Wake up Your Muse–How my Cat Taught Me the Art of Being…

Sammy

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. In the bliss of cat-purr-meditation…

sammy-2010-01_edited-1Pinned 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. Giving in to the cat-purr-meditation.

And 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:

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Sammy hunting

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.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also unclutters 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 writer’s 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 group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.cat-in-the-park

Practice Cat-Purr-Meditation: you need a willing cat for this; I find that I need tostudy my cat’s meditative practices; where does he most like to relax? Mine loves to look outside the window onto the back yard and garden. That’s where I take him and there, together, we breathe deep and “purr” in the moment…You can read more about purring cat meditation in my Alien Next Door post, “Perfecting the Cat Purr Meditation

 

 

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.

My Writing Retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

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Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

When I’m not teaching writing at UofT in Toronto, I’m often writing at home. And if I’m not writing at home, I’m often traveling to where I will write. You get the picture: I’m a writer. My website mantra reads: “I live to write; I write to live.”

I’m always looking for great places to write, to synthesize observations and experiences for an article or to plot my next novel. As writers, we are constantly studying the nature of our surroundings, how people interact, what they do, how events affect us and more. Writing is as much about experiencing life as writing about it. But we need both to flourish: something to write about and a place to write about it.

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Noble Restaurant, Prince of Wales Hotel

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Horse and carriage on King Street

Recently a good friend of mine lured me out of town on a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake. She didn’t blink an eye when I grabbed my computer and happily accompanied her on our wonderful adventure. We started at the Prince of Wales Hotel, named in honour of the 1901 visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were later crowned King George V and Queen Mary.

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Fred Gamula

We got there just in time for supper in the elegant and panoramic Noble restaurant. Of course, we had to order the divine “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu”, a four-course meal, paired with several fine wines. Sommelier Fred Gamula guided us through the “Grand Hotel Tasting Menu” of crisp romaine hearts, grilled chili marinated quail, pan seared trout and Grand Hotel Opera cake. Each course was paired with a wine that brought out the best in each; from an Inniskillin Chardonnay Reserve to a Flat Rock Twisted, to a Cave Spring Gamay and finally a Taylor Fladgate port. Gamula and I got into a diverting conversation about looking after the environment and water (I later gave him a copy of my book “Water Is…”).

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Patio of Prince of Wales Hotel

Gamula grew up on a small fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake and has seen some changes in the area due to development. Some not so good. We agreed that the trick is to embrace influx while preserving the very reason for that influx—to enjoy and preserve the wonderful country, vineyards and wineries in the area.

I found a wonderful place to write on the Churchill Room patio facing King Street, where the horses and carriages waited for customers. As the sun set, I drank my Campari and orange juice and wrote my novel to the cheerful sounds of birds, rustling trees and exploring people.

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Nina and her favourite hippo

The next morning we wandered Queen Street before heading out to explore wine country. Curious about Reiner’s window display, I wandered into what I thought was a leather shop—expecting the usual fare such as purses, satchels, belts and the like; but it turned out to be a speciality leather ottoman store.

HippoOttomanThese weren’t ordinary ottomans—they were all animals! Hippos, bears, moose, elephants and pigs stood on stout legs, begging for a nice home to live in.

The store is named after leather crafter Reiner Henneveld who came to Canada in 1950 from Germany and created his first animal-shaped ottoman in the shape of a pig—after his pet pig, Wilbur. Reiner’s two sons have taken up the craft with a commitment to individual design and workmanship that includes hand sewing, cutting and stuffing and using the finest upholstery leather. I found them comfortable and very attractive.

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Wayne Gretzky with his “99”

After lunch we visited old favourites and explored new vineyards and wineries. Wayne Gretzky Estates recently opened its winery and distillery on Old Stone Road. The estate is getting known for its No. 99 Red Cask Canadian Whisky; “the same soils that produce great grapes also grow grains that are used to produce whisky,” they write. The whisky is made in small batches from rye, malted rye and corn that has been individually mashed, fermented and distilled. After aging, the whisky is finished with red wine casks from the Wayne Gretzky winery.

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General store of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

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Pork chop, sea-salted bread and Sangria at the Ravine restaurant

The Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery is an old haunt for its charming and diversely stocked general store and its rustic-style restaurant with imaginative and surprising menus. Both inside and outside seating offer vistas of undulating countryside and the sounds of a working vineyard. Another great place to write!

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A sparrow sings his heart out on his very own house in Ravine vineyard

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Free range chickens roam the vineyard at Ravine

I’m half-inclined to shift over to writing a murder-mystery series about a young recent George Brown graduate who comes to Niagara-on-the-Lake to work as a Sommelier in one of the hotels—only to find intrigue and—of course—a murder to solve. What do you think?…

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Places to Write: My Secret Places at The University of Toronto

notebook01In my writing guidebook The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice I write a section on finding the right time and place to write. I call them “sacred”, because that’s what they are. Without them, we struggle to write. In Chapter Two of The Journal Writer I write about the need for a sacred place in journal writing, particularly. The advice is equally important to any form of writing.

Journal Writer-FRONT-cover-WEBFinding the perfect place(s) to write … is important to creating meaningful entries. Journal writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment for you. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you relax, find a connection with yourself and your feelings. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your thoughts. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

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

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to the content of your entries. Entries you make while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from entries you make while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle. I give more details on how to feed the muse in Chapter 4.

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Sitting in Krave’s outside patio

Some of my favourite places to write are indie cafés that express unique character and rich ambience. Amid the desultory chatter and laughter of people and sipping my flat white, I find myself deep in writing. These days you can most likely find me somewhere on the University of Toronto campus where I teach engineering students, social science students, and health science students how to write.

It’s been four years since I came to UofT and I still feel a glow every time I walk through campus. Whether it’s past a century-old stone building, beneath a canopied archway of chestnuts, into a well-treed enclave, or through a high-ceilinged glass building; I am both home and on an adventure.

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Convocation Hall, UofT

UofT is a place of learning—erudite, splendid, lofty yet humble—and beautifully epitomizing “new embracing old”. When new embraces old, we get magic. Wizard-magic. Harry Potter kind of magic. The kind of magic that only someone who is open, faithful, and confident can wield. This is ancient magic. The magic that lurks like Reznikoff’s ghost in the ancient halls of University College, or the magic currently wielded at 1 Spadina. A magic borne of wisdom, lore, and story.

Established in 1827, the University of Toronto is snugly located in the centre of downtown Toronto; yet, it’s not so much a part of the city as the city is a part of it.  UofT’s campus probes into the city’s infrastructure like a creative amoeba: interacting, absorbing and expressing. The UofT downtown campus sprawls dozens of blocks in all directions; embedding itself in the city with a blend of century-old buildings and avant-garde modern chic. It’s not so much re-inventing itself at every turn as morphing and co-evolving with the city.

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Clock tower, UofT

The UofT campus represents for me the very best the city—any city—has to offer: a vibrant, well-connected place of learning and activity, supported by original and tasteful landscape architecture: healthy trees and parkland full of songbirds, tasteful new and old architecture and alluring courtyards and doorways that beckon my creative soul. The UofT campus provides a myriad of possibilities and historic depth for the adventurous soul. Did you know, for instance, that Canada’s first electric computer was installed at UofT? Or that UofT is haunted? Or that much of UofT’s architecture was inspired by structures at Oxford and Cambridge? Or that an old nuclear accelerator sits fallow in the McLennan Physical Labs building?

My creative soul appreciates UofT’s integration of nature into its architecture and grounds. Its natural enclaves provide ideal settings for quiet contemplation and reflection. They’ve become my “secret places,” destinations along my journeys across campus to my various writing appointments. Places where I can sit, reflect and write. Here are just a few:

  1. Terrence Donnelly’s Bamboo Garden in Terrence Donnelly Centre:
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Steps leading up past bamboo garden of Terrence Donnelly Centre

The Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research (CCBR) is where some of the coolest research and discoveries in biomolecular and cellular research are being made. Benjamin Blencowe and his team’s recent uncovering a protein’s sweeping influence on autism last December using introverted mice, for instance. Named after the philanthropist Terrence J. Donnelly, the centre was the vision of UofT Professors Cecil Yip and James Friesen.

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View of garden resting area from above

In the 1990s they foresaw that new genomic technologies would open-up progress in biomedical research in a time when there was no human genome sequence or stem cell technologies and DNA sequencing was slow and inexpensive. Yip and Friesen envisioned a collaborative and interdisciplinary research facility that, when it opened in 2005, brought together over 500 specialists—biologists, computer scientists, physicians, pharmacists and engineers—to advance the university’s groundbreaking research in molecular biology.

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View of Rosebrugh wall from the garden

The centre is located on what was previously Taddle Creek Road. The CCBR building—which from College Street resembles two colourful stacked cubes—is set back by a gradually sloping plaza with granite benches and groves of white paper birch. The building and plaza are flanked by several historic buildings (80-year old Fitzgerald Medical Building to the east; the 1919 Rosebrugh Institute of Biomaterials and 100-year old Lassonde Mining building to the west; and the Medical Sciences Building to the north).

 

The bamboo garden in Donnelly’s spacious atrium is meditative and calming; a lush forest of bamboo and shrubs amidst wooden floors, benches and steps. Created by landscape architect Diana Gerrard, the garden offers several “picnic” sites of wooden platforms and benches, which I learned had come from the ash, tulip and cherry trees that had occupied the original lane way.

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Entranceway with bamboo garden of Terrence Donnelly Centre

Upon entering the complex from College Street, the granite plaza gives way to white terrazzo flooring in an expansive multi-story atrium. The top lit glass-ceilinged atrium connects the adjacent heritage Rosebrugh building to the CCBR in a counterpoint of techno-minimalism with Romanesque tradition. As I walk up the shallow wide steps lined by pillars that reach skyward, the tall bamboo forest to my left beckons. I’ve had many lunches there. I also spend many moments sitting there with a book, reading or just daydreaming beneath a texture of greens.

  1. Breezeway of Knox College Quad:
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Knox College breezeway in winter

I usually enter the perpendicular gothic style building from St. George Street; though, you can also come in via Kings College Circle, past the chapel—known for its Hellmuth Wolff organ. Once I pass through the heavy doors of the St. George entrance, I enter a dark foyer and instantly feel like I’m in a church. The chapel is on the other side, yet the deep quiet and surrounding dark wood of the floors, walls and stairways to the right and left of me, enclose me with a sense of sacred holiness. I walk the echoing foyer to the stained-glass doorway of the breezeway ahead. As I open the glass door, the complex scent of tulips and pine greets me with the warm breeze. I have entered another magic place.

The gothic archway that connects the Knox College Quad is an open breezeway that looks out onto the interior gardens of the quad. Tables and chairs along each side provide a peaceful place to read and write with a quiet view of the outside courtyard of flowers, shrubs, trees and benches. Hanging vines provide additional greenery in the archway.

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Knox College breezeway through courtyard

Whenever I come here, the hustle and bustle of the city just fades away. Busy St. George Street is nearby; yet I don’t feel its influence within this quiet haven, where the soft sounds of Nature embrace me with their songs and stories. I often come here to read and write. I listen to the birds and other natural sounds, letting them lull me into a meditative quietude of bliss. Life slows to a philosopher’s pace and my creative muse awakens. Sometimes I bring one of my indulgences—a poutine from one of the chip trucks on St. George—and feast in my secret place as Nature’s melodies feed my soul. On a warm day, the breezeway also provides a cool respite.

  1. The Laidlaw Quadrangle behind University College
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West gate into University College courtyard

When I first discovered this hidden quadrangle, I felt goosebumps of pure magic course through me. My discovery visit was through the west arched entranceway off the west green, past Bissell House. I passed the gateway into the Courtyard Colonnade, and faced a sunken courtyard shaded by large ironwood and maple trees and surrounded by gothic brick and stone. I’d entered an enchanting world of quiet reflection.

A paved walkway—supported by retaining walls and planted with flowering shrubs—runs on three sides of the quadrangle. The walkway broadens into a terrace to the north, forming an extension of the new Library colonnade. Mature maple and ironwood trees overhang the cloisters and the walkway.

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West colonnade of quadrangle

Designed by Canadian landscape architect Michael Hough, the quadrangle evokes the courtyards of medieval monasteries and old English universities. Built in 1964, when the Laidlaw wing (and library) separated the college from back campus, Hough’s design translates the essential feature of a monastery or college courtyard—access from inside the building to a covered walk around an open centre—from architecture to landscape.

 

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View of courtyard (to left) from west cloister of University College

I’ve since discovered other ways to enter and leave the quadrangle, each one presenting a new perspective to this peaceful place. Each time I come here, I feel my soul sigh with joy. Birds sing the poetry of Nature. Leaves rustle as the wind plays on them. When I’m here, I feel at peace in the city.

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UofT Faculty Club

UofT Faculty Club: Every journey requires repast—a place to relax, eat and drink—and my feet naturally direct me to one of my new favourite haunts: the UofT Faculty Club. Located close to the hub of the campus, on Willcocks Street just east of Spadina, the club is open to members who include faculty, staff, graduate alumni and their guests. I enter the 1896 heritage building, built in a Georgian Revival-style, and passed the elegant first floor lounge to the pub below. The pub welcomes me with excellent food, drink and a relaxing ambience. Bathed in rich tones of wood and comfortable chairs and warmed by a cozy fireplace, it reminds me of a Dorset pub I’d visited years ago; full of colourful characters and a well-stocked bar.

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Windows of University College

I feel both at home and like a traveler. Like I’d walked into history with modern comfort. I order the beet salad from my friendly waitress; it provides a refreshing and attractive light meal for a mid-day travelling writer.

Nina Munteanu

Nina 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.

 

Pictures by Nina Munteanu

 

 

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.

 

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

christmas-ballsHow 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.winter walk

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-sammyMy 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.winter deer trees

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.

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

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.

Feeding the Muse: Going on a “Writer’s Date”

SONY DSCLate Sunday afternoon, minutes after my last panel and still exalted from stimulating sharing at Ad Astra 2015, I threw off my jacket and put on my sandals then drove west on the 401 in search of adventure. A playful wind blew as I reached my destination: Niagara on the Lake.

This was my first writer’s date this year. And, in truth, I’d almost forgotten to attend the SF con because I was so excited about my date. No, it wasn’t that kind of date; more like a mini-writer’s retreat. Julia Cameron coined the term “artist’s date” to define any kind of muse-feeding activity. The key is to do it ALONE. Basically an artist/writer date is a block of time you set aside to nurture your creative muse. In its primary form, says Cameron, “the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers…That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children—no taggers-on of any stripe.”

It’s just you and your inner-artist: your inner creative child.

My Writer’s Date started with Niagara on the Lake and La Toscana di Carlotta, possibly NOTL’s primo Bed and Breakfast (go check the rave reviews on Trip Advisor). Located close to King Street in the historic village, the B&B is a lovely heritage house with beautifully designed rooms. Carlotta passionately prepares an authentic Italian breakfast that includes freshly squeezed orange juice, yogurt and fresh fruit, bread, crostini, eggs created like a work of art and even dessert! But that’s not even the best part; both Carlotta and partner Kash are such beautiful people and wonderful hosts. You start out thinking they’re so interesting and end up embracing them as friends.

I stayed 2 days and my activities included a evening walks through the charming historic town (where Il Gelato di Carlotta is a must—considered a gem by actress Moya O’Connel), several ice-wine tastings, walks along the Niagara River and even a blitz look at Niagara Falls and Tesla’s statue.notebook01

It was a dizzying sensory intake, tempered with wonderful reflection to Nature’s awakening. Spring in southern Ontario lies just on the cusp of bursting into its full glory. I could smell its intent on the warm breeze and in the joyful excitement of birds and butterflies in the still-Spartan forest. At the edge of the wooded bluff I found a moss-covered log to sit on and listened to the water lapping below. I pulled out my new fountain pen and notepad and started to write. I’d left my computer behind and revelled in the pen flowing across the paper, forming words like a magician.

I had set no solid itinerary (except that I had to be back in Toronto to teach the next day). And, because of it, I experienced everything with the open wonder that comes with no expectation. I relaxed and explored. I poked around and smelled the dirt. I napped. I dawdled. I went in circles and changed my mind. I chased after butterflies and listened to the wind. I got a hazelnut gelato and licked it slowly. I wandered off the forest path and got lost. I discovered an obscure winery and tasted Cabernet Franc ice wine. I wept to Bocelli and Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye” … Mama Mia! I took my socks and shoes off and took pictures of my feet (No, I didn’t then put them on Facebook). I sat on a forest path bench and read a book. I drove down roads I’d never been on and let them take me somewhere… I found myself somehow back at Il Gelato di Carlotta and decided that fate had brought me there to try another ice cream flavour.

notebook02Think of doing a writer’s date from time to time. If not consciously to re-awaken your Muse, then to let it know you care. Every muse needs a bit of tender loving care. Spend time in solitude. A long country walk. A stroll along the beach. An exploration of your own area at night or at the break of dawn.

You don’t even need to leave the house. In a panel I sat on with Kelly Armstrong at Ad Astra, she shared what a colleague of hers did. From time to time the colleague disappeared into the bathroom of her house with a snorkel. The snorkel was the critical element. With it, she could completely immerse herself in a dark calm and block out the whole outside world, leaving her with her own infinite universe.

The writer’s date is a gift you give yourself. It’s a gift of receiving, of opening yourself to discovery, wonder, and inspiration. It is ultimately a self-nurturing activity in which you let your child-self out to play. “The imagination-at-play is at the heart of all good work,” Cameron tells us. Cameron also warns that you may find yourself avoiding artist dates. “Recognize this resistance as a fear of intimacy—self-intimacy.”

It may be one of the hardest things to do. You (never mind others) will insist that it’s a selfish thing and you are shirking some duty you must be leaving behind with it. And you’ll find some reason to back out or include someone. Learn to guard against these invasions!

Keep it sacred. Let your imagination play and discover—or rediscover—what it loves.forest sparkle

As Carl Jung astutely observed, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

 

 

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.