The Power of Myth in Storytelling

conifer mirror in mistIf a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”—Joseph Campbell

For Joseph Campbell, perhaps our era’s most influential student of mythology, myths express our basic need to explain, celebrate and immortalize the essence of life. Given that life itself has no “meaning”—it simply is—it is our stories (pulled from the ethers of our “muse”) that give meaning to life. We tell stories about how the world began, our struggles to survive, our victories against greed and evil. Each culture clothes its stories according to the place and time and associated issues. And each defines its heroes and villains accordingly. At the root of all these lies a universal and timeless human experience; where metaphor and imagery of myth transcend culture, time and place to encompass all of humanity and our striving journey toward truth, grace and peace. This is why all myth, from Plutarch’s Theseus & the Minotaur to George Lucus’s Star Wars, resonates with us, regardless of whether it was created yesterday or thousands of years ago.

Greek, Roman, Norse, African and Asian myths all address fundamental questions about our humanity: the fall of Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts, Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Medusa, Perseus, King Arthur, Oedisseus, Vassilisa, Siegfried and the Nibelungenleid, Beowulf and Grendel, Jonah and the whale, Isolde and Tristan, Persephone and the underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, Osiris, Gilgamesh … the list is endless.

Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman

“There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not,” says Campbell. “They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” He is referring to the artist, who speaks to “the folk”, who answer and create an interaction. “The first impulse in the shaping of the folk tradition,” says Campbell, “comes from above, not from below.” He is referring to the divine source, the muse, the gift of “seeing” bestowed on those willing to open themselves to it. According to Campbell, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Like the shamans of ancient times, the storyteller— whether painter, writer, actor, singer or filmmaker— interprets the divinity in nature for others. We interpret unseen things for a tangible world.

Artists are the mythmakers — the shamans — of today. The ancient shaman’s authority came from individual psychological experience, not a social ordination (like a priest). A shaman’s powers were symbolized through his own familiars and the deities of his own personal experience. His personal truth. As artists we wholly participate in our “landscape”. Like Dante, we journey to the depths of our world, become its deepest truths to emerge later and share.

The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story

In my opinion, the best stories follow the mythic hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.

The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist. And she is you, the artist.

The Power of Mythologist

I recall a discussion with a young friend some time ago about her knowledge of writers vs. book titles (she knew few names of writers, even those whose works she had enjoyed, but could happily recite book titles). I realized that she chose her books based on their cover and the promised story within—with no attention placed on the author and no intention of following the author’s other works.misty-forest-path

“When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything s/he has done,” says Campbell. “Don’t say, ‘oh, I want to know what so-and-so did’—and don’t read the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has given you … the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view … When you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such —but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

 

Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected —Sophocles

pitted-rockDuring a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist, wife and mother and community volunteer, I wrote and successfully marketed five books, over a dozen short stories and many articles and reviews. Some people, including my publishers, thought I never slept (true) or cloned myself (possibly). They couldn’t believe my productivity when I was so busy with life.

But I did what I did, because I’d worked out a system. One that I could live by. One that fit my lifestyle. One created out of respect for my art as part of my “busy” life of commitments.

The truth of it is that we all lead busy lives. If you are going to finish that novel you’ve been working on over the years or book of poems sitting in the bottom dresser drawer, you need to make a commitment. Aside from giving your art the respect it deserves, it comes down to creating a time and place to write.

It starts with being realistic about your daily schedules and routines and inclinations and picking a time and place accordingly. Try to be consistent. It’s actually best to create a routine related to both time and place; the key is to be realistic about it. Don’t fight your inclinations or habits; instead, build your writing into your lifestyle. This will ensure success.

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write you won’t. Believe me, you won’t. Make it sacred.

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared a common story about her experience: “Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

It doesn’t work that way. You don’t find time; you must create it.

Writing of any kind is a commitment you make to yourself. So, choose a time that’s right for you. If you’re a morning person, don’t pick the end of the day when you don’t function as well. Instead, pick the early morning to write, a time before everyone else gets up and the day’s distractions pile up.

It’s actually best to create a routine related to time of the day (e.g., fixed time such as every morning or right after supper) or based on some other constant in your life, say the school calendar or your daily activities. The key is to be realistic about the time(s) you’ve chosen. In other words, your goals should be realistic and realizable.

The second part of the commitment is sharing it with your family and friends so that they will respect your sacred writing time. By sharing how important it is to you, you also give them the gift of sharing the experience with you and they are more likely to respect your time alone to write. This is also why choosing a routine makes more sense; it is something your family and friends will better remember and abide by. Making it easy for others is part of making it easy for you.

Find Your Own Rhythm

There’s no rule for when and how often you write. Because frequency and schedule of writing depends on the kind of writing you do (e.g., novel, short stories, articles, research) and on your own rhythms, you must decide what works best.

Most writers recommend that you commit to a regular writing schedule that is realistic to your overall routine and biorhythms. Some recommend you write in the morning, after a refreshing sleep; others suggest you write at night, at the end of the day when your memories are more fresh with the day’s activities and stimulations. Yet others suggest you take time out during the day to jot down relevant experiences as close to the time as the muse hits you, then spend some time at the end of the day compiling it into your work.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose what works for you and your own rhythms. When is the best time for you to write? And for how long or how many pages? Once you decide, stick to that schedule.

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. 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 your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write 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.

Again, as with your choice of time, tell your family and friends about your sacred place. Provide rules, if you have to. Let’s say it’s a desk in the study. You may, for instance, let others know that your “mess” is part of a work in progress, perhaps even explain a little about it so they understand the nature of what you’re doing and why it should not be touched or moved or used, even while you are away from it. This will ensure that they respect your things and what you’re doing.misty-forest-path

In the end it comes to finding the right integration and balance of time and place. Letting others know of your choices is equally important; this will ensure that they can help you, not hinder you in your writing. While writing is to a large extent an activity done in solitude, the journey is far from secluded. Ensure that you have a good support network.

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (Starfire, 2009).

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

 

Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

christmas-ballsHow many of you are still running around preparing for the Christmas celebration or secular family festivity? Buying that last minute gift you’d forgotten or were chasing down since a bazillion days ago? Or making last minute changes to your travel plans, house-cleaning for guests, mailing of cards or parcels or meal preparations?

Well, you’re reading this blog post … That means you’re sitting down and taking a minute to relax and regroup. That’s good. Remember to breathe… while I tell you a story…

I’d just finished a three-day drive through snow and rain storms from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, to Toronto, Ontario, where I was staying for a few days before catching a flight to Vancouver to spend Christmas with my son and good friends on the west coast. Talk about fast living.winter walk

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties. After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write.

snow-christmas2008-sammyMy male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Most of us think of Christmas as a busy time, of getting together (often dutifully) with family and friends, exchanging presents and feasting. Christmas is certainly this, but that is only a shallow view of a far deeper event; and I don’t mean only for Christians.

Whether celebrating the holy light of Hannukah or the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, this season provides us with the opportunity to meditate on far more than the surficial nature of the symbols we have come to associate with the season: the Christmas tree, presents, turkey dinner, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—most of which originate from pagan tradition, by the way.winter deer trees

Says Lama Christie McNally (author of The Tibetan Book of Meditation), “once you dive below the surface, you will discover a beautiful clear place—like a diamond hidden beneath the rubble. It is your own mind, uncovered … Tibetans say we have only just begun the process of awakening—that we still have quite a way to go in our evolutionary process. And it has nothing to do with building spaceships or computers. The next step in our evolution takes place within.”

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.winter trees snow

Merry Christmas!

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

 

naturalselectionAt Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

darwins-paradoxI submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. My own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, is that I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Snowpiercer-frenchJust as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  snowpiercer-mason

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

water-is-webIn my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

winter-birch-sunset-snowI think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.

Where Is the Literature of the Anthropocene?

interstellar-cooper-ice-planet2Early on in the recent science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world’s a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.” After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”

In a 1976 NBC interview on the significance of the Viking 1 landing on Mars, astronomer Carl Sagan likened our space program to watching a dandelion gone to seed: “I can’t help but think of this as an epochal moment in planetary exploration. If you can imagine, a sort of a very patient observer, observing the earth for its four and half billion-year lifetime: for all of that period, lots of things came onto the earth, but nothing left it. And now just in the last 10 years, things are spewing off the earth.”

The Onset of the Anthropocene & the Great Acceleration

urbanlandscape2In a Guardian article entitled “The Holocene hangover: it is time for humanity to make fundamental changes”, Fredrick Albritton Jonsson examines Amitav Ghosh’s interpretation of climate change and considers the need to acknowledge Earth’s own powerful and changing identity—particularly through the face of climate change.

Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that we no longer belong—like Cooper was suggesting in the movie Interstellar?

That we’ve largely orchestrated these changes may be considered ironic—or is it simply inevitable? For me, as an ecologist, this is not a new concept. Ecological succession is the process of ecosystem change and development over time (usually following a disturbance) as an establishing species impacts and alters its environment to eventually make the environment less suited to it and more to another species, which will replace it. Succession only stops when a climax community—which is in equilibrium with a stable environment—establishes. This climax stage can persist indefinitely—until the next environmental disturbance, that is. Succession occurs everywhere in Nature; examples include the recolonization of Mount St. Helen’s following the volcanic eruption. Natural succession occurs in human society as well. A good example can be found in any city. My landscape architect son described the natural process of “gentrification” in a large city: a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban areas through an influx of more affluent residents, resulting in increased property values and a displacement of lower-income families and businesses. Inherent in succession is movement and flow—something Nature is very familiar with and uses well.

“Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control,” writes Jonsson, who laments in a disillusioned patriarchal voice: “The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable [for us]. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was.”

Jonsson then unleashes a litany of examples where humanity has imposed global change, including: climate change; reduced biodiversity of ecosystems; acidification of marine life and oceans capacity to absorb carbon dioxide; fresh water scarcity; ozone depletion, which threatens atmospheric stability; and disruption of global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles—to mention a few. “Indeed,” says Jonsson, “the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it is no longer possible to [distinguish] between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.”

world-war-2-goosestep“Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch,” adds Jonsson. This epoch succeeded the relatively stable natural variability of the Holocene Epoch that had endured for 11,700 years. Scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer call it the Anthropocene Epoch. Suggestions for its inception vary from the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s with the advent of the steam engine and a fossil fuel economy to the time of the Great Acceleration—the economic boom following World War II.

the-great-accelerationThe Great Acceleration describes a kind of tipping point in planetary change and succession resulting from a rising market society.

From the devices we carry to the lives we lead, everything is getting faster, faster.  The International Geosphere-Bioshpere Programme writes that “the last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.” They suggest that the second half of the 20th Century is unique in the history of human existence. “Many key indicators of the functioning of the Earth system are now showing responses that are, at least in part, driven by the changing human imprint on the planet. The human imprint influences all components of the global environment – oceans, coastal zone, atmosphere, and land.”

While this notion rings hubristic, there is no question that humanity is now a major driver of planetary change: from tipping the Earth’s axis through the creation of massive water reservoirs and diverting a third of Earth’s available fresh water to increasing carbon dioxide to a levels found 800,000 years ago—changing global climate.

Geologists and historians discussed how the Anthropocene Epoch would best be identified by observers in a distant future. “Among the plausible candidates proposed are micro-plastics, metal alloys, and artificial isotopes,” writes Jonsson. “Such stratigraphic markers must be placed in their historical context. The scientific identification of the Anthropocene with the year 1945 gives us not just a plausible geological end to the Holocene, but also a watershed that fits comfortably with a great body of scholarly work about the historical consequences of World War II.”

great-acceleration-chartThe Great Acceleration encompasses the notion of “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of environmental risks beyond which we can expect nonlinear and irreversible change on a planetary level. A well known one is that of carbon emissions. Emissions above 350 ppm represent unacceptable danger to the welfare of the planet in its current state; and humanity—adapted to this current state. This threshold has already been surpassed during the postwar capitalism period decades ago.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

greatderangement-climatechangeIn Amitav Ghosh’s diagnosis of the condition of literature and culture in the Age of the Anthropocene (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable), he observes that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence. “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” continues Jonsson, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

“By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”

According to Ghosh, the “great derangement” stemmed from a certain kind of rationality. Plots and characters of bourgeois novelists reflected the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depended on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature was gradual and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale, romance novel, and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely were externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

flight-behaviorJonsson tells us that bourgeois reason takes many forms, showing affinities with classical political economy, and—I would add—in classical physics and Cartesian philosophy. From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

memory-of-water-emmi-itarantaLouise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.” Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they will—given their short-term thinking.

“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

year-of-the-flood-atwoodIn my interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction I remind readers that “science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor and deeply embedded in culture. By its very nature, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision. Some of the very best of fiction falls under the category of science fiction, given the great scope of its platform. More and more literary fiction writers are embracing the science fiction genre (e.g., Margaret Atwood, Kuzuo Ishiguro, Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, Iain Banks, David Mitchell); these writers recognize its immense scope and powerful metaphoric possibilities. From science fiction to eco-fiction is a natural process. Exploring large societal and planetary issues is the purview of both.”

Let’s see more. We need it.

You can find an excellent databank of eco-fiction books on Mary Woodbury’s site Eco-Fiction. Mary Woodbury also includes “12 works of climate fiction everyone should read.” Midge Raymond of Literary Hub lists “5 important works of eco-fiction you need to read.” And then there is the Goodreads Listopia for “Best eco-fiction

naturalselectionMy own works of eco science fiction can be found on my author’s website, Nina Muneanu Writer and at a quality bookstore near you.

 

Why not find a work of eco-fiction and share it with someone you care about this Christmas.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist 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.