The Writer’s Way

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

This article contains excerpted material from The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice golden misty forest light(Pixl Press, 2013) by Nina Munteanu

 

References:

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

 

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

Importance of Setting in a Novel

lamp-nature I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

house in fogSetting as Character

Settings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…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 snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs 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.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

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.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

louisville-icestorm-jan09-16Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • Use similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now!

 

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.

Are You a Closet Synesthete?

archetypes01“A person with synesthesia might hear and taste her husband’s voice as buttery golden brown, feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter J as shimmering magenta or the number 5 as emerald green,” says the introduction to David Eagleman and Richard Cytowic’s 2009 book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue. The book explores the neuroscience and genetics behind the multi-sensory experience called synesthesia.

In a strange and compelling May 2008 article in Wired Magazine entitled “Poetry Comes from Our Tree-Climbing Ancestors”, Brandon Kelm asks where synesthesia comes from:

“Perhaps [synesthetes] are under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs…Or maybe they’re simply good with metaphors,” he suggests irreverently. Kelm is actually pretty close to the truth, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who stressed that “what appears as metaphor is a literal sensory experience for synesthetes.” This may explain why synesthesia is eight times more common among poets, artists, novelists and women than the general population. According to Eagleman and Cytowic, one in twenty people experiences synesthesia in a palpable form.

According to Ramachandran, synesthesia developed to help our ancestors climb trees. “Doing so requires a vision-informed mental map of the branches before us,” says Kelm, “as well as a touch-informed mental map of our limbs’ positions. Somehow these have to correlate. Which is quite a trick, when you think about it. Once early primates pulled off that feat of abstraction, it wasn’t long
– evolutionarily speaking — before we were drawing on cave walls and whispering sweet nothings and holding Shakespeare revivals,” Kelm adds pithily.

Synesthesia comes from syn, for together, and aisthêsis, for sensation or perception in Greek. People with synesthesia experience a blending of the senses (e.g., sight and hearing) or of characteristics in a sense modality (e.g., associating colors with written letters). According to Eagleman and Cytowic synesthesia occurs when “a triggering stimulus evokes the automatic, involuntary, affect-laden, and conscious perception of a physical or conceptual property that differs from that of the trigger.” Synesthesia can involve not only the union of two or more different sense modalities, but also different dimensions of perception, such as spatial extension, personality or gender.

Synesthetic Metaphor in Literature

According to Lakoff and Johnson, “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”. However, “… metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. … [O]n the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (emphasis in original).

We use synesthetic metaphors all the time, without thinking about it. Examples of cross-sensory (synesthetic) metaphors include: “loud shirt,” “bitter wind” or “prickly laugh”, “dark sounds”, and “sweet smells”. Many of these cross-sensory terms have been so often used to become cliché.

I first made intentional use of synesthesic metaphors in my space thriller trilogy The Splintered Universe. The main protagonist was the human galactic detective Rhea Hawke, who’d been tecked as a young girl with the ability to smell emotions. The premise opened up for me an entire suite of delicious possibilities to describe feelings and emotions through metaphoric imagery and cross-senses (another reason I so love the genre of science fiction).

In the following scene Rhea goes against her first rule of engagement and lets a man into her life:

“Rhea, stay with me, here,” Serge whispered into my hair with sudden excitement. “Move in. Stay.”

I smelled his enticing fragrance of strawberries and musk and knew what I wanted to say.

“I’ll think about it.”

In the next scene, Rhea challenges new boyfriend, Serge, whose past she knows nothing about and he responds:

His face flushed and he smiled carelessly. “I must have dreamt it,” he said, emitting a burst of confusing aromas, a complex mixture of sweet meadow flowers, fishy smell of a lake, and the musk of bog and cottonwoods.

In the scene below, having determined that Serge is not an innocent bystander but a calculating spy, Rhea chases him to haul him into the precinct:

Then I spotted Serge. He’d run to the far end of the room.

Upon hearing me enter, he’d turned and met my gaze head on.

“Rhea!” he shouted, obviously feigning delighted surprise.

I knew he’d recognized me earlier during my pursuit. I’d smelled his spike of excitement. Now I felt him emit yet another smell, a rather pleasant mixture of fermenting fruit and young wine, and felt a thrill surge through me in response. I didn’t show it and pointed my MEC steadily at his chest with my lips pursed in venomous resolution.

A hunting dog will eventually lose its life on the mountain—old Chinese proverb.”

 

The Unity of the Senses

Synesthesia is far more common in children than adults. It is also thought to occur universally in infants during their first few weeks of life, reflecting a brain that is still in the process of differentiating their combined sensory experiences.

Mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz once wrote that our sense perceptions are occult qualities, whose familiarity does little to clarify their essential nature.

Writer Oyang Teng tells us that “long before brain imaging technology showed that even basic perceptual acts involve many different areas of the brain, common observation (and common sense) showed that there is no strict autonomy of any of the senses; rather, they each exist as interconnected aspects in a continuum of perception.”

In his 1927 paper, “The Unity of the Senses” Erich von Hornbostel adds that, “looking more closely, the apparent exception becomes the rule, and one must search in order to find the private property of any one sense.”

Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. Synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain; highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world. “The difference between synesthetic and nonsynesthetic brains is not whether cross talk exists” Cytowic and Eagleman note “but rather its degree.”

How about that tingly feeling you get when you hear music you like, or the fact that you salivate when you see salty food? Synesthesia.

If you’re interested in whether you have more synesthesic tendencies than the average person, go to Kelm’s May 2008 article onstone stairway in forest Wired Magazine and take the test. Then let me know…

P.S. The Wired Magazine article is not available on the Internet (I read it the old fashioned way: in print). But here is a site, The Frog Croaked Blue, that will give you similar questions to answer to determine whether you’re a synesthete. When I took the test recently, I was diagnosed as not being a synesthete but with good visual imagery and a rare trait that goes hand in hand with synesthesia.

 

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.