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.

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

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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.”

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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

 

 

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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.