When Do You Know Your Story Is Finished?

fir tree looking upA student of mine once asked me how many drafts it took to get the final version of a story. I answered cagily: as many as you need. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or elusive. In truth, this is a question that only you can answer; and it will be different with each story you write.

George Lucas once said in an interview about the remaking of Star Wars that in the film industry, projects were never finished; only abandoned. What he meant by this was that at some point in the creative and revision process of polishing a story, you have to stop and show it to the world. Let your baby walk and stand on its own.

This is a big step for all beginning writers and many will freeze. Terrified at the idea of failure or censure, they end up sabotaging their own work. If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creations and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth, it’s you who aren’t ready.

This is a shame because to have written an entire novel is a great accomplishment. You’ve already done what over 80% of those who embark on a book don’t do: finish it. To halt the process by entering a perpetual cycle of revision is admitting defeat when you have really won the major battle. It’s like that fatal stumble on the last leg of a homerun.

If the idea is to publish, then you need to give yourself a kind of deadline or goal, based on something that makes sense to you and is achievable. This could even include a time deadline.

Robert J. Sawyer’s response to the question of “when do you stop revising?” was: “When you’ve taken out all the boring bits.” That may seem on the face of it either too simple or too abstract. But, in fact, he is right on the mark. However, to truly achieve that conclusion and consequently get your manuscript to where it is meant to be without you lingering like a frightened ghost, you need to accurately perceive what “boring” is. In order to do this you need to do several things.

The first is to gain objectivity of your work. You accomplish this by setting it aside for a while and letting it “breathe” (really, you’re letting yourself breathe). By distancing yourself a little from your work, you are able to return with a fresh outlook and read it more like a reader. Your “boring” meter will be running better this way and you will be in a better position to pick out redundancies, overly long exposition and detail, lack of context, “talking heads”, lack of action or tension, and confusing or awkward sentences. The other thing you gain with distance is the ability to describe your book’s theme and major plot. What is it really about? You need to reach the point where you can describe it in a couple of sentences or even a few words as you would describe a movie you like to a curious friend who hasn’t seen it yet.

Once you’ve gained some objectivity, you can critique each scene and each character for his or her plot purpose within that central plot and theme. You can also assess each sub-plot’s role within the major plot and theme. When every paragraph within every scene within every chapter of your story scintillates with purpose and meaning, you have accomplished your task of removing the boring bits. Now you have a story that is finished.

Art is self-expression and expression is a reflection of the culture and time in which you live. Stories are a snapshot of time and place. Treat your art like life; some revision is good but at some point you need to just LIVE. Let go of your work and move on to the next chapter.

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

 

What Did You Do Before You Were Famous…?

rain spattered city2So, you’re a famous author now…

You’ve published several books and they sold more than a dozen copies each. In fact, a few have been translated and are in second printings. You’ve received some recognition and awards and a bazillion nominations. You’ve landed some speaking engagements with writing and reader groups and a movie producer is soliciting a treatment from you. You have a following…Fans who “stalk” you at the writer conventions you participate in. Fans who want to co-write the sequel to your current bestseller with you, because they understand your universe—and your characters—so well. You discover that some fans have gone ahead and written fan-fic about your main character and universe on the Internet—a sign of adoration. Really.

But you weren’t always famous…

Neither was John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling…

When did the transition occur for them? It’s not that easy to peg and it isn’t that obvious. This is partly because, it depends on each writer’s own criteria for success and fame. Particularly given that many writers aren’t, in fact, seeking fame, per se.

However, what every career writer wants, which often comes alongside fame is this: autonomy and the ability to write for a living without having to sneak it in at midnight after you’re finished your “real” job.

No one is “born” a writer; most of us start out doing something else to make a living. In the meantime, we work hard on what we love and what feeds our souls and our passion for storytelling. We assiduously write on stolen time and submit queries and letters. We do research and marketing. We write drafts, do revisions, attend classes and read books. All hoping to eventually write full time.

Let’s look at the humble roots of some famed writers and what key moment signified their move into the light of career novelist:

JK RowlingJ.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother on public assistance when she wrote the first book. The book was rejected by over a dozen publishers before a small British publisher, Bloomsbury, said yes.

JohnSteinbeckJohn Steinbeck worked through many odd jobs before earning enough to work as a full time writer. His day jobs included: apprentice painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker. He also ran a fish hatchery in Lake Tahoe and did guided tours there.

MargaretAtwoodMargaret Atwood worked in a coffee shop. She says her first job experience was NOT ideal: She had to deal with a difficult cash register, a rude ex-boyfriend who would come by just to stare at her and barely tip, and fellow employees who were definitely not friendship material.

WilliamFaulknerBefore his writing career blossomed, William Faulkner worked for the postal service, as postmaster at the University of Mississippi. In his resignation note, he summarized the struggle of art and commerce faced by most authors: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

JD SallingerIn a 1953 interview, J.D. Salinger shared that he had served as entertainment director on the HMS Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. He drew on the experience for his short story “Teddy”, which takes place on a liner.

Ursula_Le_GuinUrsula Le Guin struggled initially to be published in the mainstream fiction world, but her first three novels, Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, put her on the sci-fi map.

JamesJoyceAn accomplished tenor, James Joyce made money singing for his supper before his work was published.

HarperLeeHarper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines for several years, writing stories in her spare time. A windfall came when a friend offered her a Chirsmas gift of one year’s wages and one year off to write whatever she pleased; she wrote the first draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

stephen kingStephen King was a janitor for a high school as he struggled to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cart through the halls inspired him to write the opening girl’s locker room scene in “Carrie”, his breakout novel.

KurtVonnegutKurt Vonnegut managed Americas first Saab dealership in Cape Cod during the late 1950s, a job he joked about in a 2004 essay, “I now believe my failure as a dealer … explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel prize for literature.”

Virginia_WoolfWhen Virginia Woolf’s brilliant novels failed to find a publisher, she and her husband Leonard bought a printing press and set up their own publishing compay Hogarth Press in their living room. They published Woolf’s masterful novels, such as Orlando and To The Lighthouse, as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, among other classics of the era.

TS EliotT.S. Eliot worked as a clerk for Lloyds Bank of London. During that time, he composed “The Waste Land”.

Franz KafkaFranz Kafka served as the Chief Legal Secretary of the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute. Obviously.

Douglas Adams was a bodyguard. Even published authors often have to work other jobs to make ends meet, Douglas Adamsand The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams was no exception: At one point, he served as a bodyguard for a wealthy Arabian family while he wrote for radio shows and Monty Python. Good writers are good multitaskers!

James_michenerJames A. Michener was a teacher before writing only at age 40. He Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a George_Orwellbook a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.

Before he wrote 1984, George Orwell served as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where he was known for his “sense of utter fairness.”

 

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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 Munteanu’s “The Way of Water” Receives More Praise

Exile-CanTales ClimateChange copyNina Munteanu’s near-future speculative short story “The Way of Water” in Bruce Meyer’s (editor) “Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change”, published by Exile Editions in 2017, will appear again in Rosarium Publishing / Future Fiction’s anthology “New Dimensions in International Science Fiction in April 2018.

She imagines its coolness gliding down her throat. Wet with a lingering aftertaste of fish and mud. She imagines its deep voice resonating through her in primal notes; echoes from when the dinosaurs quenched their throats in the Triassic swamps.

Water is a shape shifter.

It changes yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted.

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap.

“The Way of Water” is a near-future vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with resource warfare. An ecologist and technologist, Nina Munteanu uses both fiction and non-fiction to examine our humanity in the face of climate change and our changing relationship with technology and Nature.

A recent review of the anthology by Emilie Moorhouse in Prism International Magazine, entitled “Courage and Imagination in Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change” and carried by the National Observer, describes it this way:

“The seventeen stories in this book edited by Bruce Meyer examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after I finished reading the book, Cape Town—known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather”—announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling. Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border…I believe that fiction offers up two much-needed ingredients in the fight to prevent climate change: courage and imagination. It is my hope that more fiction writers will take up the task of writing in this promising new genre and use their imagination to inspire readers to collectively work towards a more sustainable future.”—Emilie Moorhouse, Prism International

 

 

The Way of Water-COVERA bilingual print book by Mincione Edizioni (Rome) showcased “The Way of Water” in Italian (“La natura dell’acqua”, translated by Fiorella Moscatello) and English along with a recounting of what inspired it: “The Story of Water” (“La storia dell’acqua”) in 2016.

“In ‘The Way of Water’, Nina Munteanu pens her love letter to water, exulting it as a liquid that has semi-magical properties…’The Way of Water’ evokes a sense of awareness about issues of access to water and about the dangers of imbalances in that access.”—Derek Newman-Stille, Speculating Canada

 

“In a short story in which every word has its weight, Nina Munteanu manages to describe a dystopia with ecological, political, social and economic elements and Hilda’s reactions to her situation with a great emotional intensity. To avoid thirst, Hilda ends up embracing an extreme idea, a last hope linked to water.

‘The Way of Water’ is a story of the kind you hope is science fiction but you fear is not.”—Massimo Luciani

 

FF-TheWayOfWater” ‘The Way of Water’ is to be ‘a shapeshifter,’ says Nina Munteanu in her dystopian narrative, where she draws a dark scenario and, unfortunately, not too improbable in the near future. In the universe of the story water has become a very precious commodity: rationed consumption, credits (always of water) accounted for and debts collected…The Chinese multinationals have exchanged the public debt of other states with their water reserves with which, now, they can control the climate, deciding when and where it will rain. Who understands this dirty game has been silenced, like Hilda’s mother, a limnologist, inexplicably arrested and never returned; like the daughter of two water vendors, mysteriously disappeared, after having decided not to bow to economic powers: Hanna, who now prefers secure virtual identities to evanescent real appearances. Water. The two, like the covalent bond of a complex molecule, develop a relationship of attraction and repulsion that will first make them meet and then, little by little, will change into a tormented love but, at the same time, so pure as to cause Hilda at great risk, to make an extreme decision that will allow Hanna to realize the strange prophecy that the internal voice, perhaps the consciousness of water, had resonated in the two women for a long time.

Nina Munteanu recounts that this element is also a form of love; a story to read, not only to deal with the possible but, above all, to understand that the time still available to “love” may be less than what we believe.”—Simone Casavecchia, SoloLibri.net

FF - Rosarium Cover copy“The Way of Water” will also appear alongside a collection of international works (including authors from Greece, Nigeria, China, India, Russia, Mexico, USA, UK, Italy, Canada (yours truly), Cuba, and Zimbabwe) in Bill Campbell and Francesco Verso’s Rosarium Publishing / Future Fiction’s anthology “New Dimensions in International Science Fiction” in April 2018.

“Nina Munteanu’s “The Way of Water” is perhaps more esoteric in its focus and more abstract in its approach, but I likewise found it to be a strong story. In an interesting scarcity future in which we follow the fate of a character abandoned by her mother, water itself becomes a character. In the second paragraph we’re told that “Water is a shape shifter,” and in the next page we encounter the following description: “Water was paradox. Aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Floods. Droughts. Mudslides. Tsunamis. Water cut recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroboros remembering.” These descriptive musings cleverly turn out to be more than metaphors and tie in directly to the tale’s surprising ending.”—Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, IntergalacticMedicineShow.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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 Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

 

big old tree“Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.—Ralph Keyes

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.—John Steinbeck

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.—Victor Frankl

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

big old treeFinke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness—Allen Ginsberg, American poet

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

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

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

 

Write About What You Know

Beauty Creek, Jasper National Park, Alberta, CanadaHow 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?

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.”

The advice, “write what you know” isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

In an article in Writing World, Gilks discusses how a writer can use her 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 when the sun shines on your face or the rain drenches you. You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb on a hot day or the invigorating freshness of a cool lake in summer.

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.

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

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

 

How Art Reveals Truth in Science

It is quite possible … that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology —Naom Chomsky

niels bohr

Niels Bohr

In the 1920s, physicist Niels Bohr struggled to re-imagine the structure of matter. He rejected the current hegemony of a fractal “solar system” model and sought a new metaphor.

“When it comes to atoms,” said Bohr, “language can only be used as poetry.”

Bohr compared the invisible world of atoms and electrons to cubist art because, according to Jonah Lehrer in an article in SeedMagazine.com, it “revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.” In 1923 deBroglie had determined that electrons could exist as particles or waves. Bohr maintained that the form they took depended on how you looked at them: by simply observing, you determined their nature.

Many of us believe that while art can be profound, it does not solve practical challenges of reality; only scientific knowledge, which progresses on a linear ascent toward greater understanding, resolves the serious challenges of our world and will one day solve everything.

This is, of course a matter of belief. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” The traditional elements of science have used a reductionist approach to understand the whole, looking at the parts and reconstructing the causal pathways. Take the synapse, for instance. Neuroscientists now know that 100 billion electrical cells occupy a human brain, that every cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains a billion synapses involved in the neurotransmission of electrical impulses in perception and thought. Yet, as Novelist Richard Powers challenged, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

neuroscience“The paradox of neuroscience,” said Lehrer, “is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm … Neuroscience has yet to capture [the] first-person perspective. Artists … distill the details of real life into prose and plot … They capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot … and provide science with a glimpse into its blind spots … Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole … No scientific model of the mind will be complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced.”

Logical minds will reject art as too incoherent and imprecise to contribute to the knowledge base provided by scientific process. They will maintain that Beauty isn’t Truth, that the novel is just a work of fiction, and abstract art the arcane expression of a micro-culture.

But what of paradox? Critic Randall Jarrell contended that, “it is the contradictions of works of art which make them able to represent us — as logical and methodical generalizations cannot — our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.” The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers, adds Lehrer.

neutrino colliding

Neutrino colliding

The irony of modern physics is that it seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are incapable of comprehending these fundamentals beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

Richard Feyman

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” While artists rely on imagination, much of modern physics exceeds the imagination: dark matter, quarks and neutrinos, black holes, multiple dimensions and folded space. To venture beyond the regular confines of our “ordinary world” where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions, we must resort to metaphor. “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device,” wrote physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, “but also as an aid to scientific discovery.” Einstein came up with relativity while thinking about moving trains; Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon; James Clerk Maxwell visualized magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space. String theory is often imagined as garden hoses.

Pablo Picasso bullfight,1934

Pablo Picasso’s Bull Fight, 1934

The greatest physicists of the 20th century thought metaphorically. String theorist Brian Greene wrote that the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real.” Picasso never understood the equations, says Lehrer: “he picked up the non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist.” A century later some scientists still use his fragmented images to symbolize their ideas.  “Novelists can stimulate the latest theories of consciousness through their fiction … Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex … Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion.”

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

And that is the stuff of fiction after all…

 

Nina MunteanuNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

winter walk-stockholmHow many of you are still running around preparing for the Christmas celebration or secular family festivity? Buying that last minute gift you’d forgotten or were chasing down since a bazillion days ago? Or making last minute changes to your travel plans, house-cleaning for guests, mailing of cards or parcels or meal preparations?

Well, you’re reading this blog post … That means you’re sitting down and taking a minute to relax and regroup. That’s good. Remember to breathe… while I tell you a story…

I’d just finished a three-day drive through snow and rain storms from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, to Toronto, Ontario, where I was staying for a few days before catching a flight to Vancouver to spend Christmas with my son and good friends on the west coast. Talk about fast living.

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties. After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write.

snow-christmas2008-sammy

Sammy

My male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Most of us think of Christmas as a busy time, of getting together (often dutifully) with family and friends, exchanging presents and feasting. Christmas is certainly this, but that is only a shallow view of a far deeper event; and I don’t mean only for Christians.

Whether celebrating the holy light of Hannukah or the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, this season provides us with the opportunity to meditate on far more than the surficial nature of the symbols we have come to associate with the season: the Christmas tree, presents, turkey dinner, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—most of which originate from pagan tradition, by the way.

Says Lama Christie McNally (author of The Tibetan Book of Meditation), “once you dive below the surface, you will discover a beautiful clear place—like a diamond hidden beneath the rubble. It is your own mind, uncovered … Tibetans say we have only just begun the process of awakening—that we still have quite a way to go in our evolutionary process. And it has nothing to do with building spaceships or computers. The next step in our evolution takes place within.”

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.winter trees snow

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.

Merry Christmas!

 

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.