Write What You Know–Write “From the Inside Out”

Canadian ForestWhen I first heard the writer’s edict “write what you know” I rejoined: but I write science fiction—I write about the unknown. What I still had to learn was that by describing “the other” SF really describes “us”. We explore ourselves through our relationship with the unknown. We do this by ensuring that all our plotlines reflect theme.

Write About What You Know

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

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Nina Munteanu

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

Writing about what you know isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside your heart. Write from the inside out. Write about what excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

Writers can use our own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb or the hair-raising trepidation of walking into a dark place. Use these sensations to make your writing more sensual with added dimensions of reality.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.
Rachell Gardner

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

An excerpt of this article appeared in CBC’s Canada Writes.

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Nina Talks Writing on Dragon Page

michael-stackpoleSome years ago, I was interviewed by Michael Stackpole (New York Times bestselling author of over 40 novels, including “I, Jedi” and “Rogue Squadron”) and Michael Mennenga (CEO of “Slice of Sci-Fi”) on Dragon Page Cover to Cover.

michael mennengaWe talked about my book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and what new writers fret over. A lot of the discussion focused on how to handle rejection and I shared my “bus terminal” model (also in my book), which worked very well. For details on our discussion about the industry and craft of writing, listen below:

 

 

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The Bus Terminal Model:

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webHere is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer, Chapter R:

One way to see your way through rejection is to find ways to distance yourself from your story once you’ve sent it off and to see the whole process of submission-rejection-acceptance as a business. The very best way to do this is to submit lots of stories and to keep submitting them. With novels, this is a little harder to do but you can certainly be working on the next one once you’ve submitted the first.

When I was writing short stories, I kept a list of what and where I submitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment.

I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis

conifers in the mistA short while ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by a good friend of mine who is a master painter and teacher. What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance. A writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to my friend, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect through metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

conifers in the mistEvery artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction and eco-fiction and teaching writing to engineers and scientists and science fiction writers. Cool, how we choose our path…

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Fifteenth International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival / Le XVe Festival International des écrivains et artistes–Quebec

best best group shotOn Friday, June 9th, I drove with friend, songwriter and poet Honey Novick, to the 15th International Writers’ and Artists’ Festival in Val-David, Quebec (June 10th and 11th, 2017). Celebrated artists, poets, writers and singers with an international heritage that included France, Chile, Argentina, Romania, Canada and the USA would congregate at the festival, set in a large house nestled deep in the Maple Laurentian forest.

The mixed Laurentian forest is called the “eastern forest-boreal transition” and includes a varied tapestry of broadleaf (aspen, oak, paper birch, mountain ash and maple) and conifer (pine, spruce and fir) trees.

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Nina Munteanu

When we reached our destination—a large three-story house surrounded by forest—I took in the aroma of fresh pine and “sweet fern” and spotted Bunchberry (soon to be designated Canada’s national flower), forget-me-nots and lupine carpeting the ground near the house. A young deer, foraging on a shrub’s new leaves beside the house, glanced at us without fear then slipped back into the forest.

I thought the setting ideal for an international festival celebrating the expression of the arts. I was scheduled to talk about my latest book Water Is…”, a personal and scientific journey with water, and to give a lecture on eco-fiction.

Outside-view-web

View outside my bedroom

Flavia Cosma, the originator and organizer of the festival for over a decade, greeted us at the door and in true Romanian-fashion immediately sat us down to eat and drink. After a seven-hour drive (we somehow ended up in Charlamagne, Celine Dion’s birthplace), I was hungry and enjoyed some of Flavia’s signature dishes, varză a la Cluj (cabbage a la Cluj) and salată boeuf (beef salad), made with carrots, parsley roots, eggs, potatoes, beef, pickles and peas mixed with mayonnaise. The view outside my bedroom on the third floor peered through tall firs to a mountain valley and the small village of Val-David. I looked forward to meeting poets, writers, musicians and artists the next day…

 

Day 1: Saturday

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Honey Novick

Honey Novick (Toronto, Ontario), poet laureate of the Summer of Love Project 2007 Luminato Festival and winner of the Bobbi Nahwegahbow Memorial Award, opened the festival with an inspirational song.

Composers and singers Brian Campbell (Montréal, Quebec) and Ivan-Denis Dupuis (Sainte Adele, QC) provided additional and stirring song performance.

Louis Hebert

Louis-Philippe Hebert

Quebec author Louis-Philippe Hébert (Saint Sauveur, QC), winner of the Grand Prix Québecor du Festival de Poésie de Trois-Rivières and the Prix du Festival de Poésie de Montréal, read from his novel Un homme discret (Lévesque, 2017). Poet Julie de Belle read several poems, including When the sea subsides, finalist in the Malahat Review. Brian Campbell, finalist in the 2006 CBC Literary Award for Poetry, read from his book Shimmer Report (Ekstasis Editions, 2015).

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Flavia Cosma

Poet and award-winning TV documentarist Flavia Cosma, who received the gold medal as an honorary member by the Casa del Poeta Peruano, Lima, Peru in 2010, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and whose work has been used in University of Toronto literature courses, read from her collection of poems, The Latin Quarter (MadHat Press, 2015) and Plumas de Angeles (Editorial Dunken, 2008).

Felicia Mihali

Felicia Mihali

Romanian writer Felicia Mihali read from her novel La bien-aimée de Kandahar, nominated for Canada Reads 2013. Romanian author Melania Rusi Caragioiu, member of the Canadian Association of Romanian Writers, read from her book of poems Basm în versuri și poeme pentru copii in Romanian.

Nicole Davidson, the mayor of Val-David, read some of her poetry. Jeanine Pioger, French author of Permanence de l’instant, read a selection of her poetry. Jocelyne Dubois showed her artwork and Romanian artists Carmen Doreal and Eva Halus discussed their artwork and poetry.

water-is-cover-web“Water Is…”: I shared the inspiration and making of my latest book, “Water Is…”, a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, teacher and environmentalist, which was recently picked by Margaret Atwood in the NY Times as 2016 ‘Year in Reading’ and recommended by Water Canada as ‘Summer Reading’. I discussed how I first conceived the book as a textbook early in my career as a freshwater biologist and how it morphed from one idea into something completely different and why it is my most cherished work to date.

Day 2: Sunday

French poet David Brême gave a workshop on poetry and the cultural hybridization of franco-québécoise (atelier sur la poésie et l’hybridation culturelle franco québécoise), which he had given earlier in Toronto.

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Nane Couzier

Montreal poet from France and Senegal, Nane Couzier, read from her collection Commencements, honorable mention in le Prix de poésie 2016 des Écrivains francophones d’Amerique.

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Jocelyne Dubois

Novelist and short story writer Jocelyne Dubois read from her novel World of Glass, finalist for the 2013 QWF Paragraphe Hugh MaLennan Prize for fiction. Laurentian poet John Monette, author of the collection Occupons Montréal (Editions Louise Courteau, 2012) read several poems and Eva Halus, Romanian poet, read from her book Pour tous les Voyages. Chilean poet Tito Alvarado also read his poetry.

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Claudiu Scrieciu of Nasul.TV Canada

Claudiu Scrieciu and Felicia Popa of Nasul.TV CanadaTeleviziunea Libera—the Canadian chapter of Romanian TV in St. Laurent, Quebec, televised aspects of the festival and the closing ceremony. Felicia, who interviewed me for their show, talked with me about “Water Is…”.

naturalselectionEco-Fiction: I discussed how eco-fiction evolved as a genre and its importance, both metaphorically and literally, in the literature of the Anthropocene (with a nod to Margaret Atwood’s 2016 challenge to a college audience in Barrie, Ontario, to write the stories that focus on our current global environmental crisis). I provided examples of ecological metaphor such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Michael Ondaadje’s The English Patient, Frank Hebert’s Dune, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Astute questions, initiated by Flavia, led to an animated discussion on our ultimate participation in Nature, co-evolution, cooperation vs competition, soft-inheritance, DNA repair and the role and place of water in virtually all things.

The festival concluded at the Centre d’Exposition (art centre) of Val David with “Les Mots du Monde”, where poets, songwriters and writers performed readings and song to the community. The cultural setting and perfect acoustics provided a true inspiration for Honey Novick’s stirring opening songs—angelic in nature and in voice. I asked colleague Jeanine Pioger to read my essay “Why I Write,” which I had translated into French with help from colleague Betty Ing. The French version appears below.

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Toasting the international festival

After the closing ceremony, Flavia invited participants to a grand dinner party at the festival house featuring authentic Romanian dishes, good wine and stimulating conversation.

The festival was a great success on many levels. Honey Novick astutely thanked Flavia in a Facebook post, “thanks for the wonderful memories, great inspiration, generous hearts and a tremendous weekend.”  I felt a great resonance and synchronicity throughout the weekend. It was as though we all embarked on a dimensional ride together, orchestrated by Flavia, that challenged, fulfilled and enlightened…I spoke English, French and puțin limba română. Foarte puțin… …And the food… OOHLALA!

Mulțumesc, Flavia! A fost minunat!

BrianCambell-ShimmerReportEva Halus-Pour tous les VoyagesLatinQuarter-flavia cosmaun homme discret

 

La raison pour laquelle j’écris

L’écriture est le souffle et la lumière de mon âme et la source de mon essence. Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent. Je suis dans le moment de la création, connecté au Soi Divin, embrassant la nature et l’ensemble de l’univers fractal.

Je fais quelque chose d’important.

Je me connecte avec vous.

Isaac Asimov a dit : « j’écris pour la même raison que je respire — parce que si je ne le faisais pas, je mourrirais ». C’était aussi vrai quand il était auteur inconnu qu’après qu’il est devenu grand écrivain. Il parlait métaphoriquement, spirituellement et littéralement. Je sais que si je n’écrivais pas, je me priverais mon âme de sa respiration de vie. Il représente plus que la vérité métaphorique ; il est scientifiquement prouvé. L’écriture expressive — que ce soit sous la forme de l’écriture d’un journal, de blogging, de l’écriture de lettres, de mémoires ou de fiction — améliore la santé.

Que vous publiiez ou non, votre écriture est importante et utile. Prenez possession de celle-ci, nourrissez-la et considérez-la comme sacrée. Inspirez le respect des autres et respectez tous les écrivains à leur tour ; ne laissez pas l’ignorance vous intimider et vous faire taire.

L’écriture, comme toute forme de créativité, exige un acte de foi ; tant en nous-mêmes qu’en les autres. Et c’est effrayant. C’est effrayant, parce qu’il faut que nous renoncions au contrôle. Il est d’autant plus préférable d’écrire. La résistance est une forme d’autodestruction, dit Julia Cameron, auteur de The Artist’s Way.

Nous résistons afin de maintenir une vague idée de contrôle, mais au contraire, nous augmentons nos chances de développer la dépression, l’anxiété et la confusion. Booth et al. (1997) ont conclu que la divulgation écrite réduit sensiblement le stress physiologique du corps causé par une inhibition. Nous sommes nés pour créer. Pourquoi hésitons-nous et résistons-nous? Parce que, dit Cameron, « nous avons accepté le message de notre culture… [que] nous sommes censés faire notre devoir et puis mourir. La vérité est que nous sommes censés être prospères et vivre ».

Joseph Campbell a écrit : « suivez votre bonheur et les portes s’ouvriront là où il n’y avait pas de portes avant. » Cameron ajoute : « c’est l’engagement interne pour être fidèle à nous-mêmes et de suivre nos rêves qui déclenche le soutien de l’univers. Alors que nous sommes ambivalents, l’univers nous semblera également être ambivalent et erratique. » Quand j’écris, je vis le moment présent, en harmonie avec le moment divin de la création.

En pleine joie.

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Parallel Plotting: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

ws_Forest_Dirt_Road-long“The common definition of plot,” says Ansen Dibell, author of Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot, “is that it’s whatever happens in the story.” But, “it doesn’t tell you how to make one,” he adds. “Plot is built of significant events in a given story—significant because they have important consequences.”

Dibell describes plot as a tapestry of pattern, form, shape and color that share recognizable meanings. And subplots are the threads that make up the story’s fabric. Parallel plots, braided plots … even the terms reflect a flowing river. This is an apt metaphor, particularly given that, as Dibell reminds us, “plot is a verb.” It is the engine that moves the story.

Subplots are more common in long fiction, where they are used to deepen a story and add layers that make it more intriguing and tease out more depth to the story. Subplots may provide varying aspects of a theme, from community to individual as played out by different characters. Ultimately, subplots and how they are crafted, provide the writer with the means to transcend plot into what Dibell calls pattern.

Parallel Plotlines & Patterns

Dibell describes “braided” plots, in which two or more subplots are woven together, and parallel plotlines, in which two plots share almost equal footing. This happens when strong protagonists carry each plot. Parallel plotlines often run counterpoint to each other in pace, tone and color. Each plot becomes richer and stronger when contrasted with the other. And they are always connected in some way, in many ways.

In Matrix Reloaded, Neo’s introspective and thoughtful plot with the architect of the matrix runs counterpoint with Trinity’s action plot as she sabotages the matrix and battles an agent. Both demonstrate conflict and tension but the tone and pace are opposite. This contrast only heightens each plot line.

Notice also how the two plot lines are connected and eventually converge in the final scene where Neo saves Trinity’s life by restarting her heart. Earlier on in, while Trinity is totally engrossed in her problems, Neo becomes aware of her struggle through the architect’s artful hint; this prompts Neo to choose his path to join her plot. His awareness is the bridge between the two plotlines. If you look carefully, you will find many other ways the two plotlines are connected, visually, mentally and viscerally and how they inevitably draw together in that riveting last scene; “how thoroughly,” Dibell says, “the story belongs to itself.”

Mirrored Pattern on the Wall…

Scenes, characters, and plots can be mirrored. It starts with identifying two situations that can be tagged for connection and built-in recurrence. Mirrored plots often run as double stories concurrently or through alternating flashback narration. Good examples include The Empire Strikes Back, Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings. My short story, The Arc of Time, used a double plot set 40,000 years apart, one played out with real characters and the other in the form of e-letters between two lovers. Both plots converged in the end.

Mirrored plots are achieved by setting up pairs of opposite and/or complimentary scenes that share emotional resonance.

Dibell provides these hints to create effective mirroring scenes:

  • Repeat one or more lines of dialogue (e.g. the “I love you” “I know” between Han and Leia in Star Wars).
  • Repeat a brief description of emotion.
  • Have the two situations go through similar stages.
  • Use similar imagery.
  • Ensure that subject and terms are the same.
  • Keep the polarities and emotional content the same.ws_Forest_Dirt_Road_1280x1024

Ultimately, the pattern that develops forms a moving story that has rhythm and cadence.

In short, nothing should happen at random. Plot should stem from “character under adversity” often with an urgent personal agenda. The plot of a story synthesizes the individual character subplots and subthemes and resonates with the overarching theme.

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.

The Power of Myth in Storytelling

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

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

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

Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman

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

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

The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story

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

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

The Power of Mythologist

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

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

 

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

 

Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

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

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

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

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

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

Choose a Sacred Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Your Own Rhythm

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

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

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

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle.

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

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

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

 

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