Nature’s Archetypes in Story: Part 1, The Herald

Pine-cedar forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The early fall breeze stirs with the pungent vanilla scent of pine as I walk the damp forest.

Giant white pines rise high above me like columns of a sacred cathedral. Their deep green canopies sway and creak in the breeze as they strain toward the heavens. Below, at my feet, a profusion of ferns and forest plants lie in the dappled light of the understory. My boots crunch and squelch on the spongy ground.

A sound stops me. I halt to listen.

It’s the song of a bird. The ethereal trill of a hermit thrush offers its tender ode to the forest. A pure song that opens from a singular note into successive waves of pure light.
The light of heaven.

Hermit thrush

The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a reclusive indistinct brown bird that lurks in the understories of northern forests; yet its echoing flute-trill celebrates the forest like no other sound. It is a prayer to beauty, stirring one’s heart into celebration. This aptly named bird is not often seen, though its flute-like song carries far into the forest. It is the unseen messenger. Some call her haunting song melancholy; others think it heavenly.

The song of the thrush fulfills the herald archetype of catalyst. They enhance whatever stirs you at the moment. If you are sad, they might stir you to tears. If you are feeling joy, they will stir you into ecstasy. If you are neutral—of little mind and emotion—their song will stir you to feel deeply alive.

When I was growing up as a child, I remember every spring looking forward to the sweet fluting song of the robin–another thrush. The robin was my herald of spring. It still is. I adore this bird for all it evokes of my glorious childhood, filled with the wonders of thrilling adventure.

Robin’s egg, left by mother far from the nest to deter predators, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Just fledged robin resting on a patio chair, Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Nature’s Archetypes

Psychology mavens suggest that the existence of archetypes can only be deduced indirectly through story, art, myths, or dreams. This is because an archetype is linked to a universal (subconscious) understanding that is often best expressed through metaphor, icon and symbol. Carl Jung understood archetypes as patterns and images that originate from and are shared within the collective unconscious (e.g., mother archetype or mentor archetype). Archetypes are the psychic counterpart of instinct

Old growth eastern hemlock, Catchacoma Forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Instinctive behaviour (behaviour in the absence of learning) expresses an innate inclination toward a complex behaviour or pattern. Newly hatched sea turtles automatically move on the beach toward the ocean; honeybees communicate by dancing in the direction of a food source without prior instruction; a marsupial, once born, climbs into its mother’s pouch. Imprinting is another instinctive behaviour. Shaking water off fur is an instinctive action. Other examples of instinct include animal fighting, animal courtship behaviour, internal escape functions, and building nests.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and smell.2

Old growth eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The world of fairy tales and myth (which most stories use in some form) is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts”, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who may “block” the path, tricksters who confuse and complicate things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero. Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. This is what makes these archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Assigning an archetype to a character allows the writer to clarify that character’s role in the story as well as to determine the overall theme of the story itself. Archetypes are therefore an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell).1

Given their relationship to the “story” of a whole system, Nature’s ecosystem components may correspond loosely to archetype in story. We already use some of these in classic stereotyping, based on habits and general qualities we’ve (often erroneously and ignorantly) assigned to representative species. For instance, pigs are associated with slovenly behaviour, sharks with sociopathic predation, horses with unquestioning service, foxes with clever and crafty manipulation, and sheep with gullibility. George Orwell used animal stereotypes to create archetypal characters in his allegorical satire, Animal Farm.2 

Scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell drew on Jung’s archetypes to provide seven main archetypes in the mythic hero’s journey. These include: hero, herald, threshold guardian, mentor, shape-shifter, trickster, and shadow. The journey acknowledges archetypes in story and embedded within each archetype is a role in moving the story toward its inevitable conclusion. In this way we see how important world and place are. They too can serve as archetypes in story, particularly if personified.2 The most powerful of these are always drawn from Nature.

Nature’s archetypes in story express metaphorically and literally through functions and niches. An example is the strong solitary oak versus a young social stand of beech. The oak honestly comes by its iconic symbol of solitary strength, resistance, and knowledge.

Oak wood is very dense (about 0.75 g/cm3), providing great strength and hardness. Its wood resists insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. Its bark is strong and coarse, easily withstanding outer wounds, such as lightning strikes. “Whereas beeches last barely more than two hundred years outside the cozy atmosphere of their native forests, oaks growing near old farmyards or out in pastures easily live for more than five hundred,” writes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees. “Even severely damaged [oak] trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crowns and live for a few hundred years longer … a storm-battered beech is able to hang on for no more than a couple of decades.” 

Alan Bates plays stalwart Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”

Metaphoric “roles” may provide an allegorical association with a major character in something as simple as a name: the solitary strong-minded shepherd Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak not only embodies the metaphoric characteristics of an oak; he is also, like the oak, strongly connected to the land. The metaphor may carry through into a character’s very nature and journey: in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Dellarobia Turnbow reflects the title on several layers, from her own “flight” to her discovery and connection with the flight of the monarch related to climate change.2 

Monarch butterfly (photo by Merridy Cox)

A small shift between cloud and sun altered the daylight, and the whole landscape intensified, brightening before her eyes. The forest blazed with its own internal flame. “Jesus,” she said, not calling for help, she and Jesus weren’t that close, but putting her voice in the world because nothing else present made sense … The mountain seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave. Like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze. “Jesus God,” she said again … Trees turned to fire … The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in shows of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds … It was a lake of fire, something far more fierce and wondrous than either of those elements alone … She was on her own here, staring at glowing trees. Fascination curled itself around her fright. This was no forest fire. She was pressed by the quiet elation of escape and knowing better and seeing straight through to the back of herself, in solitude. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such room for being … Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became brightness rising.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Eastern hemlock forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Herald as Catalyst

The herald brings in a new force, usually in Act One of the story. This force is usually a challenge for change. Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually s/he doesn’t).

In Act One, we usually find the hero struggling, getting by in her Ordinary World; yearning, like Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, for “more”. Often not even realizing it. The herald is a new energy, a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. The herald tips the scales, so to speak. This could be in the form of a person, an event, a condition or just information that shifts the hero’s balance and changes her world, as a result. It is a turning point, obvious or subtle. Nothing will ever be the same. The herald delivers the call to adventure. In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi, who also serves as Luke Skywalker’s mentor, issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes in the form of a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.1

Nature’s heralds can be as subtle or as wild and brash as Nature herself; this will depend on the plot and theme of the story. How the writer weaves in the natural elements in storytelling depends on the type of story and the role Nature plays. Nature’s heralds may brood and simmer in dramatic irony like Egdon Heath and its microclimates in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native or the giant Douglas firs in Richard Power’s The Overstory. Or they may descend in a bluster of violence as in Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood or in startling beauty like the sea of monarch butterflies in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

The opening of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins combines subtle to obvious images of an ‘unwelcoming’ wilderness—as dark behemoth—to foreshadow (herald) the forest’s eventual destruction by settlers intent on conquering Nature. The forest is a potent character.

Within the first ten pages we gain a rich and potent collage of first impressions by the settlers of “the moody darkness” of the New France forest, previously only seen by the “sauvages.” The barkskins “tramped up the muddy path toward a line of black mist … In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths … evergreens larger than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage …They walked on through the dim woods, climbing over mossy humps, passing under branches drooping like funeral swags,” hearing pines hissing in the wind,” and crossing “snarling water,” and “swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.” These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”2  

Rachel Carson and her iconic book Silent Spring

In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, a herald for main character Ye Wenji was not so much Nature as a book on Nature: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Ye Wenjie is already cynical about human behaviour from the violence and destruction of the Cultural Revolution. Yet, it is a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and its revelations that set in motion the pivotal shift in her life trajectory: 

More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil? 

As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean … It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. 

This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Apex Issue #128 and 2021 anthology

A profoundly terrifying herald from nature in my short story Robin’s Last Song occurred when the birds suddenly began falling from the sky.

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

May, 2071

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

Robin’s Last Song by Nina Munteanu

Resources:

  1. Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  2. Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character Pixl Press, Vancouver, B.C. 200pp.

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Integrate Place in Fiction To Deepen Meaning

This past August, I participated in the When Words Collide Online 2022 Writing Festival.  one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

My presentation on the role of place in story kicked off the festival.

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’d observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme.

The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

Nina Munteanu

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and was also featured in the WWC recorded panel called “What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?” The presentation overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the white pine forests and the Mi’kmaq in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Both are exploited by the white settlers, with intentions to subdue and controll:

The Gatineau forest was noisy, echoing with ax blows and the rushing crackle of falling timber, with shouted warnings and orders. The axmen cut the great pines, but only a few in each plot were suitable for squaring. The rest were left to rot on the ground … unwanted trees lay prostrate, severed branches everywhere, heaps of bark and mountains of chips … There were so many trees, what did it matter? Maine men were used to waste—it was usual—but this was beyond anything even they had seen. 

In the Penobscot settlement, the trees fell, tracks inched through the forests, only one or two then seven, then webs of trails that over the decades widened into roads. The roads were muddy, sometimes like batter, sometimes thick and clutching until late summer; when they metamorphosed into choking dust so fine it hung in the air long after a horse and carriage passed, settling on the grass as the English people settled on the land … Fields of wheat and hay took the land, these fields enclosed by linked stumps, the root wads of the forest that had once stood there turned on their edges to bar the white man’s cows and sheep. 

I concluded the presentation with a writing exercise asking participants to write about the psychology of a place and how they related to it.

Writers attending the presentation / workshop eagerly participated and produced some evocative narrative that contained good metaphor and sensual writing. Here are a few:

Freyja on their high school gym: “I remember rallies and lectures and sweating, running in circles for an hour and a half. The gym stayed the same but the population of people got smaller and smaller over the years. One year a kid hit his head on the wall and went into a coma. Longest seven seconds in my life.”

Roma: “As soon as I get a whiff of old pages in a book, I am reminded of Uncle Leo. The coffee coloured leather jacket he always wore had seen better days and like him, still retained most of its luster. He was the youngest of my dad’s nine siblings, born during a storm and considered a tempestuous child. Our family just didn’t understand his passion.”

Angela: “I stood on the bridge in Moscow. My mother was talking with a friend. She couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be posted here. I looked down at the river. And at the bridge. It would be so easy to just jump over the fence and land in the water. It was a sunny day. The heat was oppressive. I wanted to do it. But I stood still.”

Kylie: “The stuffy air was full of the smell of bodies and heat. The din of laughing and talking, and yelling surrounded me.”

To find out more on how place can add depth and meaning to your writing, see my third writing guide, The Ecology of Story: Place as Character.

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.

Boat dock at sunset, Ladner Slough of Fraser River, BC (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance and Ease of Research in Fiction Writing   

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

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

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

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

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

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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

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

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

Doing Research

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

Kahlil Gibran

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

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

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

Harvest Your Journal

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

Lao Tzu

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

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

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

—What is Truth?

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

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

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

—Questions To Ask as You Review Your Journal

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

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

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

—Making a Themed Index

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

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

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

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

—Using Metaphor & Personification

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

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

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

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

 —Become a “Connoisseur”

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

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

—Become a “Critic”

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Tap Your Artistic Reservoir

Creativity is harnessing universality and making it flow through your eyes

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

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

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

Stoke the Artist Inside You

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

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

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

— Stoke Your Brain

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

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

— “Morning Pages”

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

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

Relax and Have Fun

What we play is life

Louis Armstrong

—Get Comfortable with Something Familiar

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

—Tools to Relax

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

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

—Find Your Sense of Humor & Practice Gratitude

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

Thornton Wilder

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

—Cultivate Gratitude

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

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

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

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

— Count Your Blessings

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

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

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

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

Maltbie D. Babcock

—Cultivate Humor & Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

— Ways to Take Yourself Less Seriously

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

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

Find Sources of Inspiration

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

Henry Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Schweitzer

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

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

Roald Dahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.7  References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

How to Structure Your Short Writing—Fiction and Non-Fiction

I recently gave a webinar through the Immigrant Writers Association on how to structure an effective, compelling and meaningful short piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction article.

All good writing requires setting up a purposeful narrative that directs the reader seamlessly from the lead hook to the fulfilling conclusion. I went over the process and necessary steps from idea (premise) through introduction/set up (what’s at stake) and development (the journey/theme) toward a fulfilling end (message).

I used two examples (one that needed work and one that was superlative) to explore hooks, paragraphing, overall narrative structure and development, and tips on how language can enhance or detract from compelling story.

Heron in marsh of outlet stream, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: How to Keep Going When You Really Don’t Want To

Country road through Kawartha region, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’

The Talmud

There will come a time when you just don’t feel like writing in your journal, when you are blue or frustrated or angry, even. It may be that you’re just bored with your journal, with your work and school and life in general. It may be simply that you have nothing to say, your muses have fled to Tahiti or someplace far away and you are left with a blank page or more importantly—and alarmingly—a blank mind.

Chasing the Journeying Muse

Here’s my solution: don’t sweat it. Embrace the emptiness and something wonderful will fill it. I said something; not necessarily what you expect. I believe that when your muse “leaves” you, it is on a journey. More to the point you are on a journey. You’re living. More often than not, our directed muse leaves us because something has gotten in the way. What you probably need to do is pay attention to that something. It’s telling you something. Ironically, by doing this, you open yourself to something wonderful. Okay, enough of somethings!…

Writing is a lot like fishing. In order to write you need something to write about. So, when the world gets in your way, you should pay attention. This is what you’re here for. A writer is an artist who reports on her society. A good artist, at least an accessible one, needs to be both participant as well as observer. So, take a break and live. Chances are, you will have much more to write about after you do.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

I’m not a very patient person. I make no time for writer’s block or lingering in useless limbo over some plot issue or misbehaving minor character. I write pretty much to a tight schedule: this short story to that market by this date; edits to this book to the editor by that date; blog posts created by such and such a time; an article to another market by another date. It goes on and on. When I go to my computer to write, I write

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

Who likes to jump on my lap, make himself all comfortable and then lie over my arm — trapping it along with five of my typing digits. Now what??? Some of you would advise me to simply pull out my pinned arm and/or shove him off.  But how can I disturb such a blissful creature? He is so content furled on me, so satisfied that he has captured that wandering appendage of business that is all his now. Content in the bliss of now.

Pinned in the moment, my mind first struggles with the need to pound out the next line. My mind then rephrases and teases out nuances of that line. Finally, it wanders out with my gaze and I find myself daydreaming in a kind of trance.  It is here that magic happens. In the being; not in the doing.

This is the irony of writing and the muse. To write we need to live; we need to have something to write about and we need to be in that state of mind that allows us to set it to print. I am at my best as a writer when I am focused on the essence of the story, its heart and soul beating through me with a life of its own.

My cat Sammy isn’t the only vehicle to my magical muses.    

Waking Up The Muse

Here are a few things that help me entice those capricious muses into action:

Music: music moves me in inexplicable ways. I use music to inspire my “muse”. Every book I write has its thematic music, which I play while I write and when I drive to and from work (where I do my best plot/theme thinking). I even go so far as to have a musical theme for each character. You can do the same for your journals.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also opens the mind and soul. It grounds you back to the simplicity of life, a good place to start.

Cycling: one of my favorite ways to clear my mind is to cycle (I think any form of exercise would suffice); just getting your heart rate up and pumping those endorphins through you soothes the soul and unleashes the brain to freely run the field.

Attend literary functions: go to the library and listen to a writer read from her work. You never know how it might inspire you. Browse the bookshelves of the library or bookstore.  Attend a writer’s convention or conference.

Visit an art gallery, go to a movie: art of any kind can inspire creativity. Fine art is open to interpretation and can provoke your mind in ways you hadn’t thought before. If you go with an appreciative friend and discuss what you’ve seen you add another element to the experience.

Go on a trip with a friend: tour the city or, better yet, take a road trip with a good friend or alone (if you are comfortable with it). I find that travelling is a great way to help me focus outward, forget myself, and open my mind and soul to adventure and learning something new. Road trips are metaphoric journeys of the soul.

Form a writer’s or journal-keeping group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.

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

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

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

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

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm in Ontario

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Benefits of Expressive Writing

Boardwalk through marsh in a swamp forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays the objects it loves

Carl Jung

You don’t have to take my word for it or that of my writing colleagues either. Psychologists, neuroscientists and other researchers have revealed health and emotional benefits of expressive writing. The meditative action of handwriting alone has proven beneficial. Think of the poetry of laying down an intelligent pattern over a surface: the subtle “prayer” of pen to paper to the renewal of self-discovery.

Over the past 20 years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. For instance, researchers have shown that college students writing about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over 4 consecutive days experienced significant health benefits four months later (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Table 1 summarizes some of the long-term benefits of expressive writing.

TABLE 1: Long-Term Benefits of Expressive Writing
HealthSocial & Behavioral
Fewer stress-related visits to the doctorReduced absenteeism from work
Improved immune system functioningQuicker re-employment after job loss
Reduced blood pressureImproved working memory
Improved lung functionImproved sporting performance
Improved liver functionHigher student’s grade point average
Fewer days in hospitalAltered social and linguistic behavior
Greater psychological well-being 
Reduced depressive symptoms 
Fewer post-traumatic intrusion and avoidance symptoms 
Reference: Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005 

DeSalvo shares something a friend of hers confided to her: “Why is it that I always get sick after I finish a book, and not while I’m writing? Crazy as it sounds,” she concluded, “it must be that writing keeps me healthy.” Although writing can’t cure us, some studies suggest that it might prolong our lives, says DeSalvo. It can help us “to accomplish that shift in perspective marked by acceptance, authenticity, depth, serenity and wisdom that is the hallmark of genuine healing.”

Expressive writing produces significant benefits for people with a variety of medical problems. Some of the major ones appear in Table 2 below.

TABLE 2: Medical Conditions Benefiting from Expressive Writing
Lung functioning in ASTHMA
Disease severity (improvements in joint stiffness) in RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS
Pain and physical health in CANCER
Immune response in HIV Infection
Hospitalisations for CYSTIC FIBROSIS
Pain intensity in women with CHRONIC PELVIC PAIN
Sleep-onset latency in POOR SLEEPERS
Post-operative course
Reference: Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005
Wooden bridge over creek in a forest park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

1.7  References

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

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

Hieb, Marianne. 2005. “Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling”. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, England. 176pp.

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.” Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development”. Kogan Page. London.

Pennebaker, James. W. 1990. “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others”. Morrow, New York, NY.

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

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

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm

NINA MUNTEANU is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit  www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

Old maple tree under snow dusting in a mixed cedar-pine forest in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

There are as many reasons for writing a journal as there are people in the world: to express, to heal and clarify, to create, learn and influence, to record, to celebrate, to share with friends or the world even…and everything in-between. The journal is a way to connect—to yourself and to others—with gentleness, compassion and deeper understanding. It’s a “safe home” where your deepest thoughts can reside without fear of judgment, blame or need for justification. A place where you can be just you.

Late afternoon sun glimmers through cedar-pine forest in winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is a Journal?

Most people think of a journal as a bound notebook with text, sketches and pasted-in mementos. But it can also be a binder full of memorabilia and notes, a collection of digital information on a computer, CD or flash drive, or an audio tape. According to Ron Klug (2002), a journal is essentially a “day book” where you record daily happenings. But it is much more than that. The journal is a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration and finding clarity, a “mirror for the soul”, a training ground for a writer and a good friend and confidant. It is at its heart a place of learning and being.

Mary Louise Holly (1989) describes a journal as “a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal…is a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings. Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out.” The journal helps you assess the next step and help you find direction. I talk more about this in Chapter 5 of my guide The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice.

Swamp forest reflected in icing pond, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Some reject journaling as too self-absorbing; the truth is that most of us during some part of our lives are too little connected to ourselves. We keep so busy, filling our lives with activities, filling our senses with stimuli, running at full tilt. We may be constantly communicating with others through cell phones, computers, notebooks, at school and at work. But we aren’t communicating with ourselves. For that to happen we need to quiet our minds and our environment to have a meaningful self-dialogue. This is the gift that journaling brings to us.  It helps us find the depth of ourselves and lead richer more truthful lives. The key is to use it to learn.

A journal need not be the dark brooding place many people envision when they think of diaries and journals. A journal can be a happy place, a place to celebrate one’s explorations and achievements and self-education. Here’s what journal writer Jennifer Moon (1999) says about her journal:

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back at me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what there is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfillment. 

–Jennifer Moon

Remember, it is just as important to record your happy, wonderful, scintillating and inspirational experiences as those dark moments.

Moss-covered base of a cedar tree under a light dust of snow in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Why Keep a Journal?

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared an interesting story about what expressive writing means to her. Here’s what she said:

“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.”

–Louise DeSalvo

DeSalvo adds, “what if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important as a basic human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful food, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. It helps you deepen your self-understanding and make added sense of your life and what you believe. It can provide you with added perspective on you and the world, by giving you a greater awareness of what is happening to and around you in your daily world. Writing a journal can help you write better and help improve your skills in observing, recording and interpretation. It can also help you set goals and manage your time and priorities.

Give yourself the permission to write. Give yourself the gift of expression.

Beech tree with marcescent leaves in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

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

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

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

References:

Baikie, Karen & Kay Wilhelm. 2005. “Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 11: 338-346.

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

Holly, Mary Louise. 1989. “Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal”. Heinemann. Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Klug, Ron. 2002. “How to Keep a Spiritual Journal: a guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery.”Augsburg, Minneapolis, 4th ed.

Moon, Jennifer. 1999. “Learning Journals: A handbook for academics, students and professional development.” Kogan Page. London.

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

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.