention to a more whimsical, curious way of seeing the world and the books that described it. No mundane alphabetizing within broad normative categories for these people!

Inside the Paper Hound Bookshop, Vancouver (image by On the Grid)

As I wandered the labyrinthine rows of books, the place felt like a roadmap to another world. The narratives from the categories alone were worth studying from “Hot Adventure”, “Cold Adventure,” and “Wet Adventure” to “Books with Bears,” “Detection / Deduction,” and “Wanderlust.” Each category was a ‘book’ and each book ‘a chapter’ of a larger funky narrative that depicted one person’s intriguing interpretation of the world.

Keagan Perlette of Sad Mag describes the store this way: “The Paper Hound stocks both used and new books and features an impressive collection of poetry and philosophy. Space is limited, so there is an evident focus on literature, but there are surprises hidden in the shelves: an excellent selection of beautiful children’s books, art books, drawers full of zines and chapbooks, and even a section for unique vintage cookbooks. The store is full of little wonders.”

There is even a funky machine that dispenses poetry like cigarettes for two quarters at the front of the store. Even on its surface books were stacked. The owners had stacked books literally everywhere. On chairs, on tables, on each other. Little books on larger books, balanced wonderfully in a kind of fanciful ordered chaos.

Poetry dispenser at The Paper Hound (image by Keagan Perlette)

The Paper Hound website accurately describes the bookstore as “a new, used and rare book store” that doesn’t specialize “in one particular kind of book, but we favour the classic, curious, odd, beautiful, visually arresting, scholarly, bizarre, and whimsical.” In addition to their collection of used books, the Paper Hound carries titles from local small publishers Anvil Press, Arsenal Pulp Press, Talon Books and New Star Books.

Owners Kim Koch and Rod Clarke are veterans of the bookstore world in Vancouver, having worked at several before opening Paper Hound. They set up The Paper Hound in the old boutique hotel in 2013 on what my book collector friend calls ‘book row.’ Located on Pender Street, between Richards and Hamilton, ‘book row’ is apparently expanding according to On the Grid.  According to the Vancouver Sun: “in this digital age many people think bookstores are on the verge of extinction. People are buying fewer paper books, and websites like Amazon offer almost anything ever printed, often for cheap.” While the Internet and digital devices appear to be ravaging large chain bookstores (some like Borders closed and others like Indigo have added household goods to bring people into the store), small niche independent bookstores are flourishing.

“Setting up a bookstore in the post-online and big book retailer age is sort of liberating,” says Kim. “We know we can’t carry everything or nearly as many titles as they do, so that liberates us to instead focus on creating the experience we want the customer to have.” Kim describes the perfect bookstore as: “a place that offers people a space where they can explore, get guidance from the proprietors and, when they want to, be left alone amongst the shelves to daydream.”

That’s exactly what I did.

When I left the store at shortly after 7pm, Kim pulled in the book trolley from outside in preparation to close and I apologized if I’d held her up a few minutes. She then informed me that they usually close at six but she had kept the store open for goodness knows why. I smiled and said rather cheekily with sudden inspiration, “I know; because I needed to experience it.” She laughed and those impish eyes twinkled.

And before you ask, yes, I did walk away with something: “Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley, a moral fable that explores the closed-minded approaches of many scientists of the day in their response to Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution.

1935 edition of Ward, Lock & Co. publication of “Water Babies” by Charles Kingsley (originally published in 1863 by London Macmillan and Company) with illustrations by Harry G. Theaker

After he is chased from the home of an upper-class young girl, chimney-sweep Tom falls asleep and tumbles into a river. There he is transformed into a ‘water-baby’ and his adventures truly begin. Beneath the surface, he enters a magical world full of strange and wonderful creatures, where he must prove his moral worth in order to earn what he truly desires.

Macmillan describes The Water Babies this way:

“One of the most unusual children’s books ever written, The Water-Babies, subtitled ‘A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby’, was originally intended as a satire in support of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and explores the issues at the forefront of biologists’ minds at the time. First published as a complete novel in 1863 [originally illustrated by Linley Sambourne], Charles Kingsley’s classic tale also explores ideas about religion, the Victorian education system and the working conditions of children and the poor.”

The vintage version I picked up at The Paper Hound was illustrated by Harry G. Theaker and published in 1935 by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd. with 24 colour plates.

For a great taste of Kim and Rod’s unique vision of the world of literature and their pithy humour and wit, go to their blog The Paper Hound. Here’s a taste:

Vancouver street lined with plane trees (photo by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed on her latest short story “Robin’s Last Song”

Left: cover of Apex Magazine Issue #128 in which my story appears; Right: cover of 2021 anthology published in fall 2022.

I was recently interviewed by Alberta writer Simon Rose about my latest eco-fiction short story “Robin’s Last Song”, which was recently published by Apex Magazine in its 2021 Compilation Anthology. Below is the interview:

Simon: Congratulations on publishing your short story “Robin’s Last Song” in Issue 128 of Apex Magazine and soon in the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology. I’m curious about the title? Whose last song is it? Is Robin the name of a human or the bird?

Nina: Both, actually. The title is both literal and metaphoric. The premise of the story is based on the alarming trend of disappearing birds. The robin, a common bird in Ontario where the story takes place, is a good sentinel for what is happening with bird populations around the world. Robin is also the protagonist’s name; she was named after the robin, her mother’s favourite bird.

Recently fledged robin rests on patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Simon: Robin’s Last Song is obviously eco-fiction. What’s it about?

Nina: Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Discarded robin’s egg to deter predators, found on a woody trail in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Simon: How did you come to write this particular story about birds and what is “soundscape ecology”?

Nina: Since I was a child, the burgeoning SF writer in me had dared to imagine a world without the sound of birds—I thought it utterly bleak and, recognizing an ever-polluting world, I feared for my feathered relatives. I didn’t follow through with a story until September 2019, when I was approached by Oliver Hockenhull, the guest editor of subTerrain Magazine, to write a piece on technology and the environment. The timing was interesting; I’d just read two impactful things that resonated with me.

The first was the October issue of Science Magazine that reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers had estimated that three billion birds of various species had disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970. That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades. To make it clear, we aren’t talking about rare birds going extinct; these declines are of common birds throughout the world. The wrens, sparrows, starlings, and, of course, the robins. I was devastated; I could not imagine a world without the comforting sound of birds. What would it be like if the birds all disappeared? This brought me back to my childhood fears.

The second article I ran across talked about an emerging bioacoustics tool, soundscape ecology, that measures biodiversity and the health of an ecosystem, mostly through bird sound which well represents ecosystem health. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who had been conducting long-term recordings for decades noted how the dawn chorus in many areas had greatly diminished if not vanished altogether.

Bernie Krause, soundscape ecologist recording a soundscape in Florida

I now had my premise and my connection with technology. The title of my original story for subTerrain was “Out of the Silence”. This story focused on the technical aspects of the premise and solution. When I was approached for a story in February 2021 by Francesco Verso, the guest editor of Apex Magazine Issue #128, I rewrote the story with a stronger focus on the protagonist’s personal journey and connection with the bird catastrophe, how she coped with Asperger’s syndrome and the failure of her tool to predict the disaster. Hence the change in the title to “Robin’s Last Song”.

Cover of subTerrain Issue #85 in which “Out of the Silence” appears

Simon: Without wanting to bring in spoilers, isn’t there a twist to the story, suggesting a cautionary tale that touches on the dangers of genetic engineering?

Nina: Yes, thanks for bringing that up. I was already primed with research into genetic engineering for the sequel to my 2020 eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water.” I wanted to make the bird disappearance in “Robin’s Last Song” into a dramatic catastrophe linked to our own dangerous ecological tampering. I had the notion of using a gene hacking disaster to create ecological calamity and how this might affect birds. I wanted to make “Robin’s Last Song” a realizable work of fiction in which science and technology play both instigator of disaster and purveyor of salvation. Our biogenetic technology comes to us as a double-edged sword in the form of gene-editing, proteomics, DNA origami, and CRISPR—just to name a few. These biotechnological innovations promise a cornucopia of enhancements: from increased longevity and health in humans to giant disease-resistant crops. But, for every ‘magic’ in technology, there is often unintended consequence. Unforeseen—or even ignored—casualties and risks. I suppose my ultimate question with this story is: will synthetic biology redesign Nature to suit hubris or serve evolution? Science doesn’t make those decisions. We do.

Simon: Tell us a little bit about the Apex Magazine 2021 Compilation Anthology (that came out in both print and digital versions August).

Nina: The 350+ page anthology compiles all original short stories published in Apex Magazine during the 2021 calendar year. Published through Apex Book Company, it features 48 stories from a diverse group of new and established writers and the cover features award-winning artwork “Entropic Garden” by Marcela Bolivar. Check this link for more about the anthology and where to get it.

Cover art for Apex 2021 Compilation Anthology (art by Marcela Bolivar)

Simon: Are you still coaching writers and such?

Nina: Yes, I am, Simon. Did you know that I’ve been coaching writers to publication for close to twenty years? When I’m not teaching writing at the University of Toronto or George Brown College, I help writers with craft on their novels and short stories through my coaching services. You can find out more at: www.NinaMunteanu.me.

Nina teaches a writing class in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia

Simon: Tell us a little about any writing projects you’re working on these days.

Nina: I’m always busy with science articles for various online and print magazines and my own blogs. I’m also currently finishing a speculative eco-fiction novel that is a loose sequel to “A Diary in the Age of Water.” It’s set throughout Canada, from the Maritimes to the Arctic Circle, and spans a wide timeline from the Halifax Explosion of 1917 to the vast NAWAPA reservoir created a century and a half later by drowning British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain Trench. It’s a fast-paced thriller that focuses on four homeless people who battle corporate intrigue, kidnapping, human experiments and a coming climate plague.

Robin’s First Song: fledgling sits on a black walnut tree branch, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Mistakes Authors Make (When We Don’t Pay Attention to Place and Things

Marsh outlet of Thompson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

In “A Dance of Cranes” (Dundurn, 2019) author Steve Burrows erroneously describes the actions and motions associated with canoeing. In the following scene, the protagonist Jejeune is canoeing on a river in the boreal wilderness of northern Canada:

The low sun seemed to light the stand of birches from within, flickering through the trunks like a strobe light as Jejeune rowed past. 

One does not row a canoe; one paddles—with a paddle.

You might think that this is a small error, hardly worth mentioning; however, the friend who pointed out this mistake to me, was thrown out of the novel by it. She is a naturalist and has often gone canoeing in the lakes and rivers of Ontario. This mistake suggested a lack of professional attentiveness from both author and editor of the publication. By compromising the authenticity of the fictional setting the error stopped the reader from participating. We were no longer paddling with Jejeune; we were looking at the book.*

Some of you may rail at me for being overly harsh. You would remind me that this is a work of fiction, after all, not fact. You’d remind me that fiction is a work of the imagination, of characters and journeys; not a dry documentary.

I would agree with you—up to a point. Certainly, in fiction we can and do take liberties with “facts” so long as the narrative keeps the reader moving in the “fictive dream.” Authors have managed to successfully bend reality considerably in the past to great effect because the reader was fully engaged in the narrative and the characters.

But ultimately, beginning-to-end factual accuracy remains important in a made-up story for various reasons. While some “fake facts” or mistakes (such as the example above) may slip by many readers unnoticed, someone will notice. Guaranteed. And, as with my naturalist friend, it can make the difference between a seamless read and a jarring one. Writer Dorian Box shares that, “Some readers may even post reviews criticizing your book on that basis.” Dorian adds that when they spot large factual inaccuracies in a novel, “it detracts from the reading experience. I start to question other things. Credibility is damaged.”

All good fiction is anchored by consistent and believable world-building, whether the story is set in contemporary New York City or a made up planet in some made up solar system. The key to this believability is the use of grounding ‘facts’ or world-consistencies that immerse the reader in the story world. The reader relies on the author to realistically represent the world they are reading about. This allows the reader to experience the story as though it was real. Representing the facts accurately enables the writer to take liberties with other aspects of the story. Because the reader is nicely embedded in the world through accurate depiction, they will follow your characters through it eagerly.

Forest and marsh on Ontario (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The Importance and Ease of Research in Fiction Writing   

To prevent what happened in the example I gave above, authors must exercise due diligence in world building, in representation of setting and place, and in other elements of the story. Writers have easy access to so much knowledge about so many topics through local libraries, local experts, the internet, social media, and more. In other words, no excuse.

In the novel I’m currently working on I needed to understand what it felt like to handle, load and shoot a particular make of shotgun. I had handled one in the past but not actually used it. The internet provided exceptional instructional videos and sites that I could use to come close to the actual experience. I paid particular attention to nuances and sensual aspects such as texture, smell, weight, as well as mechanical aspects, like recoil; anything that would more viscerally help me experience it. When I had written the scenes, I showed them to someone who had handled a shotgun for their verdict on accurate depiction.

For more examples and discussion on place and doing research, check out Chapter H and R of my first book in The Alien Guidebook Series “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and Part 2 of my third book in the series “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

*There is such a thing as a rowing canoe; canoes can be set up for rowing with oarlocks and sockets, oars, rowing seats and even forward rowing contraptions such as foot brace for efficient rowing. However, this was not the case in the book I gave as an example.

Fence post covered in vines on water’s edge, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Apex Magazine To Release 2021 Anthology Fall 2022 with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”

—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it.

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of Soundscape Ecology.

Apex Issue #128 and upcoming 2021 Year Issue with Nina Munteanu’s “Robin’s Last Song”

May, 2071

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures — unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks — roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

“Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

Bird population change since 1970 (image The New York Times)

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Robin’s egg in the forest, discarded from the nest to divert predators (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

A robin fledgling rests on a patio chair (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings for many decades recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

Bernie Kraus creating one of his soundscapes

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction and Warning

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

Rachel Carson and her iconic book “Silent Spring”

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life.

And it’s making us sick too.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Joseph Planta on ‘The Commentary’

Joseph Planta had interviewed me before, when my non-fiction book Water Is…The Meaning of Water was published in 2016. He interviewed me again when my latest novel a cli-fi dystopian speculative fiction A Diary in the Age of Water was released by Inanna Publications.

Here’s how Joseph began the interview:

“I am Planta: On the Line, in Vancouver, British Columbia, at TheCommentary.ca

Nina Munteanu joins me again. She has just published a new novel, A Diary in the Age of Water. The noted writer and limnologist, a freshwater scientist, has written a book that could be considered science fiction. I suppose ‘cli-fi’ is the better term, climate-based science fiction. In the book, far away in a post-climate change world, Kyo finds a diary that gives her insight into the world before water scarcity. I’ll get Nina to tell us about Kyo, about the themes in this book, especially the world ahead if we continue as we do. Nina Munteanu is an author and ecologist. She has published many books of science fiction and fantasy, and was first on the program in 2016 when her book Water Is… The Meaning of Water was published. The website for more is at www.ninamunteanu.ca. This new book is from Inanna Publications. Please welcome back to the Planta: On the Line program, Nina Munteanu; Ms. Munteanu, good morning…”

Here’s the Interview.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Walking in the Rain: Part Two

Flooding creek in Trent Nature Sanctuary during a rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One morning, in late spring, I went walking in the rain through the Trent Nature Sanctuary forest. Looking for magic…

Moisture covered everything. It coaxed out vivid colours and textures in a tangle of stable chaos. I felt like I’d entered a Tom Thomson painting…

Moss-covered cedar trees after a soft rain in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The rain intensified the forest’s mosaic of unique scents from pungent, heavy and sharp to floral, fresh and sweet. The gossamer morning light favoured photography with a gentleness that softened and deepened everything, and invited intimacy. Mist hung low and rose like steam from the damp earth, slowing time. It felt as though I was walking through a cloud. The forest emerged ghost-like in glimpses of tree, shrub and grass. The brilliant red of the osier dogwood. The vivid greens of mosses and leaves. A tangle of blue-green lichens and bright red cedar roots. I was witness to a chaotic tapestry of Nature’s art. Infinite shades of green, brown, grey and yellow created a fluid landscape that water painted into a vibrant watercolour scene.

I moved through it, boots squelching along the spongy loam path, as though wrapped in a moving artwork.

Dew drops on hawksweed, lichen fruiting bodies in background, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Moss with spore capsules in the rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar roots and ferns in the heavy mist of a morning rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss during a mild rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar root and moss shortly after a rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The moisture carried the warbles and fluting chirps of lively bird song amid the hush of raindrops on vegetation. Each surface had a unique voice. And the rainfall—from light drizzle to hard pour—carried its own tune, rhythm and percussion. A symphony of diverse frequency from rich infrasound to beyond. 

Nina’s Canon EOS Rebel camera on its tripod, ready to take photos, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I kept my camera, attached to its tripod, tucked under several water-proof bags and walked with deliberate steps through wet duff, decayed leaves and mud. I had a hood but couldn’t stand to keep it up—I needed to hear and feel all of it: the rain sizzling through the vegetation, the red-winged blackbird’s conk-a-lee! The robin’s cheerily-cheer-up-cheerily-cheer up! The crow’s caw and rattle. The primordial shriek of a blue jay or kingbird. All were out, though not visible, as I navigated the huge puddles and slippery mud-leaf mix. Hair dripping, face in a grin.

Rain falling on the marsh to the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Pond lilies in the rain, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Rain falls on the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I felt elation in Nature’s celebration of life.

I was the only person in the park and thoroughly basked in that feeling of humbleness that comes with a kind of knowing: of being part of something far greater than oneself and yet in some way being that greater ‘self.’ Like I belonged there. Hard to explain. But it felt truly awesome and eternal.

Nina Munteanu
Boardwalk over the forest swamp, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fence post with marsh in the background during a steady rainfall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Country road in the rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I could have stayed there, wet in the rain, for hours. But I felt sorry for my camera and headed home, thinking of a warm cup of tea… 

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Reflects on Her Eco-Fiction Journey at Orchard Park Secondary School

I recently gave a talk at Orchard Park Secondary School during their “Eco Crawl” week. “Eco crawl is a cross curricular initiative promoting environmental awareness, natural conservation, and well-being,” says Teresa Grainger, Library Learning Commons Technician at the school. The “week long initiative will include animal visitors, presentations, displays, and outdoor activities. We like to involve as many departments as possible.”

The school invited me to participate with a presentation. I spoke about my work as a writer and as a scientist, how I was inspired to write eco-fiction and a little about the process of how I started. I shared the challenges I faced and my victories. I also spoke about the importance of eco-fiction as narrative and the importance of storytelling generally to incite interest, bring awareness and ultimately action.

The word is a powerful tool. And the stories that carry them are vehicles of change.

Here is some of that talk:

My story begins with the magic of water, Quebec water … I was born in a small town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a gently rolling and verdant farming community, where water bubbles and gurgles in at least two languages.

Pastoral Eastern Townships and Granby, Quebec; Nina Munteanu as a child

I spent a lot of my childhood days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, destroying and creating. Perhaps it was this early induction to the organic fragrances of soil, rotting leaves and moss that set my path in later life as a limnologist, environmental consultant and writer of eco-fiction.

My mother kept a garden in our back yard that she watered mostly with rain she collected in a large barrel out back. I remember rows of bright dahlias with their button-faces and elegant gladiolas of all colours, tall like sentinels. And, her gorgeous irises.

In the winter, my mother flooded the garden to create an ice rink for the neighbourhood to use for hockey. Somehow, I always ended up being the goalie, dodging my brother’s swift pucks to the net. I got good at dodging—probably a useful life skill in later life…

Our dad frequently took us to the local spring just outside town. We walked a few miles up Mountain Road to an unassuming seepage from a rock outcrop with a pipe attached to it by the local farmer. I remember that the water was very cold. Even the air around the spring was cooler than the surrounding air. I remember that the spring water tasted fresh and that the ice it formed popped and fizzed more than tap water.

I followed my older brother and sister to the nearby forest and local river. We stirred soil, flower petals and other interesting things with water to fuel “magic potions” then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure. I became a storyteller. My passion for storytelling eventually morphed into writing; but, the underlying spark came through environmental activism.

In early high school, during the mid-60s, I became an environmental activist, putting up posters and writing in the school paper. I wrote letters to industry and politicians, trying to incite interest in being good corporate citizens and promoting global environmental action. I remember a well-meaning teacher chiding me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he suggested patronizingly. I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing

I started writing stories in high school. Mostly eco-fiction, though I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. There was no genre called eco-fiction back then. It all went under the umbrella of scifi.

I completed my first novel, Caged in World when I was fifteen—in Grade 9—in 1969.  Caged in World was a hundred-page speculative story about a world that had moved “inside” to escape the ravages of a post climate-change environment. The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts—and years later—the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic. Icaria 5 is one of many enclosed cities within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America, and where the protagonist Julie Crane works and lives. The city is run by technocrats, deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

Some of the scientific papers, reports and articles I wrote or participated in

When I enrolled in college and university, I thought of going into environmental law then decided that I didn’t have the temperament for it and switched to biology. Without realizing it, I put fiction writing on hold while I pursued ecology at university. One professor got me very interested in limnology and it became my focus when I realized that I’d always been fascinated by water. I started out being scared of water—not being a strong swimmer—and the best thing you can do to get over a fear is to study it and understand it. That’s exactly what I did. I did some cool research on stream ecology and published scientific papers, articles and reports. Then I moved to the westcoast to teach limnology at the University of Victoria and do consulting work in aquatic ecology.

So, in a way, I’d gone back to what I loved best as a child—mucking about in nature, spending my days close to the ground, observing, poking, catching, destroying and creating.

Kevin as a toddler

In 1991, my son Kevin was born. I felt a miracle pass through me. Kevin became my doorway into wonder. His curiosity was boundless and lured me into a special world of transformation. I took time off work to spend with Kevin when he was young. We went on great trips, from the local mall, where we had a hot chocolate and played with Lego, to the local beach on the Fraser River, where we explored the rocks. When he was no more than three, I took him on endless adventures in the city and its surroundings. We didn’t have to go far. The mud puddles of a new subdivision after a rain were enough to keep our attention for dozens of minutes. We became connoisseurs of mud. The best kind was “chocolate mud,” with a consistency and viscosity that created the best crater when a rock was thrown into it.

Kevin and I often explored the little woodland near our house. We made “magic potions” out of nightshade flowers, fir needles, loam and moss; we fueled our concoctions with the elixir of water from a stagnant pool then told wild stories of mayhem and adventure.

Storytelling kept calling to me. It was the 1990s—twenty years after I finished Angel of Chaos—and I’d published lots of short stories and articles. But no novels.

Some of Nina’s short story publications

I spent several years shopping Angel of Chaos to agents and publishing houses. Although I received many bites, all finally let go. I kept writing short stories, some of which were cannibalized from the book, and several were published; I also wrote Angel’s prequel, The Great Revolution and Angel’s sequel Darwin’s Paradox and shopped them.

Then In 2007, Dragon Moon Press in Calgary made an offer to publish Darwins Paradox; the sequel became my debut novel. Dragon Moon Press later picked up Angel of Choas and published it in 2010 as a prequel. I haven’t stopped publishing books since (with a book pretty much every year), both fiction and non-fiction…including writing guidebooks in my Alien Guidebook Series.

Kevin hiking the mountains of the west coast, BC

My son left the nest to go to university and work and I went on walkabout and eventually left the westcoast, returning to my old home in the east. I did lots of house-sitting in the Maritimes, then ended up teaching at UofT in Toronto.

UofT, west gate to quadrangle of University College, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In 2016, I published Water Is… with Pixl Press in Vancouver.  It’s a biography and celebration of water—my attempt to write a lay book on my water science, something that all could appreciate. Turns out that Margaret Atwood really liked it too!

On its heels, I got a book deal with Inanna Publications in Toronto for my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This eco-fiction novel follows the journeys of four generations of women during a time of catastrophic environmental change. The novel explores each woman’s relationship with water, itself an agent of change…

Eco-fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role in story, either as premise or as character. For instance, several of my eco-fiction stories give Water a voice as character. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, each of the four women characters reflects her relationship with water and, in turn, her view of and journey in a changing world.

In eco-fiction, strong relationships are forged between the major character on a journey and an aspect of their environment and place. Such strong relationship can linger in the minds and hearts of readers, shaping deep and meaningful connections that will often move a reader into action. Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. By providing context to knowledge, story moves us to care, to cherish, and, in turn, to act. What we cherish, we protect.  It’s really that simple.

Eco-fiction—whether told as dystopia, post-apocalypse, cautionary tale or hopeful solarpunk—can help us co-create a new narrative, one about how the Earth gifts us with life and how we can give in return. It’s time to start giving.

That starts with story.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: How to Get the Most Out of Your Journaling

I paint not by sight but by faith. Faith gives you sight.

Amos Ferguson
Yellow birch tree and moss-covered roots, Jackson Creek park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Doing Research

The appearance of things changes according to the emotions, and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves

Kahlil Gibran

Learn more by researching what you write about. This may provide solutions and ideas to help work out difficulties. It will certainly help to increase your interest and learning in the subject areas you’ve written about.

Your journal entries may serve the additional purpose of being a resource for something you later wish to investigate. Say, you had made some interesting entries on the cycles of the moon during a particular cosmic occurrence. You may wish to use these observations later in a school project on that cosmic event. Of course, this underscores the merit of keeping an accurate journal when recording natural phenomena, including date and time.

Path through red pine forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Harvest Your Journal

He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened

Lao Tzu

One of the real benefits of journal writing is the gift of perspective you get from the flow of ideas, experiences and learning through your journal’s sustained use over a period of time. The more frequent, detailed and honest your entries have been, the more you will get out of them when you revisit your journal to reflect on what you’ve written. This is why daily journaling can be so rewarding. Through the lens of perspective over time, you may begin to see patterns in your activities, reactions and observations that you weren’t aware of before. It’s like Max Planc said about nature: “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” When you step out of the stream you were in and look in from outside, you will gain insight through a new perspective. The payoffs can include galvanizing new ideas, arriving at action items that suddenly make sense, and providing material for making new plans.

Make a point of reading your journals. Often. The three steps in harvesting your journal are: 1) read; 2) ponder; and 3) reread. These three steps can be used as many times as you wish. I would add another optional step too: research. During your revisit, you may find a benefit to researching outside your journal for answers or clarification to ideas and concepts and questions that emerge from your review.

Making sense of your journal takes time. Ken Plummer (2001) tells us that this analysis part in the journaling process is the “truly creative part of the work… It entails brooding and reflecting upon mounds of [information] for long periods of time until it makes sense and feels right, and key ideas and themes flow from it. It is also the hardest process to describe.” He suggests that the standard technique is to read and make notes (and research), leave and ponder (and research), reread without notes, make new notes, ponder (and research), reread and so on.  Ideas and glimmers of understanding emerge. You can deepen these through conversation with others and through research (e.g., reading relevant texts, online searches, etc.).

—What is Truth?

Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir, describes factual truth and emotional truth and that they are not necessarily the same thing.

It’s important to acknowledge the emotional truth of events and actions in our lives. How you express and remember an event tells you as much about your state of mind and heart then — and now — as the event itself.  Understanding the importance of personal truth in capturing the essence of the events as they pertain to you and your life journey can empower you and can also be revealing.

Cedars growing on ancient decayed cedar logs in swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

—Questions To Ask as You Review Your Journal

Here are some basic questions you can ask yourself as you reread your journal:

  • Do any experiences, situations or understandings stand out for you? What is it about them that is catching your attention?
  • Does what you have written in your journal still resonate with you? Were you fully honest and do the interpretations you made at the time still make sense? From your present standpoint and understanding, are there items you need to re-interpret?
  • Is there anything missing? Was there something revealed that you evaded?
  • Can you see any connection with any broader experience, problem or theme you were/are exploring?

You may wish to eventually use your journal(s), whether personal (mixed) or themed, as a research/resource for development of theories or later projects you may embark on — say, a memoir or a project in school or at work that relates to a theme you covered (e.g., on the subject of recycling that you covered in a journal you kept).

—Making a Themed Index

You may wish to keep the first few pages of your paper journal free to make an index later that will identify 1) particular aspects touched upon in your journal, 2) themes that have revealed themselves and 3) important milestones recognized in your life story.

Making an index for your journal will help you organize your thoughts and feelings over the time period covered. It will also help you find relevant entries more easily later on.

There are many ways to index and code your journal. It helps if you number the pages first. If you are indexing themes (say, anything to do with your friend Alison) — which you may have made entries about not chronologically but chaotically throughout the journal — you can code any relevant page to Alison with a sticky note of a certain colour and refer to that colour in your index alongside your reference to “Alison”. This way, when you wish to come back and revisit those references to do with Alison specifically, you can simply go to those pages coded with that colour.

Underbrush among rocks in swamp cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

—Using Metaphor & Personification

Because metaphor compares one thing to another, when you use metaphor you are linking events or things to your personal feelings, which can reveal, heal and provide directions for action. Because metaphor relies on individual comparison and interpretation, it will mean different things to different people. Let’s take the example “the darkness embraced her”. When I wrote that line, I was comparing the darkness to a sweetheart. When I shared the metaphor with my writing students, one of them shared that what first came to her mind was an image of a vampire about to devour her. In my mind the darkness was friendly, safe and warmly thrilling; in my student’s mind the darkness was sinister, scary and suffocating. What’s important is what the metaphor means to you. It will help reveal your feelings at the time you wrote.

Exercise: Compare a person you know to the following: a peacock; a sloth; a dung beetle; a rabbit. What physical and emotional connotations do you get?   Take a piece of your own writing and find all the metaphors and similes. Highlight them then interrogate them. What do they say?

Reference: Munteanu, 2009. “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Pixl Press. 164pp.

Path through maple beech forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

 —Become a “Connoisseur”

Journals are all about expression and learning from it. They enable us to examine ourselves and our world, analyze, conclude and develop. Learning relies on an element of artistry: the ability to improvise, devise new ways of looking at things, and then act on them in new ways. According to Donald Schőn (1987) such artistry is an exercise of intelligence — a kind of knowing. Through engaging with our experiences we can develop maxims about, say, working or relating to a group or individual. We learn to appreciate — to be aware and to understand — what we have experienced. “We become connoisseurs.” (Eisner, 1998).

According to Eisner (1998) connoisseurship involves the ability to see, not merely to look. This means developing the ability to name and appreciate the different dimensions of situations and experiences, and the way they relate to one another. It means drawing upon and making sense of a wide array of information. It means placing your experiences and understanding in a wider context. And connecting them with your values and commitments. That’s where writing and keeping journals comes in.

—Become a “Critic”

“If connoisseurism is the art of expression, criticism is the art of disclosure” (Eisner, 1998). According to Eisner, the mandate of criticism is the re-education of perception. The task of the critic is to help us see (not just look). In order to learn from what you honestly express, you must don the critic hat and analyze. Think of criticism as the “midwife of perception.” It helps perception come into being, then later refines it so you can learn from it. 

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

References:

Barrington, Judith. 2002. Writing the Memoir. The Eighth Mountain Press. Portland, OR. 187pp.

Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Power of Myth: with Bill Moyers. MJF Books. New York, NY. 293pp.

Eisner, Elliot W. 1998. “The art of educational evaluation: a personal view.” Falmer Press. London.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 264pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Plummer, Ken. 2001. “Documents of Life 2: an invitation to a critical humanism.” Sage. London.

Schőn, Donald. 1987. “The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action.” Temple Smith. London.

Vogler, Christopher. 1998. “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.” 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Cedar tree roots during rain, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Tap Your Artistic Reservoir

Creativity is harnessing universality and making it flow through your eyes

Peter Koestenbaum
Lilac meadow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“Creativity is God’s gift to us,” says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. “Using our creativity is our gift back to God.”

Brenda Ueland answers the question of why we should all use our creative power: “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”

Stoke the Artist Inside You

“Many of us wish we were more creative,” Cameron shares. “Many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill … we hunger for what might be called creative living.”

Many of us are, in fact, creatively blocked (this is not unlike writer’s block, which I discuss above). How would you know if you were? Jealousy is an excellent clue, says Cameron. Are there creative people you resent? Do you tell yourself, ‘I could do that, if only…’ An old friend of mine used to constantly share that he would “start living and settle down” once he had enough money. It never happened; and he never did — twenty years later. That was sad; because he was waiting for life to begin, when it was already happening — and he was missing it.

Creative recovery (or discovery) is something you can learn. It is something you can enhance and direct. “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist,” says Cameron, ‘you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction. You will learn ways to recognize and resolve fear, remove emotional scar tissue, and strengthen your confidence.”

— Stoke Your Brain

Stoking the creative artist inside you may be as simple as giving your mind the chance to wander — and taking the time to pay attention. Cameron talks about how “rhythm” and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. She lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, steering a car. I can testify to the latter — how many great plot ideas have I cooked up while driving to work! Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claimed that his best ideas came to him while he was driving the freeway. Negotiating through the flow of traffic triggered the artist-brain with images, translated into ideas. “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” Einstein was known to have remarked. Scientists tell us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.    

The magic part in this is to pay attention. Pay attention to your life experiences; don’t ignore them. Sit up in the bus and watch people, play with the images, sounds and smells. Get sensual and let your eyes, ears, nose and limbs delight in the world. It’s amazing how interesting the world becomes once you start paying attention.

— “Morning Pages”

One tool for creative recovery and discovery is Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages”, described in her book The Artist’s Way. Essentially an exercise in stream-of-conscious writing — she prescribes three pages of longhand every morning just after you rise — the “Morning Pages” or their equivalent can lead to “a connection with a source of wisdom within”.  

Lilacs blooming on a country road, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Relax and Have Fun

What we play is life

Louis Armstrong

—Get Comfortable with Something Familiar

I found in my daily writing that I had developed a comfortable routine that helped me to relax before I began. The time wasn’t necessarily the same when I sat down to write, but the routine of getting ready was: after supper and a good visit with my husband and son, I settled at my large oak roll top desk with a cup of hot tea, a lit  candle and the cat at my feet; those were my mantra for writing. It was like a “sacred ceremony” to prepare and honor my muse.

—Tools to Relax

There’s no point in even thinking you are going to write if you are too upset, agitated or in a rage. It’s better to do something physical; go for a run, take a long walk, or visit the gym and play a sport or work out. Visit with a good friend. Browse the internet for information, watch a show or play a computer game.

Try stretching, yoga or meditation to help you relax. Playing a piece of music you enjoy can help you relax and invoke the muse at the same time (more on that below!).

—Find Your Sense of Humor & Practice Gratitude

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures

Thornton Wilder

Celebrate the humor in things. Learn to laugh at yourself and with others. Write about what you are grateful for.

—Cultivate Gratitude

At the root of good humor lies gratitude and a secure self-identity.

“A thankful person is thankful under all circumstances,” says Bahaullah, founder of the Bahai faith. It was Lao Tse who said that if you rejoice in the way things are, the whole world will belong to you. Professor and poet Johannes A. Gaertner eloquently said: “To speak gratitude is courteous and pleasant, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live gratitude is to touch Heaven.”  

In her book The Magic, Rhonda Byrne shares how cultivating gratitude in all aspects of your life can empower you and provide you with a healthy joyful life. “Gratitude is magnetic,” says Byrne. “The more gratitude you have the more abundance you magnetize.” You can tell how much you have actually used gratitude in your life, says Byrne: “just take a look at all of the major areas in your life: money, health, happiness, career, home, and relationships. The areas of your life that are abundant and wonderful are where you have used gratitude and are experiencing the magic as a result. Any areas that are not abundant and wonderful are due to a lack of gratitude.” Whenever something or someone is taken for granted, it is not surprising that they often end up taking flight. The bottom line of ungratefulness, says Byrne is that “when we’re not grateful, we’re taking; we’re taking things in our life for granted. When we take things for granted we are unintentionally taking from ourselves.” To receive you have to give. And giving thanks is one of the most powerful ways of giving.   

Let us rise up and e thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die, so let us all be thankful — Gautama Buddha

— Count Your Blessings

“Intentions, compressed into words enfold magical power,” medical doctor and writer Deepak Chopra tells us. There is an ancient mantra that goes something like this: where you place your attention, there you are. It speaks to the ultimate power of intent. When intention and feeling gratitude come together, you get magic, real magic.  

Byrne prescribes a daily exercise that will help you begin your day with a healthy and happy attitude. It starts with literally counting your blessings. Here’s how it works:

  1. First thing in the morning, make a list of TEN blessings in your life that you are grateful for. It could be anything from the birds singing in your back yard, the water you are drinking to keep you alive or your eyes to see the trees or ears to hear the birds to your parents who provided for you.
  2. Write why you are grateful for each blessing. Give at least one reason.
  3. Go back and read your list, either in your mind or out loud. When you get to the end of each one, say the words thank you, thank you, thank you, and feel the gratitude for that blessing as much as you possibly can.
  4. Repeat the first three steps of this magical practice every morning for the next 27 days.

Better to lose count while naming your blessings than to lose your blessing to counting your troubles

Maltbie D. Babcock

—Cultivate Humor & Happiness

Cultivating your sense of humor doesn’t mean that you need to start learning how to tell jokes. Far from it. It means cultivating an attitude in life where you recognize the irony and humor in your surroundings. Try to see the humor in situations, particularly those that make you angry. It’s always there; it just takes a bit of effort to see it. And by looking for it, you are helping your own mind gain a better and more healthy perspective on the whole situation.  

You’ll find that you have your own particular sense of humor, based on your own history, background and philosophies. Because of this, some things will be funny to you and not others. Discover your humor and cultivate it. Practice smiling and laughing daily. Part of cultivating your humor is knowing what is funny to you. Ways to do this include:

  • watching humorous shows, movies and TV shows
  • reading humorous books and stories that see the lighter side of things
  • hanging out with fun and funny people (their humor rubs off!)

HelpGuide.org provides some ways that you can bring more humor and laughter into your life:

  • Smile:  Smiling is the beginning of laughter. Like laughter, it’s contagious. Pioneers in “laugh therapy,” find it’s possible to laugh without even experiencing a funny event. The same holds for smiling. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling.
  • Count your blessings:  Literally make a list. The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humor and laughter. When you’re in a state of sadness, you have further to travel to get to humor and laughter.
  • When you hear laughter, move toward it:  Sometimes humor and laughter are private, a shared joke among a small group, but usually not. More often, people are very happy to share something funny because it gives them an opportunity to laugh again and feed off the humor you find in it. When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask, “What’s funny?”
  • Spend time with fun, playful people:  These are people who laugh easily — both at themselves and at life’s absurdities — and who routinely find the humor in everyday events. Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.
  • Bring humor into conversations:  Ask people, “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?”

— Ways to Take Yourself Less Seriously

HelpGuide.org gives some excellent ways to help you see the lighter side of life. These include:

  • Laugh at yourself:  Share your embarrassing moments. The best way to take yourself less seriously is to talk about times when you took yourself too seriously.
  • Attempt to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them:  Look for the humor in a bad situation, and uncover the irony and absurdity of life. This will help improve your mood and the mood of those around you.
  • Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up:  Keep a toy on your desk or in your car. Put up a funny poster in your office. Choose a computer screensaver that makes you laugh. Frame photos of you and your family or friends having fun.
  • Keep things in perspective:  Many things in life are beyond your control — particularly the behavior of other people. While you might think taking the weight of the world on your shoulders is admirable, in the long run it’s unrealistic, unproductive, unhealthy, and even egotistical.
  • Deal with your stress:  Stress is a major impediment to humor and laughter.
  • Pay attention to children and emulate them:  They are the experts on playing, taking life lightly, and laughing and finding joy in all things.
Lilac archway in meadow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Find Sources of Inspiration

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music–the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.

Henry Miller

Look outward as well as inward and explore different perspectives. Learn something new, find a photo or quote that touches you and write about it. How and why does it affect you? A colleague of mine once said that “there is nothing uninteresting in the world; only disinterested people.” Rediscover what interests you. Create interest. Connect with the world. Find beauty.

Who inspires you? Why do they inspire you? What do they inspire in you?

Make a list of people (real or fictional, alive or dead) who inspire you and add the reasons why they do. You can take it a step further:

  • Research and write a tribute to them
  • Create a fantasy in which you meet them and interact with them
  • Write a fictional conversation with them or write a letter to them
  • Find a quote that epitomizes the essence of that person

Here’s mine for a very special mentor and advocate in my life. It’s by Albert Schweitzer:

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

Albert Schweitzer

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, shares that “art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck). Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans. But it is the attention to detail that stays with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art. Even in the midst of pain, this singular image brings delight. The artist who tells you different is lying.”

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it

Roald Dahl

Artists need to fill their reservoirs. Think magic. Think fun and mystery; not duty. Duty is dull and motionless. A mystery lures you; it keeps you moving and wondering. Do what intrigues you. Explore what interests you. “Think mystery, not mastery,” says Cameron.

You can use one of the questions below to prompt the creation of an uplifting dialogue.

  • If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
  • Name someone dead who you admire; what would you say to them if you could meet them?
  • Name five qualities of your best friend.
Woman reading book in lilac meadow, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

This article is an excerpt from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu.

The Journal Writer is the second writing guide in the Alien Guidebook Series. This comprehensive guidebook will help you choose the best medium, style and platform for your expressive writing. The guide provides instruction on issues of safety, using the computer and electronic devices, social media and the internet.

Engaging, accessible, and easily applicable…Brava, Nina, brava.”—David Merchant, Instructor, Louisianna Tech University

Straight up, fact-filled, enriching, joyful and thorough…Nina is honest, she is human and she wants you to succeed.”—Cathi Urbonas, Halifax writer

1.7  References

Cameron, Julia. 1992 The Artist’s Way. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.

Champagne, Rosaria. 1996. “The Politics of Survivorship.” New York University Press. New York, NY.

DeSalvo, Louise. 1999. “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” Beacon Press. Boston, MS. 226pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 264pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2010. “The Writer’s Toolkit”. DVD set. Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. “The Things They Carried”. Houghton Mifflin. New York, NY.

Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 338pp.

Pennebaker, James W., and Sandra Klihr Beall. 1986. “Confronting a Traumatic Event: Toward an Understanding of Inhibition and Disease.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95, no. 3: 274-81.

Ueland, Brenda. 2007. “If You Want to Write: a Book about Art, Independence and Spirit”. Graywolf Press.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 170pp.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. 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. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.