The Journal Writer: Tap Your Artistic Reservoir

Creativity is harnessing universality and making it flow through your eyes

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

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

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

Stoke the Artist Inside You

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

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

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

— Stoke Your Brain

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

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

— “Morning Pages”

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

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

Relax and Have Fun

What we play is life

Louis Armstrong

—Get Comfortable with Something Familiar

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

—Tools to Relax

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

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

—Find Your Sense of Humor & Practice Gratitude

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

Thornton Wilder

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

—Cultivate Gratitude

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

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

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

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

— Count Your Blessings

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

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

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

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

Maltbie D. Babcock

—Cultivate Humor & Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

— Ways to Take Yourself Less Seriously

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

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

Find Sources of Inspiration

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

Henry Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Schweitzer

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

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

Roald Dahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.7  References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journal Writer: Example Steps for Keeping  a Nature Journal

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair

Kahlil Gibran
White birch tree in mixed cedar hemlock forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

According to naturalist John Muir Laws, “Keeping a journal of your observations, questions, and reflections will enrich your experiences and develop gratitude, reference, and the skills of a naturalist. The goal of nature journaling is not create a portfolio of pretty pictures but to develop a tool to help you see, wonder, and remember your experiences.”

Sketches from “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws

Here are the steps for keeping a nature journal:

  1. Decide on the kind of nature journal you want to make: your decision should take into account whether you wish to include samples, pictures or only text. If you’re using a notebook (not a computer) size is important. Keep it large enough to include what you need but small enough to be portable. You may wish to create a journal only for a specific place, topic, issue or trip (e.g., the river behind your place; local birds; recycling in your community; your trip to Tanzania or the local zoo). There are different kinds of journal styles for different uses. For instance, Grinnell journals are field journals used by scientists and phenology journals are specific to making field observations. If you are really serious about journaling in nature — rain or shine— you can get one with waterproof paper, like Rite in the Rain, or DeckExpert. Butler Survey Supplies also makes waterproof loose leaf paper.
  2. Make or buy a suitable journal: most nature journals are compiled from notebooks or notepads of plain white paper. You can get some that have one side lined for writing and the opposite side unlined for drawing, sketches and pasting in pictures or samples. Make sure your journal is sturdy and protected against the elements. Some covers are waterproof. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to carry a plastic bag with you.
  3. Get the other equipment you need: if you plan to make sketches or paint with watercolor or collect specimens, ensure that you have the equipment: pencils, pencil crayons, paint kit, adhesive tape, camera, other collection material. A backpack would be useful to put your journal and materials into.
  4. Dedicate time and place to journaling: nature journals, like most themed journals, do not need to be kept daily or on a routine. Journal entries will depend on the specific topic or area you have chosen to follow. Keep your journal handy to your journal topic. You may wish to keep it and associated materials in a dedicated backpack, handy to grab when you go on your outings. If you keep lists of things to bring on various trips or outings, include the journal.
  5. Observe the world around you: nature journaling relies mostly on observing and reflecting. Cultivate your observational skills by learning to quiet your mind from distractions and focusing on the subject matter. Sketching and taking pictures can help provide the focus you need as well as giving you something to put into your journal. Slow down. Stop and watch and listen. Get close. Don’t be afraid to crouch and move in close. The wonders of nature are often right in front of your nose, just waiting for a new way to be seen.
  6. Write on location: your nature journal will be most valuable if you use it in the field to record what you see as you see it. If you rely on your memory to write in your journal later, it will be less accurate (though it might be more poetic). You are more likely to make an entry if you bring your journal with you; if you leave your journal at home and wait until later, you may not get to it and the magic of the moment may be lost. Once you get home and revisit your entry, you can confirm and elaborate on your observations in the field.
  7. Begin each entry with location, date, time:  “where” and “when” are important pieces of information to include in any journal entry. They are particularly important in a nature journal. Time and place relate to important natural cycles like season and diurnal cycle. If your nature journal is more scientific, you may wish to include other important descriptors like weather, temperature, wind, precipitation, etc. You may wish to leave the odd page blank as space to paste in additional information from later research related to your entry.
  8. Record observations in several ways: regardless of whether you consider yourself a good artist or not, sketches and drawings can provide a wealth of information (that you may not have thought to add in your writing) and add an element of interest to a journal entry.  Pictures are a great tool for adding accurate details to an observation. Don’t be afraid to get close. All too often we take a picture, thinking the camera sees what we see (and interpret) and when we look at the photo the object of your attention is too far away or surrounded by so much “noise” it’s hard to distinguish.
  9. Learn more about what you saw: it’s a good idea to confirm and elaborate your observations with research. When you go to the library or read online about what you saw, you will likely generate even more interest. This is where sketches or images or samples come in handy, particularly if you want to identify something you’ve seen.
  10. Revisit your past entries: you may wish to consult a previous entry to compare with something you’ve just observed or use it in an experiment you’re conducting. Either way, reading your nature journal can be a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
White birch tree, showing lenticels, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The American Museum of Natural History describes a field journal as being unique to the journalist. “There is no one way to keep a field journal,” they say. “Some scientists will sketch simple pencil drawings, and others will paint colorful, detailed images. You can use whatever tools work best for you. Try working with pens, pencils or watercolors to capture an image, whether it is a view of the Moon, the veins of a leaf, or the legs of a beetle.” You can record your observations with charts, list and labels, sketches, samples and photos. You can also write long, detailed descriptions.

Journal page (image by stowelandtrust.org)

Some questions they come up with to help prompt you include:

  • “What do I see?” Some things to include are: size, shape and color, what it is doing, how it relates to other things, why it is so interesting to you.
  • “Do I see anything that surprises me?”
  • “How have I traveled to this spot?” This is good information for possible later visits, especially if you wish to do a series of related observations.
  • “What tools do I have?” This is good to remember for later visits and to assess the appropriateness of the observation. In most scientific observations, the methods and techniques used are critical to the validity of the observation.
  • “Who is with me on this expedition?” Researchers always include who was there. This helps for later consultation.
  • “What time of day is it?” In the natural sciences time of day is critical because so much in nature is diurnal (e.g., responds and changes as the day changes)
White birch tree with polypore fungus, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Lynda Richardson at Virginia Wildlife talks about keeping a nature journal, which includes plein air painting and what goes into a field kit.

Page from Lynda Richardson’s nature journal (image by L. Richardson)

Sixteen year old Fiona Gillogly tells the wonderful story of how she started journaling in the “The joy of curiosity in my nature journal.”

Page of Fiona Gillogly’s nature journal (image by F. Gillogly)

While recently browsing on the Internet, I ran across a very attractive yet simple nature blog. What made Judy Butler’s “Naturalist Journal: Down the Nature Trail” so appealing was her mixed use of regular text augmented with scanned handwritten pages containing color-pencil drawings and flower pressings. This charming “homespun” expression resembled a real three-dimensional journal.

Botanical artist and illustrator Lara Call Gastinger teaches how to maintain a perpetual journal.

Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Gall Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger
Nature Journal page by Lara Call Gastinger

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

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

The Talmud

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

Chasing the Journeying Muse

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

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

Dealing with Writer’s Block

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

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

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

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

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

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

Waking Up The Muse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm in Ontario

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

The Journal Writer: Benefits of Expressive Writing

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

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

Carl Jung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.7  References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Munteanu enjoys a snowstorm

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

The Journal Writer: Why Keep a Journal?

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

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

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

What is a Journal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jennifer Moon

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

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

Why Keep a Journal?

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

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

–Louise DeSalvo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boredom in the Time of COVID-19: The Art and Satisfaction of Writing Letters

There are no boring moments; only bored people who lack the wherewithal to explore and discover—Nina Munteanu

Cedars and roots in moss JC

Cedar trees on shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So many of us have responded intelligently to the pandemic by respecting “lock down” measures to self-isolate and socially distance. From simply staying at home to going out less often and avoiding crowds (well, there shouldn’t be any of them right now; but there will always be an irresponsible sector who must reflex their sense of entitlement and lack of compassion).

What the pandemic and our necessary reaction to it has done more than anything is to slow us down. Many people are slowly going crazy with it: we are, after all, a gregarious species. And not all of us feel comfortable with virtual meetings. Our senses are deprived; you can’t touch and smell and feel.

But, there are wonderful ways to feed the muse and get sensual…

Cedar over water-JC

Cedar tree on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

My good friend and poet Merridy Cox recently told me about a Facebook friend who was feeling so bored: “GETTING SO BORED BEING AT HOME” amid the social distancing and self-isolation during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Merridy counselled her friend to go outside and watch spring unfold then find a nice place to sit and write about it. A poem, she suggested: “Little white clouds are scudding across a blue sky. Trees are budding. Birds are migrating. Don’t be bored! Get outside, find a tree and see if there is a bird in it—now, you have enough to write a poem.”

What Merridy was essentially suggesting to her friend was to look outside herself. Reach out in curiosity and discover something. Boredom will fly away with curiosity and can lead to expression through poetry (or photography, sketching, journaling, memoir, or letter writing). When you open your soul to the spirit of exploration, you will find much to discover. When you share with others, you close the gap of isolation from gregariousness and find connection through meaning. The key is in sharing.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes that, “Being Creative is a form of self-care and caring for others. The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been cited by Margaret Atwood and many others as what inspired them to share their creative work.  Sharing is part of many religions, as part of becoming ‘holy, from the word ‘whole’.   When what you share comes from your inner creative impulse, you develop a sense of your own value as an individual.  In addition, you transcend your separateness by touching the spirit of another.  In this way, all forms of art are therapeutic.”

The key to success in this is to start with 1) motivation, move through to 2) curiosity and discovery, then on to 3) creativity and expression. Sending an old-fashioned letter and handwriting provides a rich opportunity to create and express fully. And it gives us reasons to pursue. Following these three pursuits will enrich your life and provide enrichment to others through sharing.

Pine white woodpecker hole5

Woodpecker hole in white pine tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Step 1, MOTIVATION: Find several people you wish to communicate with on a deeper level and wish to entertain and inform. Think beyond your Facebook or Twitter audience (though, I do draw inspiration from wishing to share my photography with them). They could even be your next door neighbour! Of course, you need something to share; that’s where Step 2 comes in.

Step 2, CURIOSITY and DISCOVERY: Find a place that you can observe; the natural world is incredibly suited to discovery. Look high and low, slow your pace and use all your senses. Listen. Smell. Feel. Remember to look up. And look down on the ground. Nature hides some of her most precious gems there. Find something familiar and find something new. Invest in a guidebook.

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2Research what you’ve found on the Internet; find out more about something you’ve observed. For instance, why does the willow have such a shaggy bark? Why do alders grow so well near the edges of streams? What role do sowbugs play in the ecosystem? What do squirrels eat? What is that bird doing on my lawn? Start a phenology study (how something changes over the seasons). Keep tabs on the birds you see and what they’re doing. You can find several examples of mine in the links below.

Step 3, CREATIVITY and EXPRESSION: Depending on your relationship with people you are writing to and their own interests, you may tailor your letters with printed pictures, sketches and drawings, maps, quotes, and news clippings. This part can be really fun and can draw on all your creative talents. Let what you see and discover inspire you. Find a “story” in it and share it with someone. You can find more examples on ways to express yourself in my guidebook on writing journals: The Journal Writer.

 

Cedar bench river-JC

Bench next to cedar trees on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exploring and creativity don’t just cure boredom; they are good for your health:

EcologyOfStoryExpressive writing — whether in the form of journaling, blogging, writing letters, memoir or fiction — improves health. Over the past twenty years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. In control experiments with college students, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) demonstrated that college students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over four consecutive days, experienced significant health benefits four months later. Long term benefits of expressive writing include improved lung and liver function, reduced blood pressure, reduced depression, improved functioning memory, sporting performance and greater psychological well-being. The kind of writing that heals, however, must link the trauma or deep event with the emotions and feelings they generated. Simply writing as catharsis won’t do.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes: “Far more than a quick Selfie, a written response explores the range of the experience.  It both saves an instant from being lost in time, and holds on to the live matter of the writer’s feeling.  If shared, both writer and audience can return to that moment and draw healing from it.  What’s more, as many studies on volunteer work have shown, the process of sharing is a healing act.”

In Part 1 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I talk about many of the interesting things in the natural world around us. In Part 2, I give many of these things meaning in story. The guidebook also has several writing exercises to capture the muse.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIn Chapter K of my writing guidebook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!, I talk about writing what you know and what you discover. It’s more than you think. “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.”

My journal writing guidebook The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice provides advice and exercises on how to create a positive experience in observing, creating, journaling and letter or memoir writing.

 

Restoring the Lost Art of Handwriting

writing-notebook02

Nina writing in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Handwriting is a wonderful thing. It slows us down. It is a sensual and intimate way for us to express ourselves. I love my handwriting, especially when I am using my favorite pen (my handwriting changes depending on the pen), my Cross fountain pen — usually black. When you use a pen or pencil to express yourself you have more ways to express your creativity. Think of the subtleties of handwriting alone: changing the quality and intensity of strokes; designing your script, using colors, symbols, arrows or lines, using spaces creatively, combining with drawing and sketches. In combination with the paper (which could be lined, textured, colored graphed, etc.), your handwritten expression varies as your many thoughts and moods.

The very act of handwriting focuses you. Writing your words by hand connects you more tangibly to what you’re writing through the physical connection of pen to paper. Researchers have proven that just picking up a pencil and paper to write out your ideas improves your ability to think, process information and solve problems. The actual act of writing out the letters takes a little more work in your brain than just typing them on a keyboard, and that extra effort keeps your mind sharp. Researchers have also shown that writing something out by hand improves your ability to remember it. Handwriting improves memory, increases focus, and the ability to see relationships.

Handwriting fuses physical and intellectual processes. American novelist Nelson Algren wrote, “I always think of writing as a physical thing.” Hemmingway felt that his fingers did much of his thinking for him.

writing-notebook04According to Dr. Daniel Chandler, semiotician at Aberystwith University, when you write by hand you are more likely to discover what you want to say. When you write on a computer, you write “cleanly” by editing as you go along and deleting words (along with your first thoughts). In handwriting, everything remains, including the words you crossed out. “Handwriting, both product and process,” says Chandler, “is important … in relation to [your] sense of self.” He describes how the resistance of materials in handwriting increases the sense of self in the act of creating something. There is a stamp of ownership in the handwritten words that enhances a sense of “personal experience.”

Path-CreditRiver-oct2018

Path along Credit River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I know this is true in my own writing experience. This is why, although I do much of my drafting on the computer, I find that some of my greatest creative moments come to me through the notebook, which I always keep with me. Writing in my own hand is private and resonates with informality and spontaneity (in contrast to the fixed, formal look and public nature of print). Handwriting in a notebook is, therefore, a very supportive medium of discovery and the initial expression of ideas.

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

 

References:

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

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press. 172pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Pixl Press. 200pp.

 

Links:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest
Ecology, Story & Stranger Things
The Little Rouge in Winter: Up Close and Personal
The Phenology of the Little Rouge River and Woodland
White Willow–A Study
The Yellow Birch–A Study

 

 

nina-2014aaa

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

 

The Writer’s Way

Any time you identify a wasteland element in your life—illness, boredom, lethargy, alienation, emptiness, loss, addiction, failure, anger, or outrage—it is time to take a journey—Carol S. Pearson

 

Turkey Tail bracket fungus on tree

Turkey Tail mushroom on tree in Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Compelling stories resonate with the universal truths of metaphor within the consciousness of humanity. Good fiction—and non-fiction—reveals both personal and universal truths through metaphor. It is revealing, given that it reflects you.

All stories consist of common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies and known collectively as “The Hero’s Journey”. According to Joseph Campbell, good storytelling involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story. “Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself….you become the carrier of something that is given to you from … the Muses or God…Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” I call this tapping into the universal truth where metaphor lives. A story comes alive when these two resonate.

Carol Pearson tells us that, “if we do not risk, if we play prescribed social roles instead of taking our journeys, we may feel numb and experience a sense of alienation, a void, an emptiness inside. People who are discouraged from slaying dragons internalize the urge and ‘slay themselves’… they suppress their feelings in order to become successful performance machines… become chameleons, killing off their uniqueness to serve an image they think buys success or just will keep them safe. When we declare war on our true selves, we can end up feeling as though we have lost our souls…in shying away from the quest, we experience nonlife and… experience the wasteland.”

Writing is power. Writing is motion. Writing is story. From the moment you start scrawling words on paper, sketch, move paintbrush over canvas, or touch the computer keyboard, you are telling a story. Writing expressively such as a journal, memoir, letter or fiction is telling your story.

When we share our stories, when we write testimony, we are no longer allowing ourselves to be silenced or allowing others to speak for our experience. Writing to heal and making it public “is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time,” says Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing As a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing.

Happy New Year!

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2This article contains excerpted material from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice (Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu

 

References:

  • Louise DeSalvo: “Writing As a Way of Healing”, Beacon Press, Boston. 226pp; “The Art of Slow Writing”, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 336pp
  • Nina Munteanu: “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice“, Pixl Press, 2013, 129pp
  • Carol Pearson: 1998. “The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By”. Harper. San Francisco. 338pp.

 

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.

Writing in Your Own Hand

writing-notebook05

writing in a cafe (photo by Nina Munteanu)

How many of you still handwrite? I don’t just mean a letter to a friend or relative (although handwritten letters are growing increasingly rare) or a reminder to do something or shopping list. I’m referring to writing prose, creative non-fiction, poetry or any kind of expression with a pen or pencil.

University student Cynthia Selfe shared, “I like the motion, pushing that lead across the page…filling up pages … I like flipping papers and the action of writing. It makes me feel close to what I’m saying.”

Handwriting is an art that many of us are losing.

A June 2014 New York Times article by Maria Konnikova shares neuro-scientific evidence that links handwriting with a broader educational development. “Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters—but how.” Experiments done with young children showed that when they drew a letter freehand, they showed increased activity in three areas of the brain activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex. Children who typed or traced the letter showed no such effect. Researchers at Indiana University attributed the differences to the messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: “not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable,” reported Konnikova. That variability may itself be a learning tool. “When a kid produces a messy letter,” said Dr. Karin James, psychologist at Indiana University, “that might help him learn it.”

We learn best heuristically, through experience. It’s known that the more senses you engage in an experience, the more efficiently you will learn and more likely you will retain what you learned.

Handwriting slows us down. It is a sensual and intimate way for us to express ourselves. I love my handwriting, especially when I am using my favorite pen (my handwriting changes depending on the pen), a fine felt marker — usually black. When you use a pen or pencil to express yourself you have more ways to express your creativity. Think of the subtleties of handwriting alone: changing the quality and intensity of strokes; designing your script, using colors, symbols, arrows or lines, using spaces creatively, combining with drawing and sketches. In combination with the paper (which could be lined, textured, colored graphed, etc.), your handwritten expression varies as your many thoughts and moods.

writing-notebook01

Writing in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The very act of handwriting focuses you. Writing your words by hand connects you more tangibly to what you’re writing through the physical connection of pen to paper. Researchers have proven that just picking up a pencil and paper to write out your ideas improves your ability to think, process information and solve problems. The actual act of writing out the letters takes a little more work in your brain than just typing them on a keyboard, and that extra effort keeps your mind sharp. Researchers have also shown that writing something out by hand improves your ability to remember it. Handwriting improves memory, increases focus, and the ability to see relationships.

Handwriting fuses physical and intellectual processes. American novelist Nelson Algren wrote, “I always think of writing as a physical thing.” Hemmingway felt that his fingers did much of his thinking for him.

According to Dr. Daniel Chandler, semiotician at Aberystwith University, when you write by hand you are more likely to discover what you want to say. When you write on a computer, you write “cleanly” by editing as you go along and deleting words (along with your first thoughts). In handwriting, everything remains, including the words you crossed out. “Handwriting, both product and process,” says Chandler, “is important … in relation to [your] sense of self.” He describes how the resistance of materials in handwriting increases the sense of self in the act of creating something. There is a stamp of ownership in the handwritten words that enhances a sense of “personal experience.”

writing-notebook02

Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I know this is true in my own writing experience. This is why, although I do much of my drafting of novel, article and short story on the computer, I find that some of my greatest creative moments come to me through the notebook, which I always keep with me. Writing in my own hand is private and resonates with informality and spontaneity (in contrast to the fixed, formal look and public nature of print). Handwriting in a notebook is, therefore, a very supportive medium of discovery and the initial expression of ideas.

“I am certainly no calligrapher,” admits novelist and poet Wendell Berry, “but my handwritten pages have a homemade, handmade look to them that both pleases me in itself and suggests the possibility of ready correction.” Writer John O’Neill calls handwriting “bodily art.” He suggests that, “the writer’s fingers and the page are a working ensemble, and alternation of intelligible space and spatialized intelligence.”

Berry goes on to share that: “Language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands. Reading aloud what we have written — as we do, if we are writing carefully — our language passes in at the eyes, out at the mouth, in at the ears the words are immersed and steeped in the senses of the body before they make sense in the mind. They cannot make sense in the mind until they have made sense in the body. Does shaping one’s words with one’s own hand impart character and quality to them, as does speaking them with one’s own tongue to the satisfaction of one’s own ear?… I believe that it does.”

Cursive Writing: Losing More Than an Art Form

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Writing in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

John Boone’s November 15th 2013 article on Eonline reads: “Cursive handwriting will no longer be taught in schools because it’s a big, old waste of time”. Besides the controversy at the time—it’s old news now—I was curious to read how seven states, namely California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Utah, fought to keep cursive in the curriculum, arguing that it helped distinguish the literate from the illiterate. “Joke’s on them because all kids are illiterate these days,” Boone scoffs. He cites computers as the reason. Of course. Let’s not forget texting on Smart phones and other communication devices that encourage the use of a bastardized form of English. Schools promote keyboarding as a productive alternative based on its direct application to career success. But what about the subtle, integrative, sociological, psychological and creative benefits of handwriting?

There is a spill-over benefit for thinking skills used in reading and writing. Research has shown that learning cursive writing is directly related to literacy, the ability to read well and to comprehension generally. Scientists discovered that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development. The brain develops functional specialization through cursive writing that integrates sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of brain become co-activated during the learning of cursive writing of pseudo-letters, as opposed to typing or just visual practice. To write legible cursive, fine motor control is needed over the fingers. You have to pay attention and think about what and how you are doing it. You have to practice. Brain imaging studies show that cursive activates areas of the brain that don’t participate in keyboarding. Psychologists at Princeton and the University of California reported that students learned better when they took notes by hand than when they typed on a keyboard. Handwriting, they reported, allowed the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it, to reflect and manipulate that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.

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Writing at Niagara Falls (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In an April 2013 New York Times article, Kate Gladstone contended that handwriting matters, but not cursive. She further shared that adults increasingly abandon cursive. A recent survey of handwriting teachers revealed that over half used a hybrid of cursive and print: some elements resembling print-writing, others resembling cursive. I myself have adopted this hybrid form of handwriting since grade five (despite the authoritative perambulations of my teacher). But, if I hadn’t learned cursive to begin with, I wouldn’t be in the position to hybridize it with print. Cursive remains a life-skill, whose subtle merits we have yet, and may never, fully discern. Instead of using Gladstone’s inappropriate metaphors of abacus or slide rule, learning cursive is better compared with learning notes for music or learning how to add, subtract and divide to do higher math.

We are poised to slide down an insidious and dangerous path. To willingly give up a basic ability and skill that will inevitably close doors in knowledge, particularly historical knowledge, is akin to handing over a piece of your freedom and heritage. It is actually more insidious than that: When your son Johnny can’t sign his own name on a document, he loses more than his ability to identify himself as a unique individual and citizen with inalienable rights; he has lost his very identity. Printing your name is akin to marking X. And that’s the situation some kids are finding themselves in today.

In another New York Times article, Morgan Polikoff recommends that educators and policymakers resist the urge to add more skills (referring to cursive, as if it hadn’t been there to begin with). “Doing so would simply result in a crowded, less-focused curriculum, undermining the strength of the standards,” Polikoff ended. I find this ironic; because the reality is that cursive writing as a taught skill goes hand in hand with active handwriting. If time is not devoted to cursive, it’s not devoted to handwriting. And THAT will have grave consequences. The truth is that going to exclusive print-writing will eventually lead to no handwriting at all. Students will opt to use keyboarding exclusively and handwriting will go the way of the slide rule and the abacus. How will the exclusive use of the keyboard affect the act of writing and expression, generally? It will be certainly at the expense of artistic expression and creativity itself.

“Many people now cannot form legible letterforms at all except by tapping on a keyboard. For those people, writing and the alphabet have, quite literally, ceased to be human. How do you expect to be able to cook good food or make good love when you write with prefabricated letters? How do you expect to have good music if you live on a typographic diet of bad Helvetica and even worse Times New Roman—never mind the parodies of letters that flash across your cellphone screens and the parodies of numbers marching over the screens of your pocket calculators and cash-dispensing machines? How can things so ill-formed have a meaning?”—Wendel Berry, The Typographic Mind (in Everywhere Being Is Dancing)

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Birch trees in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

In medieval times only a small elite could read and write; they created the stories and recorded them in glorious illuminated manuscripts for future storytellers. They created history. The masses made do with handing down stories through oral storytelling, which, because it was not tangibly recorded, morphed and was eventually lost like water down a flowing river. The power lay in the script. What was handed down.

If we are not careful, the ability to read and write will become the sole pursuit of an elite, those few who will hold the key to interpreting the past. And ultimately controlling the future.

 

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, British Columbia. 172pp.

 

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.

Why We Need to Write

Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change—Ingrid Bengis

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Moss-covered creek in Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re all writers here… But how many of us, when asked about what we do, respond with “I write” or “I’m writing a book” or “I write stories”? I know. It’s complicated. It’s so much easier to leave that part out of our busy and serious lives. Besides, what do you say when the inevitable question of “so, what have you published?” comes up? All too often in North America, if you are not yet published you aren’t considered a writer. Until you’re published, you and your writing aren’t taken seriously. Even after I was published, my husband called my writing a hobby. He’s my ex-husband now.

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Friend Anne walks among the giants, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What my ex-husband failed to recognize, but you and I know in our hearts, is that we live to write and write to live. Writing is the breath and light of our soul and the well-spring of our very essence. Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.” That was every bit as true when he was unpublished as after he’d published a bazillion books. This is more than metaphoric truth; it is scientifically proven.

Expressive writing — whether in the form of journaling, blogging, writing letters, memoir or fiction — improves health. Over the past twenty years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. In control experiments with college students, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) demonstrated that college students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over four consecutive days, experienced significant health benefits four months later. Long term benefits of expressive writing include improved lung and liver function, reduced blood pressure, reduced depression, improved functioning memory, sporting performance and greater psychological well-being. The kind of writing that heals, however, must link the trauma or deep event with the emotions and feelings they generated. Simply writing as catharsis won’t do.

Whether you publish or not, your writing is important and worthwhile. Take ownership of it, nurture it, and hold it sacred. Command respect from others and respect all writers in turn; don’t let ignorance intimidate you to silence. My colleague, Louise DeSalvo wrote in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing:

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Boardwalk among giant cedars, Revelstoke Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t or who want to write more but say they can’t find the time, have told me that taking the time to write seems, 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 … What, though, if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important and as basic a human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful good, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

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Mossy cedar, Revelstoke Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Of course, in our hearts we know this is true. DeSalvo adds of her long journey toward accepting writing in her life: “I didn’t know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write … I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing … all you need to know about your craft … I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

Writing, like any form of creativity, requires faith; in ourselves and in others. And that’s scary. It’s scary because it requires that we relinquish control. All the more reason to write. Resistance is a form of self-destruction, says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way (1992). We resist to maintain some idea of control but instead we increase depression, anxiety, and confusion. Booth et al (1997) found that written disclosure significantly reduces physiological stress on the body caused by inhibition. We were born to create. Why do we demure and resist? Because, says Cameron, “we have bought the message of our culture … [that] we are meant to be dutiful and then die. The truth is that we are meant to be bountiful and live.”

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Nina Munteanu in bliss with giant cedar tree, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

Joseph Campbell wrote: “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.” Cameron adds, “It is the inner commitment to be true to ourselves and follow our dreams that triggers the support of the universe. While we are ambivalent, the universe will seem to us also to be ambivalent and erratic.”

Seize the muse and proclaim it proudly. I AM A WRITER.

 

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.