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.

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently 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’ve 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.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview 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 Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

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 writing exercises and detailed case studies.

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 Write Great Dialogue

Cedar trees in ice shallows of Jackson Creek, ON (photograph and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Dialogue spices narrative and increases pace because it is read more quickly. Dialogue is pleasing to the reader’s eye and gets readers involved. Dialogue is action.

Five tools for achieving relevant and exciting dialogue include: showing not telling; simplification; voice; interactive devices, and use of narrative.

Defining Dialogue and its Purpose in Story

Good dialogue neither mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor does it educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten the reader to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

The writer uses dialogue to move the story along, increase tension and speed up pace. Dialogue helps define setting, characters and objects. It allows characters to confront each other and crystallizes relationships and situations. Dialogue can effectively deliver a punch or blow in a conflict. It can cue into a transition to a new scene

Show, Don’t Tell

Beginning writers commonly use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes the writer as a novice. Writers should avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. On the same note, characters should talk to one another, not indirectly to the reader through polemic or long dissertation and exposition.

Use Relevant Tag Lines and Reduce Them

When using tag lines for dialogue, take care to avoid the use of redundant tag lines. For instance: “I’m sorry,” he apologized; “Do you have a dog?” she asked. The primary purpose of a tag is to establish whois speaking, not necessarily how; the howis usually achieved through the actual speech. Novice writers tend to avoid “said” and replace with creative but distracting verbs (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred) or add excessive speech modifiers (e.g., he said pleadingly or he said dramatically). Instead, look for ways to express the way they said it in actual dialogue. Let the dialogue speak for itself. In the example—“He can’t be there!” she said in disbeliefdisbeliefis unnecessary because the dialogue already shows it. In truth, most professional writers use said and let the dialogue do the talking.

Develop Character “Voice” & Speech Signatures

Each of us develops our own idiosyncratic way of speaking, based on our ethnic background, the community or region we grew up in, our education and the circles we frequent. Writers can create a character’s distinctive “voice” by introducing a unique vernacular to each character. This can take on the form of a certain repeated phrase, a body movement (itself a “language”), a stutter or speech intonation or accent. For instance, I know a person who adds “don’t you think?” to almost everything he says. This says something about how that person thinks. Another person I know uses “do you see?” at the end of his phrase. Again, rather revealing. The writer can add additional depth to these specific traits by linking them to metaphor.

Use Oblique Conversation & Overlapping Speech

People often don’t respond directly to questions posed them. This may be due to them avoiding the question or excitement or rudeness. The writer can make use of these as devices to enlighten the reader on theme, plot and character, while making the conversation more interesting and realistic. People cut each other off or talk over one another all the time. You can incorporate this into your dialogue to achieve a note of hastiness, abruptness, nervousness or panic.

Intersperse Dialogue with Descriptive Narrative

Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are talking. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.” As writers we must achieve a balance between a lack of setting, which disorients the reader, and info-dump, which halts conversation and slows pace considerably. Narrative can also be used to contradict what’s actually said through body language or by simply telling the reader. My previous article “title” discusses ways you can use body language to reveal subtle undercurrent of communications between characters, the comic or tragic elements behind dialogue, and a character’s true feelings.  Here are some examples:

“How did it go?”

“Great,” he lied.

“Yes, I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes wandering from his.

Well, you get the picture. And I just revealed myself as a visual thinker…

Cedar trees inundated by ice sheet in shallows of Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry brush 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.

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Minddog TV, New York

I was recently interviewed by Matt Nappo on Minddog TV in New York, where we talked about the science and magic of water, climate change and how to not become cynical, the process of writing, what scares us and what takes us through it into great storytelling.

Here’s the interview:

Matt Nappo interviews limnologist and clifi author Nina Munteanu on minddog TV
Cattails oversee the snowy plain of the iced-over Trent Canal, ON (photo and dry brush 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.

Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.

Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

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 [e.g. often indigenous people]). In 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 Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

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.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

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Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

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Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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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.