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

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

Write About What You Know

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

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Nina Munteanu

Well, yes…and no…

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

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

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

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

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

Get Emotional

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

Get Sensational

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

Get People Around You

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

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

The Magic of Storytelling

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

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

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

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

Write Real

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nina Munteanu

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

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

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View outside my bedroom

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

 

Day 1: Saturday

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Honey Novick

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

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

Louis Hebert

Louis-Philippe Hebert

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

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Flavia Cosma

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

Felicia Mihali

Felicia Mihali

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

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

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

Day 2: Sunday

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

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Nane Couzier

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

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Jocelyne Dubois

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

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Claudiu Scrieciu of Nasul.TV Canada

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

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

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

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Toasting the international festival

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

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

Mulțumesc, Flavia! A fost minunat!

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

 

La raison pour laquelle j’écris

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

Je fais quelque chose d’important.

Je me connecte avec vous.

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

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

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

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

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

En pleine joie.

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

Limestone Genre Expo—One of Kingston’s Gems

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Nina Munteanu and Halli Villegas

I recently attended the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, Ontario. Held at the St. Lawrence College campus—ideally suited to a literary festival—the expo featured panels, readings, and workshops.

The festival was well attended by local, Canadian and international authors, editors, publishers, and readers—all committed to exploring literature, the arts and to having a good time.

Authors included Tanya Huff, Nancy Kilpatrick, Caro Soles, Violette Malan, Rick Blechta, Matthew Bin and Eve Langlais, among many others.

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Science Fiction GOH in 2016

Publishers included Exile Editions, Chizine Publications, Bundoran Press and others. Exile Editions recently published their anthology “Cli Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change” in which my story “The Way of Water” appears.

I was Limestone’s Science Fiction Guest of Honour last year; this year I got to relax and I sat on three panels.

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Nancy Kilpatrick

In “Alternative Histories to Cyberpunk“, I was joined on the panel by Matthew Bin, Maldonado Skaff-Koren, Eric Desmarais, Michael Romaric, Dominic Bercier, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Sean Moreland. We mostly discussed the literary device of alternative timelines and unanimously concluded that visionary science fiction that “failed” to predict the future was successful alternative “history”. This theme continued in the science fiction panel.

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverI brought up the notion of history’s quantum properties, a braided flow of multi-dimensional and entangled realities. This served as premise for my alternative historical time-travel fantasy The Last Summoner, which takes place in fifteenth century Poland. On her fourteenth birthday, the baroness Vivianne Von Grunwald discovers that she can change history as an aeon; but she soon realizes that, while she is able to change some disastrous historic event, its entangled “destiny” indelibly moves closer to the original consequence than her intended one: yet another disaster. My scientific approach to alternate history is what excited me to write this, my only fantasy so far among a dozen science fiction novels.

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Caro Soles

In the panel “The Science behind Science Fiction” I was joined by Katherine Prairie, Anita Dolman, Matthew Bin, Lisa Tooey, Kristen Kiomall, and A.A. Jankiewicz with moderator Caroline Frechette. We discussed the utility and risk of using pseudoscience in a science fiction story, a genre known for expectations of accuracy and prescience. In 1979, Ray Bradbury wrote: People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”

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Tanya Huff signs one of her books

Depending on whether the story is considered hard SF or soft SF, this level of accuracy in both actual science presented as premise and ability to predict science and technology will vary. Given that science fiction is largely metaphoric, the predictability of an SF story is secondary to the story’s value as metaphor and allegory. The consensus of the panel was that the audience determined the importance of precision and accuracy. In the final analysis, if the story is grounded in its own consistency, anything is possible.

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Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

In “Women in Genre” I was joined by Violette Malan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Eve Langland, Alyssa Cooper, Janet Kellogg, and Liz Lindsay with moderator Sandra Kasturi. The banter was by turns fun and edgy, all lubricated with good humour by all participants. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy of which 90% feature a “strong female protagonist”, I brought up the controversy of what, in fact, determines a good female lead in story. Why do so many heroines still provide just a kick-ass version of a male hero? Why are so many female protagonist heroes still defined by the rules of what makes a male a hero? Where are the real women?

Politics south of us aside—along with Margaret Atwood’s all too realistic Handmaid’s Tale (currently playing on Bravo TV), we discussed the recent push-back in Texas on the all-women showing of “Wonder Woman,” which prompted many heated tweets. The Atlantic recently published an article on the film—and surrounding events—entitled “Wonder Woman, Heroine of the Post-Truth Age.”wonder-woman-movie-poster

Wonder Woman is set at the height of World War I, but is otherwise a decidedly modern movie,” writes Megan Garber of The Atlantic. “It stars a woman (Gal Gadot) and treats a man, Steve (Chris Pine), as its damsel-in-distress. It has managed, even before its release, to enrage men’s-rights activists, which is quickly becoming a reliable measure of a movie’s modernity.”

wonderwoman-golden lassoWonder Woman uses a unique weapon, the Golden Lasso, known as the Lasso of Truth—because it compels anyone wrapped by it to reveal the truth.

When William Moulton Marston—scientist and inventor of the polygraph machine— created the Wonder Woman character, he envisioned a warrior who was also an investigator of truth. “Frankly,” he said, “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He believed that a world that gave women more power—politically and otherwise—would be more peaceful, more empathetic, more worthy, writes Garber. “And so Wonder Woman is a work that is decidedly at home, across its dimensions, in the world of 2017—a world that is on the one hand newly recognizing women’s widespread capabilities, but that is on the other deeply anxious about ‘alternative facts,’ about ‘fake news,’ about politically weaponized lies, about falsehoods that are uttered with no seeming consequence. The princess’s lasso, that shimmering metaphor for objective truth, is a symbol of aspiration; seen in another way, though, it is a symbol of despair. Here, in this wobbling weapon, is “wonder” as in awe; here, too, is “wonder” as in uncertainty. Here is a tool of truth that is decidedly ambivalent about its own powers. “How do I know you’re not lying to me right now?” the princess asks the spy. And the only way she can know for sure is to trust, paradoxically, in magic.”

Magic is OK, though. It is, after all, the stuff from which we draw when we write.

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Nina Munteanu, Science Fiction GOH at Limestone Genre Expo 2016

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.

Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

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

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

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

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

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

Choose a Sacred Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find Your Own Rhythm

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

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

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

Choose a Sacred Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Atwood, Water & The New York Times

“Water Is…” leads Atwood’s Pick for Books of 2016

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ny-times-theyearinreaingEvery year, near Christmas, The New York Times puts out “The Year in Reading” in which they ask notably avid readers—who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists—to share the books that accompanied them through that year.

For the 2016 Year In Reading, The Times asked a prestigious and diverse readership, including Junot Diaz, Paul Simon, Carl Bernstein, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elizabeth Banks, Samantha Power, Philip Pullman, Ann Pratchett, Orhan Pamuk, Drew Gilpin Fause, Anne Tyler, and many others to share their books of 2016.

There was also Booker Prize-winning and celebrated Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood.

atwood-margaretMargaret Atwood is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature as well as the Booker Prize (several times) and the Governor General’s Award. Animals and the environment feature in many of her books, particularly her speculative fiction, which reflects a strong view on environmental issues.atwood-angel-catbird

Several of her latest works (e.g., Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) are eco-fiction and may be considered climate fiction. Atwood and partner, novelist Graeme Gibson, are the joint honorary presidents of the Rare Bird Club within BirdLife International. Atwood’s highly popular graphic novel Angel Catbird reflects an environmental sensitivity to the balance between wildlife and humans and their pets in urban settings.

Atwood’s choice for 2016 books came from her active, astute and compassionate environmentalism. Suggesting that many of her ‘The Year in Reading’ co-readers would emphasize fiction, history and politics, Atwood chose her books “instead from a still-neglected sector. All hail, elemental spirits! You’re making a comeback!”

Here are the four books Atwood recommends and why:

  1. water-is-cover-webWater Is…: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press) by Nina Munteanu. “We can’t live without it, so maybe we should start respecting it,” says Atwood. “This beautifully designed book by a limnologist looks at water from 12 different angles, from life and motion and vibration to beauty and prayer.” Water is emerging as one of the single most important resources of Planet Earth. Already scarce in some areas, it has become the new “gold” to be bought, traded, coveted, cherished, hoarded, and abused worldwide. It is currently traded on the Stock Exchange…Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach.
  1. hiddenlifeoftreesThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World” (Greystone Books) by Peter Wohlleben. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. Much like human families, tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, and support them as they grow, sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. As a result of such interactions, trees in a family or community are protected and can live to be very old. In contrast, solitary trees, like street kids, have a tough time of it and in most cases die much earlier than those in a group. Drawing on groundbreaking new discoveries, Wohlleben presents the science behind the secret and previously unknown life of trees and their communication abilities; he describes how these discoveries have informed his own practices in the forest around him. As he says, a happy forest is a healthy forest, and he believes that eco-friendly practices not only are economically sustainable but also benefit the health of our planet and the mental and physical health of all who live on Earth.
  1. weeds-mabeyWeeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” (Ecco) by Richard Mabey. “They’re better for you than you think,” says Atwood. “They hold the waste spaces of the world in place, and you can eat some of them.” Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings. Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them. One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.
  1. birds-and-peopleBirds and People” (Jonathan Cape) by Mark Cocker. “Vast, historical, contemporary, many-levelled,” says Atwood. “We’ve been inseparable from birds for millenniums. They’re crucial to our imaginative life and our human heritage, and part of our economic realities.” Vast in both scope and scale, the book draws upon Mark Cocker’s forty years of observing and thinking about birds. Part natural history and part cultural study, it describes and maps the entire spectrum of our engagements with birds, drawing in themes of history, literature, art, cuisine, language, lore, politics and the environment. In the end, this is a book as much about us as it is about birds.

“Time to pay attention to the nonhuman life around us, without which human life would fail,” Atwood concludes.

As we enter a new year of great uncertainty, particularly on how we and our environment leaf-water drop copywill fare in a shifting political wind, these books offer diverse insight, a fresh and needed perspective and critical connection with our natural world–and each other through it.

Buy them, discuss them, share them. And save this planet.

Happy New Year!

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.

Crossing into the Ecotone to Write Meaningful Eco-Fiction

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”—George Bernard Shaw

 

naturalselectionAt Calgary’s When Words Collide this past August, I moderated a panel on Eco-Fiction with publisher/writer Hayden Trenholm, and writers Michael J. Martineck, Sarah Kades, and Susan Forest. The panel was well attended; panelists and audience discussed and argued what eco-fiction was, its role in literature and storytelling generally, and even some of the risks of identifying a work as eco-fiction.

Someone in the audience brought up the notion that “awareness-guided perception” may suggest an increase of ecological awareness in literature when it is more that readers are just noticing what was always there. Authors agreed and pointed out that environmental fiction has been written for years and it is only now—partly with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—that the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor; for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated— in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.

darwins-paradoxI submit that if we are noticing it more, we are also writing it more. Artists are cultural leaders and reporters, after all. My own experience in the science fiction classes I teach at UofT and George Brown College, is that I have noted a trend of increasing “eco-fiction” in the works in progress that students are bringing in to workshop in class. Students were not aware that they were writing eco-fiction, but they were indeed writing it.

I started branding my writing as eco-fiction a few years ago. Prior to that—even though my stories were strongly driven by an ecological premise and strong environmental setting—I described them as science fiction and many as technological thrillers. Environment’s role remained subtle and—at times—insidious. Climate change. Water shortage. Environmental disease. A city’s collapse. War. I’ve used these as backdrops to explore relationships, values (such as honour and loyalty), philosophies, moralities, ethics, and agencies of action. The stuff of storytelling.

Environment, and ecological characteristics were less “theme” than “character,” with which the protagonist and major characters related in important ways.

Snowpiercer-frenchJust as Bong Joon-Ho’s 2014 science fiction movie Snowpiercer wasn’t so much about climate change as it was about exploring class struggle, the capitalist decadence of entitlement, disrespect and prejudice through the premise of climate catastrophe. Though, one could argue that these form a closed loop of cause and effect (and responsibility).

snowpiercer-posterThe self-contained closed ecosystem of the Snowpiercer train is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front of the train enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), a man whose two intact arms suggest he hasn’t done his part to serve the community yet.

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that:

We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.  snowpiercer-mason

In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Ecotones are places where “lines are crossed,” where barriers are breached, where “words collide” and new opportunities arise. Sometimes from calamity. Sometimes from tragedy. Sometimes from serendipity.

When environment shapes a story as archetype—hero, victim, trickster, shadow or shape shifter—we get strong eco-fiction. Good eco-fiction, like any good story, explores the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. Good eco-fiction ventures into the ecotone of overlap, collision, exchange and ultimate change.

water-is-webIn my latest book Water Is… I define an ecotone as the transition zone between two overlapping systems. It is essentially where two communities exchange information and integrate. Ecotones typically support varied and rich communities, representing a boiling pot of two colliding worlds. An estuary—where fresh water meets salt water. The edge of a forest with a meadow. The shoreline of a lake or pond.

For me, this is a fitting metaphor for life, given that the big choices we must face usually involve a collision of ideas, beliefs, lifestyles or worldviews: these often prove to enrich our lives the most for having gone through them. Evolution (any significant change) doesn’t happen within a stable system; adaptation and growth occur only when stable systems come together, disturb the equilibrium, and create opportunity. Good social examples include a close friendship or a marriage in which the process of “I” and “you” becomes a dynamic “we” (the ecotone) through exchange and reciprocation. Another version of Bernard Shaw’s quote, above, by the Missouri Pacific Agriculture Development Bulletin reads: “You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.” This is ecotone.

winter-birch-sunset-snowI think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because ecosystems, ecology and environment are becoming more integral to story: as characters in their own right. I think we are seeing more eco-fiction out there because we are ready to see it. Just as quantum physics emerged when it did and not sooner, an idea—a thought—crystalizes when we are ready for it.

Don’t stay a shoe … go find an ecotone. Then write about it.

 

 

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.