An Interview with a Bull Thistle

Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

 

Darwins Paradox-2nd edI write mostly eco-fiction. Even before it was known as eco-fiction, I was writing it. My first book—Darwin’s Paradox—published in 2007 by Dragon Moon Press as science fiction, was also eco-fiction. It takes place in 2075 after climate change has turned southern Ontario into a heathland and Toronto into a self-enclosed city. My latest eco-fiction—A Diary in the Age of Water published in 2020 by Inanna Publications—is set mostly in Toronto from the near-future to 2065 and beyond.

As a writer of eco-fiction and climate fiction, I’m keenly aware of the role environment plays in story. Setting and place are often subtle yet integral aspects of story. In eco-fiction, they can even be a “character,” serve as archetypes and present metaphoric connections to characters on a journey (see my guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character published by Pixl Press for more discussion on all aspects of nature’s symbols in writing).

EcologyOfStoryThings to consider about place as character begin with the POV character and how they interact with their environment and how they reflect their place. For instance, is that interaction obvious or subtle? Is that environment constant or changing, stable or unstable, predictable, or variable? Is the place controllable or not, understandable or not? Is the relationship emotional, connected to senses such as memory?

Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.

Archetypes are ancient patterns of personality shared universally by humanity (e.g. the “mother” archetype is recognized by all cultures). When place or aspects of place act as an archetype or symbol in story—particularly when linked to theme—this provides a depth of meaning that resonates through many levels for the reader.

In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars symbolizes a new Eden. Like Bradbury’s aboriginal Martians—who are mostly invisible—the planet is a mirror that reflects humanity’s best and worst. Who we are, what we are, what we bring with us and what we may become. What we inadvertently do—to others, and finally to ourselves—and how the irony of chance can change everything.

“Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story,” writes Donald Maass in Write the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Diary Water cover finalWater has been used as a powerful archetype in many novels. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, water plays an important role through its unique metaphoric connection with each of the four main characters; how they relate to it and understand it, and act on its behalf. Water in A Diary in the Age of Water is often personified; water reflects various symbolic and allegorical interpretations and embraces several archetypes including herald-catalyst, trickster, shapeshifter, and shadow.

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment).

FictionWriter-cover-2nd edIn these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchel’s Gone With the Wind; the white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins; The animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

All characters—whether the main POV character, or a minor character or personified element of the environment—have a dramatic function in your story. In my writing courses at George Brown College and The University of Toronto and in my guidebook The Fiction Writer, I provide a list of questions you can ask your character to determine if they are functioning well in the story and if they should even stay in the story. I call it interviewing your character. You can interview any character in your story; it can provide incredible insight. And speaking of character…

I have of late been walking daily to a lovely meadow beside a stream and thicket where brilliant Bull thistles have burst into flower. I felt the need to research this beautiful yet dangerously prickly plant and why it peaked my interest…

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Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

 Interview With the Bull Thistle

Nina: Pardon my saying, but you seem to scream paradox. You’re dangerously beautiful. Alluring yet aloof. Standoffish, even threatening. For instance, how is it that you have such a beautiful single purple-pink flower at the top of such a nasty prickly stem and leaves?

Bull Thistle: First of all, it isn’t just a flower at the top; it’s a flower head of over two hundred flowers called florets. Each flower head is a tight community of tube disk bisexual florets arranged in Fibonacci spirals and protected by a collection of spiked bracts called an involucre. And inside the protective outer shell, embedded in a fleshy domed receptacle, are the tiny ovaries, waiting patiently to be fertilized and grown into a seed or achene.

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Honey bee getting nectar from the thistle flower head (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: Ah, I beg your pardon. But you still have all those sharp spikes everywhere. I’m guessing they are to protect your developing young, the ovaries. But doesn’t that isolate you? Keep you from integrating in your ecosystem?

Bull Thistle: The bristles are specifically aimed at predators who wish to harm us, eat us, bore into us, pull us out of the earth. We have many friends—the pollinators, the bees, wasps, and butterflies that help us cross-pollinate from plant to plant. And the birds—particularly the goldfinches—also help.

Nina: Wait. Don’t goldfinches eat your babies—eh, seeds?

Bull Thistle: They do. But they also help disperse our children. They land on our dried involucres—now opened to reveal the seeds and their pappus. The birds pull the seeds out by their pappus—sail-like down that ride the wind. The birds eat the seeds and also use the thistle down to make their nests. But—like the squirrels who love oak acorns—the birds miss as many as they eat. By carrying the down to their nests, they also help the seeds travel great distances farther than the wind would have carried them. By dislodging the seeds in bunches, they help the seeds break away from the receptacle and meet the wind. The pappus, which is branched and light like a billowing sail, carries the seed on the wind to germinate elsewhere to help us colonize.

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Opened involucre with achenes and pappus ready to disperse, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina: So, your enemy is also your friend… The shadow character, who helps the hero on her journey by presenting a perilous aspect of enlightenment.

Bull Thistle: Agreed. Nature’s resilience derives from the balance of give and take over time. Prey and predator. Death, decay, transcendence. Destruction and creation. Ecological succession and change are a gestalt expression of Gaia wisdom as each individual fulfills its particular existential niche. Even if that is to die…for others to live.

Nina: Yes, the hero’s journeyBut you’re not originally from here, are you? You were brought to North America from Eurasia. Some consider you an interloper, a disturbance. You could serve the shadow or trickster archetype yourself—outcompeting the native thistle, creating havoc with pasture crops. You can tolerate adverse environmental conditions and adapt to different habitats, letting you spread to new areas. Your high seed production, variation in dormancy, and vigorous growth makes you a serious invader. You cause wool fault and physical injury to animals. Storytellers might identify you metaphorically with the European settler in the colonialism of North America; bullying your way in and destroying the natives’ way of life.

Bull Thistle: We’re unaware of these negative things. We don’t judge. We don’t bully; we simply proliferate. We ensure the survival of our species through adaptation. Perhaps we do it better than others. You’ve lately discovered something we’ve felt and acted on for a long time. Climate is changing. We must keep up with the times… But to address your original challenge, if you did more research, you would find that we serve as superior nectar sources for honey bees (Apis spp.), bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and sweat bees (Anastogapus spp.) who thoroughly enjoy our nectar.

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Sweat bee draws the sweet nectar of the Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re considered a top producer of nectar sugar in Britain. Cirsium vulgare—our official name—has ranked in the top 10 for nectar production in a recent UK survey.  The goldfinch relies on our seed and down. And we’ve provided food, tinder, paper, and medicine to humans for millennia. As some of your indigenous people point out, it’s a matter of attitude. Change is opportunity.

Thistle group Pb copyNina: I guess that every weed was once a native. I also agree that times are changing—faster than many of us are ready for, humans included. If you were to identify with an archetype, which would you choose?

Bull Thistle: That would depend on the perceiver, we suppose. Some of us think of us as the hero, journeying through the change and struggling to survive; others see us as the herald, inciting movement and awareness by our very existence; some of us identify with the trickster, others with the shapeshifter—given how misunderstood we are. In the end, perhaps, we are the mentor, who provides direction through a shifting identity and pointing the way forward through the chaos of change toward enlightenment.

Nina: Yes, I suppose if someone stumbled into your nest of prickles, incredible awareness would result. Speaking of that very awareness, this brings me back to my original question: why are you so beautiful and deadly?

Bull Thistle: We are the purest beauty—only attained through earnest and often painful awareness. We are the future.

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Flower head of Bull Thistle, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You can read more on this topic in Nina’s writing guidebook series, particularly The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! and The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Relevant Articles:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

Ecology of Story: World as Character” Workshop at When Words Collide

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

Ecology of Story: Place as Character & Archetype

 

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with Emmi Itäranta

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Emmi Itäranta

We are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, we join award-winning Finnish author Emmi Itäranta in the UK, where she talks about her eco-fiction including The Memory of Water and how her childhood in Finland helped shape her own activism.

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Emmi ItarantamemoryofwaterEmmi Itäranta is an award-winning Finnish author. She holds a MA in Drama from the University of Tampere and worked as a columnist, theatre critic, script writer and press officer. She wrote her debut novel Memory of Water simultaneously in Finnish and English during a creative writing course. The English version was published by HarperCollins in 2014 in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia and was nominated for the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award, and the Golden Tentacle Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book was translated into over a dozen languages throughout the world. Her novel The City of Woven Streets (The Weaver) won the City of Tampere Literary Award. Emmi Itäranta lives in Canterbury, United Kingdom.

 

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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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Vision 2020 and Water Is…

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In February 2020, I was invited to speak and do workshops with over a hundred Grade 11 and 12 students about the future in the “2020 Vision into the Future” conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

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Keynote speaker Greg Lindsay talks to students at Sanderson Centre

AerotropolisJournalist, urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay gave a rousing keynote speech to start the conference. Greg spoke about the future of cities, technology, and mobility. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He also co-authored the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

I joined a suite of technologists, visionaries and other scientists in presenting various scenarios of the future through workshops and seminars.

Workshop subjects included quantum cryptography, autonomous vehicles, flying cars, robotic surgery, zero waste, computer glasses, and my workshop “writing science fiction.”

Instructive seminars included topics such as feeding 9 billion people, mental health, AI & computers, the science and meaning of water, urban development, the future of transportation and space exploration.

How to Write Science Fiction

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Top choice image prompt for storytelling

I gave two workshops on how to write science fiction. The workshop began with a brief discussion on what a story is (and is not) and a summary of the key tools of writing good story (e.g. premise, plot, theme, character, and setting) with a focus on world-building and the role of science.

Each group then set out to create the framework for a story based on a premise from an image prompt and shared what they’d put together. In one session we all worked together with me scribing on one whiteboard, creating together as a class; in another session, small groups formed and created their own story among four to five members as I went from team to team.

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Next popular storytelling image (cover illustration for “Ecology of Story” by Anne Moody)

Amazing stories emerged in both cases from the image prompts chosen. Students demonstrated imaginative, mature and original premises and carried through with thoughtful and imaginative plot, theme and character journeys. I was very impressed.

The Science and Meaning of Water

In this seminar I gave a summary of water’s life-giving anomalous properties on Earth and discussed the history and field of limnology (study of freshwater). I explored our history with water (including our impacts) and the implications of climate change on our future with water on the planet. Points of interest included water’s many weird properties, water’s ubiquity and its origins, the hydrological cycle, and the often strange adaptations of life with (or without) water.

Water Is-COVER-webWe then discussed future implications of water scarcity (and geopolitical conflict) and some of the things individuals and communities can do. Much of the talk drew from my recent book Water Is… The Meaning of Water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Boredom in the Time of COVID-19: The Art and Satisfaction of Writing Letters

There are no boring moments; only bored people who lack the wherewithal to explore and discover—Nina Munteanu

Cedars and roots in moss JC

Cedar trees on shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So many of us have responded intelligently to the pandemic by respecting “lock down” measures to self-isolate and socially distance. From simply staying at home to going out less often and avoiding crowds (well, there shouldn’t be any of them right now; but there will always be an irresponsible sector who must reflex their sense of entitlement and lack of compassion).

What the pandemic and our necessary reaction to it has done more than anything is to slow us down. Many people are slowly going crazy with it: we are, after all, a gregarious species. And not all of us feel comfortable with virtual meetings. Our senses are deprived; you can’t touch and smell and feel.

But, there are wonderful ways to feed the muse and get sensual…

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Cedar tree on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

My good friend and poet Merridy Cox recently told me about a Facebook friend who was feeling so bored: “GETTING SO BORED BEING AT HOME” amid the social distancing and self-isolation during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Merridy counselled her friend to go outside and watch spring unfold then find a nice place to sit and write about it. A poem, she suggested: “Little white clouds are scudding across a blue sky. Trees are budding. Birds are migrating. Don’t be bored! Get outside, find a tree and see if there is a bird in it—now, you have enough to write a poem.”

What Merridy was essentially suggesting to her friend was to look outside herself. Reach out in curiosity and discover something. Boredom will fly away with curiosity and can lead to expression through poetry (or photography, sketching, journaling, memoir, or letter writing). When you open your soul to the spirit of exploration, you will find much to discover. When you share with others, you close the gap of isolation from gregariousness and find connection through meaning. The key is in sharing.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes that, “Being Creative is a form of self-care and caring for others. The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been cited by Margaret Atwood and many others as what inspired them to share their creative work.  Sharing is part of many religions, as part of becoming ‘holy, from the word ‘whole’.   When what you share comes from your inner creative impulse, you develop a sense of your own value as an individual.  In addition, you transcend your separateness by touching the spirit of another.  In this way, all forms of art are therapeutic.”

The key to success in this is to start with 1) motivation, move through to 2) curiosity and discovery, then on to 3) creativity and expression. Sending an old-fashioned letter and handwriting provides a rich opportunity to create and express fully. And it gives us reasons to pursue. Following these three pursuits will enrich your life and provide enrichment to others through sharing.

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Woodpecker hole in white pine tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Step 1, MOTIVATION: Find several people you wish to communicate with on a deeper level and wish to entertain and inform. Think beyond your Facebook or Twitter audience (though, I do draw inspiration from wishing to share my photography with them). They could even be your next door neighbour! Of course, you need something to share; that’s where Step 2 comes in.

Step 2, CURIOSITY and DISCOVERY: Find a place that you can observe; the natural world is incredibly suited to discovery. Look high and low, slow your pace and use all your senses. Listen. Smell. Feel. Remember to look up. And look down on the ground. Nature hides some of her most precious gems there. Find something familiar and find something new. Invest in a guidebook.

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2Research what you’ve found on the Internet; find out more about something you’ve observed. For instance, why does the willow have such a shaggy bark? Why do alders grow so well near the edges of streams? What role do sowbugs play in the ecosystem? What do squirrels eat? What is that bird doing on my lawn? Start a phenology study (how something changes over the seasons). Keep tabs on the birds you see and what they’re doing. You can find several examples of mine in the links below.

Step 3, CREATIVITY and EXPRESSION: Depending on your relationship with people you are writing to and their own interests, you may tailor your letters with printed pictures, sketches and drawings, maps, quotes, and news clippings. This part can be really fun and can draw on all your creative talents. Let what you see and discover inspire you. Find a “story” in it and share it with someone. You can find more examples on ways to express yourself in my guidebook on writing journals: The Journal Writer.

 

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Bench next to cedar trees on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exploring and creativity don’t just cure boredom; they are good for your health:

EcologyOfStoryExpressive writing — whether in the form of journaling, blogging, writing letters, memoir or fiction — improves health. Over the past twenty years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. In control experiments with college students, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) demonstrated that college students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over four consecutive days, experienced significant health benefits four months later. Long term benefits of expressive writing include improved lung and liver function, reduced blood pressure, reduced depression, improved functioning memory, sporting performance and greater psychological well-being. The kind of writing that heals, however, must link the trauma or deep event with the emotions and feelings they generated. Simply writing as catharsis won’t do.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes: “Far more than a quick Selfie, a written response explores the range of the experience.  It both saves an instant from being lost in time, and holds on to the live matter of the writer’s feeling.  If shared, both writer and audience can return to that moment and draw healing from it.  What’s more, as many studies on volunteer work have shown, the process of sharing is a healing act.”

In Part 1 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I talk about many of the interesting things in the natural world around us. In Part 2, I give many of these things meaning in story. The guidebook also has several writing exercises to capture the muse.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIn Chapter K of my writing guidebook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!, I talk about writing what you know and what you discover. It’s more than you think. “In the 19th-century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field…They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

My journal writing guidebook The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice provides advice and exercises on how to create a positive experience in observing, creating, journaling and letter or memoir writing.

 

Restoring the Lost Art of Handwriting

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Nina writing in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Handwriting is a wonderful thing. It slows us down. It is a sensual and intimate way for us to express ourselves. I love my handwriting, especially when I am using my favorite pen (my handwriting changes depending on the pen), my Cross fountain pen — usually black. When you use a pen or pencil to express yourself you have more ways to express your creativity. Think of the subtleties of handwriting alone: changing the quality and intensity of strokes; designing your script, using colors, symbols, arrows or lines, using spaces creatively, combining with drawing and sketches. In combination with the paper (which could be lined, textured, colored graphed, etc.), your handwritten expression varies as your many thoughts and moods.

The very act of handwriting focuses you. Writing your words by hand connects you more tangibly to what you’re writing through the physical connection of pen to paper. Researchers have proven that just picking up a pencil and paper to write out your ideas improves your ability to think, process information and solve problems. The actual act of writing out the letters takes a little more work in your brain than just typing them on a keyboard, and that extra effort keeps your mind sharp. Researchers have also shown that writing something out by hand improves your ability to remember it. Handwriting improves memory, increases focus, and the ability to see relationships.

Handwriting fuses physical and intellectual processes. American novelist Nelson Algren wrote, “I always think of writing as a physical thing.” Hemmingway felt that his fingers did much of his thinking for him.

writing-notebook04According to Dr. Daniel Chandler, semiotician at Aberystwith University, when you write by hand you are more likely to discover what you want to say. When you write on a computer, you write “cleanly” by editing as you go along and deleting words (along with your first thoughts). In handwriting, everything remains, including the words you crossed out. “Handwriting, both product and process,” says Chandler, “is important … in relation to [your] sense of self.” He describes how the resistance of materials in handwriting increases the sense of self in the act of creating something. There is a stamp of ownership in the handwritten words that enhances a sense of “personal experience.”

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Path along Credit River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I know this is true in my own writing experience. This is why, although I do much of my drafting on the computer, I find that some of my greatest creative moments come to me through the notebook, which I always keep with me. Writing in my own hand is private and resonates with informality and spontaneity (in contrast to the fixed, formal look and public nature of print). Handwriting in a notebook is, therefore, a very supportive medium of discovery and the initial expression of ideas.

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

 

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press. 172pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Pixl Press. 200pp.

 

Links:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest
Ecology, Story & Stranger Things
The Little Rouge in Winter: Up Close and Personal
The Phenology of the Little Rouge River and Woodland
White Willow–A Study
The Yellow Birch–A Study

 

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

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Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

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Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

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Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

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Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

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Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with Candas Jane Dorsey

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Candas Jane Dorsey with a friend

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

Join the discussion!

In this episode of Age of Water, we join award-winning Canadian author Candas Jane Dorsey in Calgary, Alberta, where she talks about “Ice and other stories”, teaching at university, what eco-fiction means, and how writers can be “sneaky.”

 

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Candas Jane Dorsey

CanCandas Jane Dorsey is an award-winning Canadian author of novels, short stories, and poetry. She also served as editor / publisher of several literary presses.

Ice by CandasJaneDorseyShe is best known for her science fiction writing including the novels Black Wine and A Paradigm of Earth, and has also published poetry and short stories, including her well-known short-story collection Machine Sex: And Other Stories. Her latest collection of short stories Ice and other Short Stories spans thirty years of writing. Candas teaches writing and communications at MacEwan University. She was founding president of SF Canada and was president of the Writers Guild of Alberta. Candas was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal award for artistic achievement and community work and the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts.

 

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Nina Munteanu kayaks in Desolation Sound, British Columbia (photo by H. Klassen)

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

Finding the Right Time and Place to Write

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

 

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Snow in the Beaches, Ontario

During a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist with an environmental consulting job, was a devoted 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 had 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.

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Nina Munteanu teaching in Mahone Bay, NS

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write, you won’t write. 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

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The Beaches boardwalk (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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?

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a coffee shop in Val David, Quebec (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, where its desultory conversations and laughter—and wonderful smells of fresh coffee—provide a pleasant living-landscape for my muse. I also enjoy my daily walk with a notebook or iPad in the park along the river near my house. I teach writing at the University of Toronto St George campus in downtown Toronto and just recently discovered an enclave that excited my muse. The outside breezeway at Knox College, with arched ceiling and columns, adorned with hanging plants, is pure magic. The breezeway cuts through an outside courtyard of gardens and yard, populated with songbirds and the gentle rustle of a refreshing breeze. Benches and small tables and chairs line the breezeway, ensuring a writer’s sanctuary.

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.

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).

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

The Careful Writer: When To Use Passive or Active Verbs

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Maple spalting with carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to students of writing in coaching sessions and my classes at UofT (technical and non-fiction writing) and George Brown College (fiction writing) is that active verbs most often work better than passive verbs.

 

Active Verbs Clarify by Identifying Agent

The use of active verbs avoid confusion because they clearly identify the subject (the doer). For instance, consider these two versions:

ACTIVE: Alice walked the dog.

PASSIVE: The dog was walked.

The active sentence clearly identifies Alice as the one walking the dog; the passive sentence does not provide agency (Alice). We don’t know who walked the dog. When we use active verbs we always know the agent (of change); not so with passive. However, if we modify the passive sentence with “by”, then agency is provided:

PASSIVE (with agency): The dog was walked by Alice.

But the sentence no longer flows easily. This is because the typical subject-verb-object (SVO) flow that we are used to in the English language has changed to object-verb-subject (OVS). If you speak Native Brazilian Hixkaryana, you might be OK with that, given they organize their sentences this way. But that is not how we think and read. Here’s another example:

PASSIVE: The report was written by Ahmed, and it was found to be excellent

ACTIVE: Ahmed wrote the report and it was excellent.

ACTIVE BETTER: Ahmed wrote an excellent report.

 

Active Verbs Clarify and Empower by Reducing Need for Modifiers

Another reason to use active verbs is that a writer depends less on modifiers to prop up a weak verb, which passive verbs tend to be. For instance, which version is more compelling and easy to take in?

  1. Jill was walking quickly into the room.

  2. Jill rushed into the room.

The example below that I explore in my book The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! shows how the use of active and powerful verbs adds vividness and clarity to a scene.

PASSIVE

ACTIVE

„ Joe walked slowly into the room.

 

„ Joe sidled into the room.

 

„ The naked couple were in the bed almost buried under the rumpled covers. They were now struggling to get up.

 

„ The naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets.

 

„ Joe saw the big man sit up and stare at him angrily.

 

„ The man reared up and glared at Joe.

 

TOTAL WORDS: 38 TOTAL WORDS: 25

TheFictionWriter-NMNotice how the use of active verbs also unclutters sentences and makes them more succinct and accurate. This was achieved not only by choosing active verbs but power-verbs that more accurately portray the mood and feel of the action. Most of the verbs used in the Passive column are weak and can be interpreted in many ways; words such as “walk” “were” “sit” and “stare”; each of these verbs begs the question ‘how’, hence the inevitable adverb. So we end up with “walk slowly” “were now struggling” “sit up” and “stare angrily.” When activated with power-verbs, we end up with “sidle” “struggled” “rear up” and “glared”—all more succinctly and accurately conveying a mood and feeling behind the action.

 

When Passive Verbs Clarify…

In Chapter 17 of their book The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press) Wayne C. Booth and colleagues stress that mindlessly adhering to the tacit rule to choose active verbs over passive verbs can in fact cloud a sentence. They suggest asking a simpler question: do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? “If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly,” they say.

It’s all about context.

Booth et al. provide two passages and ask you to choose which “flows” more easily:

  1. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products for construction worldwide now threatens these rain forests with destruction.

  2. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

Most readers will find that 2. flows more easily. This is because the beginning of the second sentence picks up on the “character” (the rain forest) introduced at the end of the first sentence (…the rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests…). In the active verb version of 1. the second sentence starts with new information unconnected to the first sentence. The sentences don’t flow into each other as well.

The passive version (2.) permitted the reader to continue with the familiar “character” right away. This, argue Booth et al., is the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. The other reason version 2. works better is that the second sentence opens with something short, simple and easy to read: These rain forests are now threatened. In the active version 1. the second sentence opens with something long and complex. The key to clarity is to start simple (and strong, with a “character”) and end with complexity; this way, you set up the reader to better understand by starting with familiar/simple and moving to new/complex.

In engineering and the sciences where I teach at UofT, teachers still demand the use of passive verbs, believing that this makes the writing more objective. This advice is often equally misleading. Booth again provide two passages to show this:

  1. Eye movements were measured at tenth-of-second intervals.

  2. We measured eye movements at tenth-of-second intervals.

In fact, both sentences are equally objective; however, their stories differ. Version 1. ignores the person doing the measuring and focuses on the measurement. Avoiding “we” or “I” doesn’t make it more objective; it does, however shift the focus of the narrative. There is another explanation for using the passive version of 1. vs. the active 2. When a scientist uses the passive to describe a process, she implies that the process can be repeated by anyone—much like providing a recipe that anyone can follow.

Consider the following two passages:

  1. It can be concluded that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

  2. We conclude that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

The active verb in 2. conclude and we as subject refers to actions that only the writer / researcher can perform. In other words, they are taking responsibility for that conclusion. Anyone can measure; only the author / researcher can claim what their research means.

The lesson here is that there is no one magic stick for sentence structure and active vs. passive verb use. Reader-ease and clarity depends on context and a natural flow of ideas.

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Reminiscing on 2019…

Diary Water cover finalThis week is a wonderful time to reflect on the past year, 2019. It’s also a good time to be thankful for the things we have: loving family, meaningful friendships, pursuits that fulfill us and a place that nurtures our soul.

It’s been a very good year for my writing…and my soul…

Last year I received a writer’s dream Christmas gift: a signed contract with Inanna Publications to publish my ninth novel: “A Diary in the Age of Water” about four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of extreme climate change. The book will be released by Inanna in May 2020 with a launch in Toronto on May 26th at Queen Books as part of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. The book is now available on Amazon.ca for pre-order!

Publications   

LBM 2019 ClimateInCrisis2019 saw several of my publications come out. In January 2019 the reprint of my story “The Way of Water” was published by Little Blue Marble Magazine. It will reappear in a print and web anthology devoted to climate fiction called “Little Blue Marble 2019: Climate in Crisis” on December 27, 2019. That will be the sixth time “The Way of Water” has been published!

EcologyOfStoryImpakter Magazine also published my article “How Trees Can Save Us,” an essay on five writers’ perspectives on trees and humanity’s relationship with them.

In June, I published the 3rd guidebook in my Alien Writing Guidebook series—called “The Ecology of Story: Worlds as Character” with Pixl Press in Vancouver. The launch on July 4th at Type Books was well attended with presentations by several local writers and artists.

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Nina Munteanu with The Group of Seven Reimagined

I was commissioned along with twenty other writers to write a piece of flash fiction for a commemorative anthology to the Group of Seven, entitled “The Group of Seven Reimagined,” with Heritage House in Vancouver.

I’d never written flash fiction before and it was both exciting and challenging to write. I was asked to pick an artist’s piece as inspiration for a flash fiction story. The beautiful hardcover book was released October 2019.

October also saw another of my pieces published. I was asked to contribute something to the Immigrant Writer’s Association’s first anthology, entitled “Building Bridges,” about the immigrant’s experience in Canada. While I’m not an immigrant, I did share my parents’ experience who had immigrated to Canada from France. I wrote a piece on the hero’s journey.

 

Age of Water Podcast 

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On November 22, 2019, co-host Claudiu Murgan and I launched the Age of Water podcast.  The podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material on water and the environment. We interview scientists, journalists, writers, academia and innovators who share their knowledge and opinions about the real state of the environment and what committed individuals and groups are doing to make a difference. We talk about the problems and we talk about the solutions.

Appearances & Media / News

On June 22, I traveled to Port McNicoll at Georgian Bay to help give a writing intensive, hosted by publisher Cheryl Antao-Xavier at IOWI. I was also invited to speak at The Word is Wild Literary Festival in October. The event took place in Cardiff, in the Highlands of Ontario. In late October, I traveled with friend and editor Merridy Cox to Vermont to give a presentation on water to the Lewis Creek Association. Entitled “Reflections: The Meaning of Water”, the talk focused on our individual connection with water. I will be reprising this talk at several venues this year.

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Nina Munteanu with a metasequoia in the Beaches (photo by Richard Lautens)

I was also featured in the news a few times. The Toronto Star asked me to answer two questions about climate change and the Vancouver Sun published an Oped of mine entitled “Why Women Will Save the Planet.”

Research & Adventure

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Giant red cedars in Lighthouse Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Summer 2019 I travelled to British Columbia to visit friends and family in Vancouver and elsewhere. Following a dream of mine, I travelled with good friend Anne to Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island to see the ancient forests and the west coast. I had wanted to see these old-growth forests for some time since I’d been to Carmanah many years ago. The ancient forests were magnificent and breathtaking and so nourishing for the soul. Recognizing these forests as living cathedrals, I felt a deep reverence. The silent giants rose from wide buttressed bases into the mist like sentinels, piercing the heavens. A complex tangle of beauty instinct whispered in the breeze with the pungent freshness of pine, cedar and fir. Anne and I even had a chance to hug Big Lonely Doug, the second tallest Douglas fir tree in Canada.

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Nina Munteanu stands, dwarfed, by a Douglas fir tree in Lighthouse Park (photo by Margaret Ross)

While in British Columbia, I also visited a small enclave of old-growth forest in the heart of Vancouver at Lighthouse Park (West Vancouver). I went with son Kevin and then again with good friend Margaret. This majestic forest of redcedar, Douglas fir, spruce and hemlock is deeply awesome and humbling. And a real gem for the city.

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Nina Munteanu in Ladner, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

Then, with just a few days before my flight back to Toronto, I slipped and fell and broke my ankle. I got a “boot” and a cane then hobbled on the plane and went back to work at UofT.

It has been a wonderfully inspirational year for me in writing and teaching. I still actively teach at The University of Toronto in several writing centres and classes throughout the downtown campus. The students are bright and challenging. I also still coach writers to publication and have helped several finish their works in 2019.

 

I hope the beauty of the season has filled your heart with joy. Wishing you a wonderful 2020, filled with grace, good health, and sweet adventure!

 

 

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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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Walking Helps Me Think and Imagine

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Walking in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve written many articles and over a dozen books and readers often remark on my imagination with something akin to awe and incredulity. I often get asked where I get my ideas. Let me tell you a story first…

A Toronto friend—himself a prolific letter writer—shares that his ideas come to him during his daily walks (you’ll find his witty, humorous and somewhat pithy letters in the National Post, Globe and Mail or Toronto Star … almost weekly). David Honigsberg doesn’t use his car (that’s reserved for when his son is in town) and he walks every opportunity he gets, whether it’s a short jaunt to the coffee shop several blocks from his work place or a long trek to his home in Mount Pleasant after a lunch engagement near Bloor and Yonge. He tells me that he uses his phone to capture his “eureka” moments in what may now be considered unorthodox—he doesn’t make digital notes (it’s not that kind of phone!) but instead leaves a series of voice mails on his home phone. When he gets home, David replays his messages and writes out his letter to the editor.

What Dave does is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. He shares great company with people who used walking as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing); people like Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Soren Kierkegaard—just to name a few. All great walkers.

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Snow day in Forest Hill, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day and once said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains. He wrote, “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry.

Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture. “Taking a long walk was [Steve Job’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation,” wrote Job’s biographer Walter Isaacson. Writer and avid walker, Soren Kierkegaard writes:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

In the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Pshychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. Using the Guildford’s Alternative Uses Test they showed that the act of walking, whether inside or outside, significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants. Oppezzo and Schwartz were able to demonstrate that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.

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Snow day walk in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the September 3 2014 issue of The New Yorker, journalist Ferris Jabr describes why this is the case:

“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

It isn’t just strolling or sauntering that stimulates the creative mind to new heights.

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Author hiking Highland River, Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

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. In her book The Artist’s Way Julia 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, strolling, 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.

So, to answer the question above about where I get my ideas: in one word, everywhere.

Of course, I find those “s” activities mentioned above very helpful in quieting my mind to “listen” to my creative spirit and see; they calm and focus me. I would add another “s” word–scrawling–to the list. While Dave sends a voice message home on his phone when he gets an idea, I carry a notebook with me to jot down my eureka moments. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process.  What works best for me is a walk in Nature. Nothing beats that…having a dialogue with the wind, or the chiming birds and rustling trees, the gurgling brook or surging sea or tiny insect, the soothing sun…rough bark of a fir tree… The texture of the world…

 

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Snowy path in Scarborough, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

References:

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

Dillard, Annie. 1974. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial. 304pp.

Downden, Craig. 2014. “Steve Jobs was Right About Walking” In: The National Post, December 23, 2014.

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

Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.

 

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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” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.