Story and Metaphor in Art Form: How Writing and Painting Whisper or Shout Their Truths

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world—C.S. Lewis

conifers in the mistA short while ago I painted on a canvas for the first time in over twenty years…okay, thirty years. It was a thrilling experience but also refreshing and freeing to use a different medium to express myself and tap into that place—that force—that resides inside us and speaks to us.

Part of the thrill was that I was being coached by a good friend of mine who is a master painter and teacher. What’s interesting is that while she instructed me on some of the painting methods, it struck us both how many similarities existed in composition, technique and structure between visual art and storytelling.

Take direction, for instance. A writer uses plot and subplots to move a story and its characters through a textured and colored tapestry of theme. According to my friend, every painting flows, often directionally (like many photographs) from the lower left to upper right, leading the eye from one place to another, exploring a theme, idea or emotion. Plot is motion. So is the paint brush.

You think only writers tell stories. Well, look again at visual art. Every work of art expresses an artist’s feelings, thoughts and emotions; an artist’s story. We are all stories, after all, and we all have many stories inside us. The writer’s medium is the word; the painter’s is the visual image. Isn’t it a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words? The range and type of story varies equally in both media. For instance, writing ranges from poetry or poetic prose (e.g., Ulysses by James Joyce) that requires substantial interpretation to allegory (obvious symbols) or creative non-fiction (like this blog post) whose artistry lies mostly in its composition and reporting style. Paintings also display a range from the poetry of abstract or surrealistic art (e.g., the surrealism of Salvadore Dali), which requires more interpretation, to realistic “photographic” art whose interpretation lies more in its composition (e.g., the detailed realism of Tomislav Tikulin).

The “language” that writers and painters use finds its parallels in form, structure and intent.

For example, let’s take metaphor. The writer uses one concept or image to evoke the feeling of another; “raining cats and dogs” for instance. The painter can evoke the feeling of one medium with another, achieving the same effect through metaphor—producing a stronger more compelling image through oblique metaphor and another perspective. For instance, a painter using acrylics may evoke the tone and emotion of a watercolor by using soft brushstrokes or another medium (e.g., using a sponge or cloth to apply the paint) and lighter softer colors to achieve that signature wash.

A story’s depth is achieved through animating three-dimensional characters that reflect a multi-layered theme. A painting’s depth works through the dance of light, shadows and textures and the use of techniques like fading and detail. Chiaroscuro in story and in painting play on contrast, perspective and the interplay of light and color to pull the viewer and reader deep into the artwork.

Painters echo elements from one part of a painting to another to make it cohesive and provide a “complete” piece that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. Painters do this by using repeated elements like shapes, curves, and color schemes to get the same flow, or using a faded version of a similar image elsewhere. Techniques that writers use to achieve the same echoing effects for a satisfying story include parallel plotting, mirrored plots, framing (particularly of story promise with climax and dénouement), and themed beginnings and endings.

You’ve heard of writer’s block? There’s also painter’s block; the painter staring at the white canvas, paint brush poised to make that first stroke. Luckily, there’s something called painting-over the dry; not unlike editing a paragraph using the control-shift “x” and “v” key on the computer. Writers continually revise their first drafts, cutting out extraneous exposition and adding thematic details. The writer’s revision process is all about fine-tuning, simplifying and polishing. Painters also “edit” their art through similar means. We even use similar language for both media: “polishing”, “adding color”, “making it flow”, “adding texture”, etc.

conifers in the mistEvery artist is a reporter of life and truth; every artist chooses the medium that best expresses his or her art. I started out in the visual arts. I was all ready to pursue a fine arts degree in university to become a commercial artist. Then, right on registration day, I opted out of art altogether and went into the science program. Heck, I went all the way to getting a Masters of Science degree, taught university science courses and consulted in the environment. Now, here I am writing science fiction and eco-fiction and teaching writing to engineers and scientists and science fiction writers. Cool, how we choose our path…

 

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.

 

On Ecology, Women and Science Fiction: Part 2, Praxis

marsh boatIn Part 1, Gnosis, I explored the nature of our current worldview, its shifting face and how literature and women writers have both contributed and enlightened this shift.

I talked with four women, all in the science fiction or eco-fiction genres; two are writers, and two are publishers. We discussed this shift, what it looks like, what the “feminine archetype” means and the nature of “Optimistic SF.”

When asked to describe SF today, Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.” Stephanie Johanson, editor and co-publisher of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, notes that, “Science fiction often reflects the views of the day, following and expanding on newer technologies.” Williams adds that SF fiction has gained a literary presence, but at some expense: “now there’s a sordid fascination, in a lot of self-consciously dark SF, with self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality.” Johanson provided a different perspective. “Stories that predict doom have been around since the beginning of SF,” she argued. “But lately perhaps there might be more stories with a glimmer of hope … perhaps it won’t be science that destroys us … the right sciences might actually save us.” Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances—the choices are endless. Except zombies. I don’t want to see any more zombies.”

When asked if SF had a role in literature, Johanson suggested that, “SF has fewer limitations and more frontiers to explore than other genres.” Both Johanson and Walton suggest that its main role is to challenge our preconceived notions of the world and “open up the mind to new possibilities.” Walton and Williams agree that SF is recognized more today as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”

I shared that I had witnessed (at least in my classrooms and writing workshops) a rising ecological awareness, reflected in a higher percentage of new writers bringing in works-in-progress (WIPs) that were decidedly “eco-fiction” or “climate fiction.”

“I have always gravitated towards, and often found, literature with ecological components,” Sarah Kades, author of Claiming Love confides. She then adds, “But I do agree with you that ecological awareness is not only gaining momentum, it is front and centre for many, and as such, we are naturally finding it more and more in literature.”

“I never thought of my own work as ecological,” shares Williams. “But it’s true: the underlying issue in it is how does, or can, the collective will prevent groups or individuals from destroying what is irreplaceably precious…Yes, I think SF has graduated from a fascination with building bigger death rays to tackling questions of how we avoid committing the unthinkable while still indulging in lots of entertaining conflict. Because conflict must exist in any story. We wouldn’t be human without it. There’s plenty of conflict in an ecosystem, too, but it stays balanced. SF used to be optimistic about scientific discoveries shifting the system out of balance in the direction of net gain for humankind. And this has happened. Even today’s poor are richer than yesterday’s. What worries us, increasingly, is whether some sudden imbalance could tip us into irreversible catastrophe because unlike 1950s readers we don’t trust smart and powerful people to act sanely in their quest for power.”

“I think that authors have come to a realization that the setting of a book can be just as strong a character (and character-builder) as the people in it,” says Walton. “Humans are so vulnerable, and must depend on their brains and skills at manipulating the environment to be able to adapt to harsh and potentially life-threatening situations…We don’t have fur, for example, or the ability to burrow under the sand to find shelter from a hot sun. So the books that embrace the environment, and that use it to present character-building challenges to the protagonists, can be more interesting than just a ‘good guys against bad guys’ story in any genre.”

Johanson provokes with the concept of awareness-guided perception—itself a valid cultural metric: “Perhaps there is an increase of ecological awareness in literature, or perhaps we are just noticing stories that have always been there.” This notion was discussed in a recent panel on Eco-Fiction in which I participated with Susan Forrest, Michael J. Martineck, Hayden Trenholm, and Sarah Kades at the writer’s festival When Words Collide in Calgary. One author 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. Johanson cites Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy, John Varley’s Titan trilogy, Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen, and the works of Jules Verne. Classic titles Walton remembers from her younger days include John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest; and more recently, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Walton includes the 1965 Dune series by Frank Herbert, given that the environment of the desert and how humanity has adapted to it plays a major role in the series.

I proposed that an awakening to the feminine archetype (cooperation, compassion, relationship, altruism) is occurring and currently reflected in literature. Johanson suggested that, “If [cooperation, compassion, relationship, and altruism] are used in balance with science and logic, there can be an optimistic future.” Had she seen this increasing in literature? “I don’t think so, but perhaps I have been reading the wrong stories,” Johanson admits. Kades shares a different perception. “I would definitely agree there is an awakening to the feminine archetype in our culture as a whole, and literature is reflecting this,” she argues. “The books that resonate most strongly for me are the ones that honour and celebrate both the feminine and masculine, stories that demonstrate mutual respect and successful collaboration between men and women. Throw humour and romance in there, too, and it’s irresistible.”

Walton observes that, “It’s definitely something that drives a story in a different direction from the more “male” pursuits of taking everything by force, or the lone-wolf hero solving problems without any collaboration with others.” She confides, “I loved the new Mad Max film, where compassion and collaboration made the story come alive. And yet, it has been accused, by some, of being a feminist propaganda film.”

Williams answers with a tale of two characters. “Amel, my prince-raised-as-pauper, is a hero of the pol virtues. Loosely speaking, we could call the pol virtues feminine. Horth Nersal, on the other hand, is an alpha male—a hero of the rel variety in Okal Rel theology. There are important female characters in my saga, but I have to confess my teenage self was simply more fascinated with heroic males for reasons inaccessible to my older, sager self. So, in my own work I could make the case that Amel’s problem-solving and character development is absolutely an example of an awakening to the feminine archetype. And he does wind up in power. But even as Amel gets his act together, after book six, and learns to use his more subtle kind of influence to make the world behave, Horth Nersal starts stealing the spotlight. I don’t quite know how this happened. And maybe Amel’s central, anchoring role throughout the series argues in favor of the feminine principle dominating. But I think the Amel/Horth dilemma isn’t unique to my own work. I see it crop up in other SF where, on the face of things, one might say the feminine archetype is in ascendance.”

Can we (as writers and editors and otherwise) foster such a change in worldview and gain a sense of place, purpose and meaning in our lives through it?

“If writers are writing stories to change the world, and I hope some are, then they should write stories that first entertain,” Johanson advises writers. “It doesn’t matter how great a theory, or how good an idea, if it doesn’t entertain, fewer people will read it. This also applies to editors. Karl and I decided early on that we wanted to teach people with the stories we published in Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine. We wanted our readers so entertained that they wouldn’t necessarily realize that their views had just been broadened.”

“As a writer I feel a rather persuasive responsibility to help foster positive social change,” says Kades. “For me it is considerable motivation of the stories that take turns between calming, weaving, and banging around in my head, eager to get out. And stories don’t have to tackle epic social issues to be a conduit of positive social change. Stories that create new ‘normals’ of compassion, respect and tolerance are just as important and interesting as stories that address specific social issues. To create change, first we must imagine it. Writers can help with that.”

“I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about meaning and purpose these days,” Williams confides. “First, we need to foster creativity in others and respect it in ourselves. But in both cases we must challenge our creative cravings to do work. I personally believe the richest entertainment comes not just from simple wish-fulfillment narratives – although these are fun and perfectly at home in epic literature – but from touching a raw nerve here and there, and making sure the ‘bad guys’ are at least as realistic as the heroes, not just straw men defeated by a better ray guy. Best of all, can a resolution be found in which the bad guys co-exist with their conquerors? At least think about it, and how your society might avoid problems cropping up again, and make that part of the fabric of your tale.”

“I’m not sure I agree with this being part of my role as an editor,” Walton shared. “It may be that I am drawn more to the kinds of books and stories that espouse this concept, and thus more likely to buy them to publish. We are all gatekeepers of some kind or another. One thing that is interesting is the recent brouhaha over the Hugo awards, where, I think, the various ‘puppy’ slates would look on any sort of eco-fiction that embraced the feminine archetype as being something only a Social Justice Warrior would like. Some people just don’t want their worldview changed, I guess.”

…Which brings me to “Optimistic SF” and what it represents. In a recent discussion with Lynda Williams over several Schofferhofers at Sharkey’s Pub in Vancouver, we shared our thoughts on how the evolution of the science fiction genre and the place that optimism holds in literature and art, generally. Is “saving the world” and “The Hero’s Journey” still viable in literature today? And how many Schofferhofers does it take to get there?

“I’ve asked people to help me define ‘Optimistic SF’ on my blog,” Lynda shares. “Check out what we’ve got so far at http://realityskimming.com/2015/09/10/fall2015optimisticsf/ and leave your own suggestions if something springs to mind. My own definition has to do with how a story makes me feel. If I’m entertained and emerge feeling there’s some point to living another day rather than convinced human beings are a bad idea best eliminated quickly before they do more harm, it’s optimistic SF. I want to encourage the notion that it’s not dumb or simple minded to strive for improving the world or defending moral behavior when feasible.”

Johanson adds that, “I became a fan of SF, because of stories that I might now classify as ‘Optimistic SF’, stories that made me look forward to the future, characters that I would love to have as friends, and places I wanted to explore. Optimistic literature to me isn’t free from problems. It wouldn’t be a story if everything was splendid. It is conflict that makes a story, but optimistic SF solves problems, and by the end of the story things are looking that much brighter. Anne McCaffrey wrote a lot of ‘Optimistic SF’. I was very fond of her Dragons of Pern series, though the later books by her son Todd McCaffrey seem far less optimistic in nature. I found many of Larry Niven’s novels to be optimistic, like the Ringworld books. Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel novels have a lot of suffering in them, but her series has always seemed like ‘Optimistic SF’.” For Johanson, optimistic SF has at least one optimistic character, one positive goal achieved and a positive [resolved as opposed to ‘happy’] ending, not “leaving evil posed to strike.” She suggests that this includes “overcoming adversity, exploring, discovering, and/or self-growth.”

Walton submits that optimistic SF is, in fact, a challenge to write, “because you still need to have some kind of antagonist (be it human, alien or environment) to make the protagonist want or need something enough to take risks and go on that literary journey. Maybe the optimism comes from stories that are ‘less dark’ than others?”

Lynda Williams openly shared her ambitions for her recent publishing venture, Reality Skimming Press: “Reality Skimming Press is my answer to how to continue being creative now I’m post-published. Not just to keep the Okal Rel Saga in print, although that’s my core motivation for even considering becoming a publisher. But to be brazen enough to talk about ideas and art and what it means to be optimistic, for example, instead of bowing to the demands of commercial success and elusive, fickle fame. Arguably, Reality Skimming Press is the ultimate feminine solution where the meaningfulness of the work and quality of the relationships, on and off the page, trump the call to do battle for the big prizes. Success is lovely, of course. And showers of gold and fame wouldn’t be scornfully rejected. It’s more a case of asking the question: ‘Would I do this even if I never got rich or famous?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’ to have the courage to keep enjoying the journey.”martian_chronicles

Sarah Kades echoed my initial discovery in “responsibility and connection,” noted in my first article, with her admission: “It was rather startling [to] first realize [that] the responsibility I feel [in writing] socially relevant stories is not universally held among writers. It is not, which is of course just fine; it just surprised me because of how [strong] it is in me. The knowledge brought my writing and my voice into sharper focus for me.”

 

 

nina-LL-interviewe-closerNina Munteanu is an award-winning Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which have been translated into several languages throughout the world. She is currently an editor of European zine Europa SF and writes for Amazing Stories. Nina teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her latest book “Water Is…” (release May 10 2016 by Pixl Press; available for pre-order April 12) is a non-fiction examination of the meaning of water.

Lynda WilliamsLynda Williams is the author of the ten-novel Okal Rel Saga and editor of the growing collection of works by Hal Friesen, Craig Bowlsby, Krysia Anderson, Elizabeth Woods, Nina Munteanu, Randy McCharles and others writing works set in the ORU. As a publisher, she is working with Kyle Davidson, Jeff Doten, Sarah Trick, Jennifer Lott, Paula Johanson, Lynn Perkins and Yukari Yamamoto in re-inventing publishing through Reality Skimming Press. Lynda holds three degrees and works as Learning Technology Analyst and manager of the Learn Tech support team at Simon Fraser University. She teaches part-time at BCIT.

Sarah KadesSarah Kades hung up her archaeology trowel and bid adieu to Traditional Knowledge facilitation to share her love of the natural world and happily-ever-afters. She writes literary romantic eco-fiction where nature, humour and love meet. She lives in Calgary, Canada with her family. Connect with Sarah on Facebook, Twitter and www.sarahkades.com.

 

Stephanie and IsaacStephanie Johanson is the art director, assistant editor, and co-owner of Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, publishing since 2003. She is an artist who has worked in a variety of media, though painting and soapstone carving are her passions. Stephanie paints realism with a hint of fantasy, often preferring landscapes as her subjects. Examples of her work can be viewed on the Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine website at www.neo-opsis.ca/art.

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Diane-Walton02Diane Walton is currently serving a life sentence as Managing Editor of On Spec Magazine, and loving every minute of it. She and her lovely and talented husband, Rick LeBlanc, share their rural Alberta home with three very entitled cats. 

 

 

On Ecology, Women and Science Fiction: Part 1, Gnosis

marsh boatI’m an ecologist. We look at why things happen and work, and—perhaps most importantly—how they affect one another. Ecology is the science of relationships and consequence. I taught at the University of Victoria for several years then conducted environmental assessments as a limnologist (aquatic ecologist) for environmental consulting firms in British Columbia.

My short stories and novels are—no big surprise—mostly eco-fiction. It’s been that way since I started high school in Quebec, in fact. That first year, when I fervently expressed exhortations for global environmental action, a well-meaning, but myopic teacher chided me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he’d suggested patronizingly.

I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing

For the past few years I’ve been teaching writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Ontario. I teach a workshop-style class that involves students bringing in and working on their current Work-In-Progress (WIP). And I’ve been noticing an interesting trend. Something cool is happening in my classes. More and more students are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively.

For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”.

The history of storytelling and of humanity’s evolution—how we relate to each other and our environment—are inextricably tied. The stories we tell—whether fiction or non-fiction—reflect who we are, what we value, and what we will become. Good stories are about relationships and their consequences.

Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. Evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris tells us that, “whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others.”

I mentioned that the majority of my stories are science fiction (SF). SF is a literature of allegory and metaphor and deeply embedded in culture. It draws me because it is the literature of consequence exploring large issues faced by humankind. In a February 2013 interview in The Globe and Mail I described how by its very nature SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision: “Speaking for myself, and for the other women I know who read science fiction, the need is for good stories featuring intelligent women who are directed in some way to make a difference in the world…The heroism [of women] may manifest itself through co-operation and leadership in community, which is [often] different from their die-hard male counterparts who want to tackle the world on their own. Science fiction provides a new paradigm for heroism and a new definition of hero as it balances technology and science with human issues and needs.”

Author Marie Bilodeau in the same interview added that, “the best part about writing science fiction is showing different ways of being without having your characters struggle to gain rights. Invented worlds can host a social landscape where debated rights in this world – such as gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia – are just a fact of life.”

Once the almost exclusive domain of male writers and readers, SF has been steadily changing, attracting more women writers and women readers. It is no coincidence that mainstream literary fiction writer Margaret Atwood began to write science fiction (which she still calls speculative fiction) in the 1980s with Handmaid’s Tale, and that her last five books are pure science fiction, mostly dystopias that explore the evolution of humanity.

Science fiction is maturing.

We’ve progressed from the biological to the mechanical to the purely mental, from the natural world to a manufactured world to a virtual world, writes philosopher and writer Charles Eisenstein. According to Carolyn Merchant, professor at UC Berkley, early scientists of the 1600s used metaphor, rhetoric, and myth to develop a new method of interrogating nature as “part of a larger project to create a new method that would allow humanity to control and dominate the natural world.”

“The modern self,” writes Eisenstein, has become, “a discrete and separate subject in a universe that is other [something SF writers know and write about]. It is the economic man of Adam Smith; it is the skin-encapsulated ego of Alan Watts; it is the embodied soul of religion; it is the selfish gene [of Richard Dawkins].”

Competition is a natural reaction based on distrust—of both the environment and of the “other”—both aspects of “self” (as part) separated from “self” (as whole). The greed for more than is sustainable reflects an urgent fear of failure and a sense of being separate. It ultimately perpetuates actions dominated by self-interest and is the harbinger of “the Tragedy of the Commons”.

According to Elisabet Sahtoutis, humanity is currently poised on a tipping point. Thousands of years of national and corporate empire-building have reached a tipping point in planetary exploitation, says Sahtouris, “where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration.”

Competition naturally gives way to creative cooperation as trust in both “self” and the “other” develops and is encouraged. “Communities with many cooperators and altruists do better than groups dominated by narrow and selfish thinking,” writes Alain Ruche, strategist for the Secretary General of the EU External Service. Ruche adds that a biological predisposition to cooperate appears to be independent of culture.

Examples of creative cooperatives exist throughout the world, offering an alternative to the traditional model of competition. Cultural creatives are changing the world, Ruche tells us. These creatives, while being community-oriented with an awareness of planet-wide issues, honor and embody feminine values, such as empathy, solidarity, spiritual and personal development, and relationships. Mechanisms include reciprocity, trust, communication, fairness, and a group-sense of belonging. I give examples in my upcoming book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press, due in Spring 2016.

In the September 2009 Peace Summit in Vancouver B.C., the Dalai Lama shared that “the world will be saved by the western woman.” This “call to adventure” by His Holiness reflects the hero’s journey steps suggested by Richard Tarnas in the epilogue of his book The Passion of the Western Mind: “the driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its dialectical quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life…to reunite with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul.”

Poised and ready, rising from its previous dualistic perception, the soul finds Home in Wholeness, and returns to the intrinsic truth of the world. The world realizes itself within and through the human mind, projecting a fractal vision of a holonomic universe.

To return to science fiction, my point is that the stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—are reflecting this the-city-cgtraderemerging worldview. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.

In Part 2 (Praxis), I provide examples and interviews with other writers.

 

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.

 

Dreams and Perceptions…The Stuff of Science Fiction

foggy roadIt was several days ago, as I was driving home from a friend’s place in the sultry dark of night that I noticed the change…

Perhaps it was the rain and the winding road that nudged my psyche to wander into that other realm. Or was it the motion picture The Fountain that I’d seen the evening before—a surrealistic journey of the mind and the soul through crisis and toward enlightenment, true love and “ever-lasting life”?

Or had it more to do with the fact that I’d been, for various reasons, without sleep for over forty hours, that I glimpsed the ordinary in an extra-ordinary light?

Light had everything to do with it, too…Amber traffic lights at a construction site pulsed like living things…smoky clouds billowed over an inky sky…a garish screen of trees, caught in the beams of my car as I turned a corner, screamed quietly…a half-built apartment building loomed up like the dark tower in Lord of the Rings… I was reminded of a scene early on in The Fountain where the viewer is disoriented initially by a busy street at night because it was shot upside down—ironically, in my hometown of Montreal and I didn’t even recognize it.

Have you ever done that? Looked backward or craned while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And felt different for just a moment? Like you’d briefly entered a different dimension and glimpsed “the other”?

What is it like to meet “the other”?

I firmly believe that we ultimately define ourselves through our experience and our approach of the unfamiliar. A new relationship. A stranger in town. A different culture. An alien encounter…

How do we react? Is it with fear? Wonder? Curiosity?

This is why the genre of science fiction so vividly and deeply and satisfyingly explores our humanity. By describing “the other” science fiction writers describe “us”. Who we are and where we might go. It is, after all, through our own eyes that the other is described and viewed.

The very best science fiction does this impeccably. Think of your favorite SF authors and books… Here are some that stand out for me:old beech in forest-enrico fossati

  • Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God or his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy
  • Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris
  • Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot
  • John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids
  • Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles

I know I’ve left out so many…What are some of your favorites?

 

nina-2014aa

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.

 

 

Our Deepest Fear

nature's canopyIt’s not what you think it is…

There’s a poignant scene near the end of the 2005 movie “Coach Carter” where a student finally responds to Carter’s insistent question of “what is your deepest fear?”. It is a quote often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela but originally written by Marianne Williamson (“A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”). And it speaks to the artist in all of us:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Let me tell you a story… I’ve been writing stories since I was ten years old. I used to stay up until late at night with my sister, when our parents were snoring in their bed. We told stories: fantastical stories with a cast of thousands and spanning the entire universe. When I was in my teens, I began to write a book, inspired by several dystopian movies and my own passion for saving the planet. It was called “Caged in World”. By the time I was married and had my son, I had written three entire books, none of which I’d published. I had by then sold several short stories and essays and articles to mainstream, travel and science fiction magazines. I started to become known as a reviewer and critic of movies and books. And my short stories were gaining good reputation with stellar reviews and invitations to appear in anthologies.

I began to market my first book—a medical ecological thriller—to agents and publishers. Although I got many bites for partials and even full manuscripts, none came to fruition.

Then something strange happened.

Driven by something inside me, I wrote over the space of a few months a book entitled “Collision with Paradise” based on some research I’d done on Atlantis, the bible and the Great Flood. The book was important to me on a number of fronts: in its ecological message of cooperation and its exploration of new paradigms of existence. I wrote it fast and well and it hardly needed editing. Without thinking and without hesitation, I submitted it for publication. As quickly as I’d written it, I had an offer from a publisher. My first published book! My first reaction was elation. My second reaction was: What have I done? I was proud of my book and its story, but it also contained erotica. My first thought was: how are my family and friends going to react? What about my parents? OMG! Fear, not of failure but of success came crashing down on me and I felt so exposed. If I could have retracted it, I might have several times. Thankfully, I didn’t. While some friends and family did in fact shake their heads and look askance at my work (and labeled it variously), the book was very well received by mainstream critics and readers alike. It was, in fact, a hit. Faced with success, I bowed to its consequences and embraced what it brought: the good, the bad and the ugly. I was, in fact, relieved. I have many times since contemplated my actions in submitting this subversive novel that exposed me incredibly. Was it brave intuition or bold recklessness that propelled me? The point is, I’d stepped out into the light, crossed the line into another paradigm. There was no way back into the shadows. And that’s good.nature's canop-2

Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, tells us “any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought. The closer he gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover [about himself] should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.” If you’re emotionally or psychologically not ready for the consequences of getting published, then you will falter, procrastinate, forever fuss over your creation and convince yourself that it isn’t ready. In truth it’s you who aren’t ready. It’s you who aren’t ready to shine.

Just remember that while we are born artists, it is still our choice to live as artists. Until we embrace that which is within us, we will not find our voice to give to the world. That is our gift to the world. Laurance Gartel says “to be an artist is to take responsibility for the world’s destiny. You shape it by your vision.”

The true artist is not interested in having a nice life, being comfy or fitting in, but rather sees himself as a benefactor. His goal is to make a contribution to life, and to this end there are no barriers, doors or blocks, but only wide open spaces.”—Brian Simons

 

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.

Dreaming of Writing a Bestseller

 

golden misty forest lightThis is a valid desire. It is, after all, why most of us write—to share our stories and messages with as many people as possible. Most writers dream of writing a bestseller although only a handful of authors achieve this status. The irony and the big secret of achieving “bestseller” stature and becoming wildly popular is not what you think.

You thought I was going to send you to the bookstore to research the market, weren’t you? Or go to Amazon and find out what’s selling? Or see who and what is currently on the Bestseller list?

While these are all valid quests, writing to the market will not ensure that your work becomes a bestseller. In fact, it will likely do the opposite. When a writer is writing to the market, she is following the market, not leading it. Here lies the rub; a book becomes a bestseller because it provides something new and refreshing to a wide readership, eager for a story that resonates with originality. This isn’t necessarily something eclectic and strange; but it is most certainly a new voice and/or new way of looking at something familiar. When a unique voice intersects with a popular thought, a bestseller emerges. That is precisely what happened with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent wizards or fantasy or even a school for wizards; but she did provide a fresh look at the potentially popular subject of an outsider who finds that he is special. And let’s not forget that before her book became a bestseller, it was rejected many times by less visionary publishers unwilling to take a risk.

So, what am I advising? Find your own voice, the one that belongs only to you. Cultivate your unique voice and write with passion. Write about something that means a lot to you or excites you or intrigues you. Be genuine. Be specific. Put yourself out there. Take risks. And be patient. Chances are, your writing will resonate with many.

Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, recommended that you “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.”

Stop chasing success; instead create it.

Auschwitz survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl wisely said: “the more you aim at golden misty forest lightsuccess and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it … Success , like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Bottom line: don’t chase it and don’t sweat it; enjoy the journey.

Nina’s latest book “Water Is…” (Pixl Press) is currently a bestseller on Amazon and was top pick for Booker Prize author Margaret Atwood ‘s 2016 ‘The Year in Reading” list in the New York Times.

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.