Ecology, Story & Stranger Things

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Illustration by Anne Moody, typology & design by Costi Gurgu

One of the lectures I give in my science fiction writing course and conference workshops is called “Ecology in Storytelling”. It’s usually well attended by writers hoping to gain better insight into world-building and how to master the layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. My upcoming writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character” addresses this subject with examples from a wide range of published fiction. The book will be released sometime in 2019 by Pixl Press.

In my lecture (and book) I talk about the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments. I describe the trophic (energy) relationships from producers to consumers and destroyers in a complex cycle of creative destruction.

Students perk up when I bring up some of the more strange and interesting adaptations of organisms to their environment: twisted stories of adaptations and strategies that involve feeding, locomotion, reproduction and shelter.

Purposeful Miscommunication & Other Lies

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Alcon blue butterfly and caterpillar with ant

For instance, the Alcon blue butterfly hoodwinks ants into caring for its larvae. They do this by secreting a chemical that mimics how ants communicate; the ants in turn adopt the newly hatched caterpillars for two years. There’s a terrible side to this story of deception. The Ichneumon wasp, upon finding an Alcon caterpillar inside an ant colony, secretes a pheromone that drives the ants into confused chaos; allowing it to slip through the confusion and lay its eggs inside the poor caterpillar. When the caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, the wasp eggs hatch and consume it from inside.

This reads like something out of a noir thriller. Or better yet, a horror story. Nature is large, profligate, complex and paradoxical. She is by turns gentle and cruel. Creative and destructive. Competitive and cooperative. Idle and nurturing.

Extremophiles & Anhydrobiosis

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Tardigrade on moss

When I bring in the subject of extremophiles, who thrive in places you and I would cringe to set foot in, students’ imaginations run wild with ideas.

I describe a panoply of weird adaptations in Nature—involving poisons, mimicry and deception, phototaxis and something called anhydrobiosis, which permits the tiny tardigrade to shrivel into a tun in the absence of water then revive after a 100 years with just a drop of water.

All this adaptation hinges on communication. How an organism or population communicates with its environment and among its own.

Examples of “strange” communication are the purview of the science fiction writer … and already the nature of our current world—if you only know where to look. The scope of how Nature communicates—her devices and intentions—embraces the strange to the astonishing. From using infrasound to chemical receptors and sensing magnetic fields. To allelopathy. Aggressive symbiosis. And so much more.

Talking Trees

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Dr. Suzanne Simard

UBC researcher Suzanne Simard, who has published hundreds of papers over 30 years of research, suggests a kind of “intelligence” when she describes the underground world “of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate” In a forest.

This communication allows the forest to behave as if it was a single organism, says Simard. Her early in situ experiments showed solid evidence that tree species, such as Paper Birch and Douglas Fir communicated in a cooperative manner underground through an underground mutualistic-symbiosis involving mycorrhizae (e.g., fungus-root).

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mycelium connects trees underground

These trees were conversing in the language of carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allelo-chemicals, and hormones via a network of mycelia. Fungal threads form a mycelium that infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. Simard compares this dense network to the Internet, which also has nodes and links—just as the forest.

Fungal highways link each tree and plant to its community, with busiest nodes called hub trees or mother trees. Calling them mother trees is appropriate, given that they nurture their young in the understory; sending excess carbon to the understory trees, which receive less light for photosynthesis. “In a single forest,” says Simard, “a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees.” These mature trees act as nodal anchors—like major hub sites on the Internet—for tree groupings; according to Simard, they look after their families, nurture seedlings and even share wisdom—information—when they are injured or dying.

Fatal Attractions & Natural Bullies

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Bracken fern fronds

The “ordinary” Bracken fern thrives in a wide range of conditions on virtually every continent (except Antarctica). That’s because it plays the “long game” by having several strategies to outlive and outcompete its surrounding nemeses.

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The symbiosis of Bracken fern and ant

Strategies include a loose lifestyle such as several ways to reproduce and grow to accommodate seasons, drought and burning; a shady arrangement with the local thugs (aggressive ants) who protect it for its tasty nectar; use of cyanide and ecdysones by its young shoots; and tough carcinogenic fronds that contain glass-like silicates.

Despite its many uses by humans (e.g., used for potash fertilizer, heating fuel, roofing, bedding for animals), the Bracken fern is considered a pest. In truth, it is a hardy versatile adapter to changing environments. And that is what our climate changing world is fast becoming.

fernforestI highly recommend the works of Annie Dillard and Loren Eiseley for wonderful and bizarre examples of natural wonders that resonate with metaphor. I also recommend my upcoming book “Ecology of Story” (Pixl Press), which will showcase a diverse set of examples from the literature of metaphoric environment and creatures. “Ecology of Story” is due for release in Spring/Summer of 2019. Look for it on Amazon, Kobo, and a fine bookstore near you. Two other books in my writing guide series include: “The Fiction Writer” and “The Journal Writer“.

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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

 

How Writers See Themselves…And How Others See Them…

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper
—Ray Bradbury

 

How many of you have, once you’ve told someone that you are a writer, received the blithe response, “Oh, yes, I’ll be a writer too someday. I’ll write that great Canadian bestseller—once I have time…” Implying that writing was a hobby and that time—not talent or discipline or vision or artistic spirit—was the only required ingredient.

When I was five years old I already knew that I wanted to be a writer. My sister and I didn’t just play dolls; we created worlds and spun epic tales of great scope, with a diverse cast of characters that spanned the far reaches of the universe. Stories of thrilling adventure, crazy irony, great intrigue and mystery. Stories of betrayal, love, loss, redemption and victory. I knew in my heart that I was always a writer—even when I wasn’t (writing, that is). As a child I knew that writing was in my soul and that I would write for the rest of my life. Still…it took me a while to admit it to the world. It took me longer still to publish. Make no mistake: writing and publishing is hard work. But NOT a chore, which I think many who don’t write fail to make a distinction, including my ex-husband.

Films often portray the writer as self-loathing and self-destructive, moody, unstable, and narcissistic. Think of the following films and how they portray the writer: Sunset Boulevard. The Shining. Misery. Sliding Doors. Secret Window. Sideways. My Brilliant Career. Stranger than Fiction. The Royal Tenenbaums. As Good As It Gets. Adaptation. Deconstructing Harry. Wonder Boys. Midnight in Paris. Barton Fink. Limitless. Ruby Sparks. The Words.

“Deplorable actions are almost expected from fictional writers in films,” says a recent Huffington Post article. “Novelists and poets are consistently portrayed as snobby, outlandish, mawkish, or untrustworthy. They lie, cry, brag and steal their way to fame.”

Joe Muscolino of Word & Film shares that:

“It’s become a visual cliché: The writer slouched in his chair, conflicted, chain-smoking, achingly alone, and oblivious to anything outside his cave of thoughts. He’s desperately waiting for that one savior of a sentence to rescue him from the shackles of banality. Opposite him sits a blank page. Watching him. Haunting him. It’s ideally

Bradley Cooper as writer in Limitless

Bradley Cooper as writer in Limitless

nestled in a typewriter, despite the nearby objects suggesting that it’s most definitely the twenty-first century. The clock ticks. Nothing… Obviously, if you scratch the surface of any stereotype you’ll find a more nuanced layer of reality. Writers can just as easily be shining examples of happiness and sobriety. But nuanced realities don’t sound as fun as drug-addled depressives, and they don’t make for good stories.”

That’s the stereotype. What about the reality? For that I, of course, must take you to fiction (faint knowing smile):

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1939 mystery novel The Nine Tailors, the iconic dilettante and gentleman detective Lord Peter Wimsey has a most interesting exchange about writers and our perception of them with the young Miss Hilary Thorpe—herself an aspiring writer. It’s worth recounting here as it reflects one author’s thoughts, even if through a fictional character. In the scene, following her father’s death, Miss Thorpe shares how the act of “wondering” helps her through her grief:

“…it really makes things easier to do a little wondering, I mean, if you’re once interested in a thing it makes it seem leas real. That’s not the right word, though.”

“Less personal?”

‘Yes, that’s what I mean. You begin to imagine how it all happened, and gradually it gets to feel more like something you’ve made up.”

“Hmm!” said Wimsey. “If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day.”

“Do you think so? How funny! That’s what I want to be. But why?”

“Because you have creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently or yourself. You’re lucky.”

“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.

“Yes—but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times—but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”

“But that’s just what the girls say at school. How did you know?…Though they’re all idiots—mostly, that is.”

“Most people are,” said Wimsey, gravely, ‘but it isn’t kind to tell them so. I expect you do tell them so. Have a heart; they can’t help it…”

Thank you, Lord Peter. While we’re at it, another of Sayer’s fictional characters, Mr Edward Thorpe, shares that, “authorship is a good stick, but a bad crutch.”

So, what is it to be a writer? Are we all in the end a bit crazy like the stereotype suggests? All I know is that I if I didn’t write, my soul would suffer. Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”

I write to live and live to write. I’ve known this all my life, from the tales I shared with my sister at age 7 to the novels I currently write and will continue to until I journey beyond the physical. There is, quite simply, nothing that matches the experience of capturing the beating heart of a story, resonating with its core emotional song, and embracing the thrill of sharing it with the world. Just as director Christopher Nolan said of musical genius Hans Zimmer, I embrace “the thrill and mess of reality’s disregard for abstract intentions—the making of the thing is the thing itself.”

 

Writers on Writing…

“Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
—Enid Bagnold

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” ― Kurk Vonnegut

“Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
—Robert A. Heinlein

“…Writers are a savage breed, Mr. Strike. If you want life-long friendship and selfless camaraderie, join the army and learn to kill. If you want a lifetime of temporary alliances with peers who will glory in your every failure, write novels.” ― Robert Galbraith,The Silkworm

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
—Annie Dillard

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.”
—Stephen King

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
—George Orwell

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”—Somerset Maugham

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”—Herman Melville

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.”—C. J. Cherryh

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”—Erica Jong

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”—Terry Pratchett

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.”—Orson Scott Card

“A wounded deer leaps the highest.”—Emily Dickinson

“Writing is its own reward.”—Henry Miller

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”—E. L. Doctorow

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you trees in misthave to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”—Barbara Kingsolver

“I write for the same reason as I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”—Isaac Asimov

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Walking Helps Me Think and Imagine

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

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

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

Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day and once said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains. He wrote, “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry. Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture. “Taking a long walk was [Steve Job’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation,” wrote Job’s biographer Walter Isaacson. Writer and avid walker, Soren Kierkegaard writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.