Boredom in the Time of COVID-19: The Art and Satisfaction of Writing Letters

There are no boring moments; only bored people who lack the wherewithal to explore and discover—Nina Munteanu

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Cedar trees on shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So many of us have responded intelligently to the pandemic by respecting “lock down” measures to self-isolate and socially distance. From simply staying at home to going out less often and avoiding crowds (well, there shouldn’t be any of them right now; but there will always be an irresponsible sector who must reflex their sense of entitlement and lack of compassion).

What the pandemic and our necessary reaction to it has done more than anything is to slow us down. Many people are slowly going crazy with it: we are, after all, a gregarious species. And not all of us feel comfortable with virtual meetings. Our senses are deprived; you can’t touch and smell and feel.

But, there are wonderful ways to feed the muse and get sensual…

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Cedar tree on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

My good friend and poet Merridy Cox recently told me about a Facebook friend who was feeling so bored: “GETTING SO BORED BEING AT HOME” amid the social distancing and self-isolation during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Merridy counselled her friend to go outside and watch spring unfold then find a nice place to sit and write about it. A poem, she suggested: “Little white clouds are scudding across a blue sky. Trees are budding. Birds are migrating. Don’t be bored! Get outside, find a tree and see if there is a bird in it—now, you have enough to write a poem.”

What Merridy was essentially suggesting to her friend was to look outside herself. Reach out in curiosity and discover something. Boredom will fly away with curiosity and can lead to expression through poetry (or photography, sketching, journaling, memoir, or letter writing). When you open your soul to the spirit of exploration, you will find much to discover. When you share with others, you close the gap of isolation from gregariousness and find connection through meaning. The key is in sharing.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes that, “Being Creative is a form of self-care and caring for others. The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been cited by Margaret Atwood and many others as what inspired them to share their creative work.  Sharing is part of many religions, as part of becoming ‘holy, from the word ‘whole’.   When what you share comes from your inner creative impulse, you develop a sense of your own value as an individual.  In addition, you transcend your separateness by touching the spirit of another.  In this way, all forms of art are therapeutic.”

The key to success in this is to start with 1) motivation, move through to 2) curiosity and discovery, then on to 3) creativity and expression. Sending an old-fashioned letter and handwriting provides a rich opportunity to create and express fully. And it gives us reasons to pursue. Following these three pursuits will enrich your life and provide enrichment to others through sharing.

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Woodpecker hole in white pine tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Step 1, MOTIVATION: Find several people you wish to communicate with on a deeper level and wish to entertain and inform. Think beyond your Facebook or Twitter audience (though, I do draw inspiration from wishing to share my photography with them). They could even be your next door neighbour! Of course, you need something to share; that’s where Step 2 comes in.

Step 2, CURIOSITY and DISCOVERY: Find a place that you can observe; the natural world is incredibly suited to discovery. Look high and low, slow your pace and use all your senses. Listen. Smell. Feel. Remember to look up. And look down on the ground. Nature hides some of her most precious gems there. Find something familiar and find something new. Invest in a guidebook.

JournalWritert FrontCover copy 2Research what you’ve found on the Internet; find out more about something you’ve observed. For instance, why does the willow have such a shaggy bark? Why do alders grow so well near the edges of streams? What role do sowbugs play in the ecosystem? What do squirrels eat? What is that bird doing on my lawn? Start a phenology study (how something changes over the seasons). Keep tabs on the birds you see and what they’re doing. You can find several examples of mine in the links below.

Step 3, CREATIVITY and EXPRESSION: Depending on your relationship with people you are writing to and their own interests, you may tailor your letters with printed pictures, sketches and drawings, maps, quotes, and news clippings. This part can be really fun and can draw on all your creative talents. Let what you see and discover inspire you. Find a “story” in it and share it with someone. You can find more examples on ways to express yourself in my guidebook on writing journals: The Journal Writer.

 

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Bench next to cedar trees on Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exploring and creativity don’t just cure boredom; they are good for your health:

EcologyOfStoryExpressive writing — whether in the form of journaling, blogging, writing letters, memoir or fiction — improves health. Over the past twenty years, a growing body of literature has shown beneficial effects of writing about traumatic, emotional and stressful events on physical and emotional health. In control experiments with college students, Pennebaker and Beall (1986) demonstrated that college students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings for only 15 minutes over four consecutive days, experienced significant health benefits four months later. Long term benefits of expressive writing include improved lung and liver function, reduced blood pressure, reduced depression, improved functioning memory, sporting performance and greater psychological well-being. The kind of writing that heals, however, must link the trauma or deep event with the emotions and feelings they generated. Simply writing as catharsis won’t do.

In Gifts from the Trail, Stella Body writes: “Far more than a quick Selfie, a written response explores the range of the experience.  It both saves an instant from being lost in time, and holds on to the live matter of the writer’s feeling.  If shared, both writer and audience can return to that moment and draw healing from it.  What’s more, as many studies on volunteer work have shown, the process of sharing is a healing act.”

In Part 1 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I talk about many of the interesting things in the natural world around us. In Part 2, I give many of these things meaning in story. The guidebook also has several writing exercises to capture the muse.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIn Chapter K of my writing guidebook The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!, I talk about writing what you know and what you discover. It’s more than you think. “In the 19th-century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field…They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

My journal writing guidebook The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice provides advice and exercises on how to create a positive experience in observing, creating, journaling and letter or memoir writing.

 

Restoring the Lost Art of Handwriting

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Nina writing in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Handwriting is a wonderful thing. It slows us down. It is a sensual and intimate way for us to express ourselves. I love my handwriting, especially when I am using my favorite pen (my handwriting changes depending on the pen), my Cross fountain pen — usually black. When you use a pen or pencil to express yourself you have more ways to express your creativity. Think of the subtleties of handwriting alone: changing the quality and intensity of strokes; designing your script, using colors, symbols, arrows or lines, using spaces creatively, combining with drawing and sketches. In combination with the paper (which could be lined, textured, colored graphed, etc.), your handwritten expression varies as your many thoughts and moods.

The very act of handwriting focuses you. Writing your words by hand connects you more tangibly to what you’re writing through the physical connection of pen to paper. Researchers have proven that just picking up a pencil and paper to write out your ideas improves your ability to think, process information and solve problems. The actual act of writing out the letters takes a little more work in your brain than just typing them on a keyboard, and that extra effort keeps your mind sharp. Researchers have also shown that writing something out by hand improves your ability to remember it. Handwriting improves memory, increases focus, and the ability to see relationships.

Handwriting fuses physical and intellectual processes. American novelist Nelson Algren wrote, “I always think of writing as a physical thing.” Hemmingway felt that his fingers did much of his thinking for him.

writing-notebook04According to Dr. Daniel Chandler, semiotician at Aberystwith University, when you write by hand you are more likely to discover what you want to say. When you write on a computer, you write “cleanly” by editing as you go along and deleting words (along with your first thoughts). In handwriting, everything remains, including the words you crossed out. “Handwriting, both product and process,” says Chandler, “is important … in relation to [your] sense of self.” He describes how the resistance of materials in handwriting increases the sense of self in the act of creating something. There is a stamp of ownership in the handwritten words that enhances a sense of “personal experience.”

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Path along Credit River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I know this is true in my own writing experience. This is why, although I do much of my drafting on the computer, I find that some of my greatest creative moments come to me through the notebook, which I always keep with me. Writing in my own hand is private and resonates with informality and spontaneity (in contrast to the fixed, formal look and public nature of print). Handwriting in a notebook is, therefore, a very supportive medium of discovery and the initial expression of ideas.

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself—Henry Miller

 

References:

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now. Starfire World Syndicate. 294pp

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press. 172pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2019. The Ecology of Story: World as Character. Pixl Press. 200pp.

 

Links:

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest
Ecology, Story & Stranger Things
The Little Rouge in Winter: Up Close and Personal
The Phenology of the Little Rouge River and Woodland
White Willow–A Study
The Yellow Birch–A Study

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Author’s Retreat: Changing the World with Your Mind and Faith

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Hoar frost-covered snow pillows, near Manning Park, B.C. (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Some time ago I went on an author’s retreat at my friend’s cabin near Manning Park in British Columbia. Some of them were going skiing at the nearby ski hill and Anne thought I’d appreciate the rustic setting as an ideal place to write. I leapt at the chance. I had lots of writing to do and had set myself up for quite a work schedule: I’d promised ten articles and some excerpts to my publisher, three articles to the online magazine I write for, a review of my manuscript contract with my other publisher, and to write as much as possible on my prequel.

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Zermatt in winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’d set myself up for quite a work schedule…Hey, didn’t I say that already?…There was no internet access at the cabin. In fact, no cell phone coverage either. We were pretty isolated from the rest of the world—except for the bustling ski hill not far from us…

Then my computer refused to work…

The ski hill beckoned…

The snowshoes came out…

The sun blazed…

And the hoarfrost on the frozen lake sparkled like jewels in the snow…

…My promise to myself to write melted like giant snow crystals in the sun as I indulged in outdoor walks and diverting conversations with my friend, Anne.

Later in the evening, after the boys finally got the fire going, Anne and I got to talking about the book I’d leant her—Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer. We were soon discussing God and faith; what it meant to have faith in oneself and in others and ultimately what it meant to have someone show faith in you.

After returning from Manning, I ran across an article in Time that featured Dr. Andrew Newberg (professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania) who’d recently authored the book, How God Changes Your Brain. What I found incredibly interesting was the connection made between faith and well-being.

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Nina Munteanu explores with friend Kai near Manning Park

According to Newberg and other neuroscientists, when people engage in prayer or meditation they engage the frontal lobes of the brain, since they govern focus and concentration. In fact, if you pray or meditate long enough you may change your brain permanently; creating thicker frontal lobes. “People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus—a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills,” says Newberg. Better functioning frontal lobes help boost memory, by the way.

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Angel-winged Anne fishes for a treat for her black lab

That faith can play a key role in how our mind and body regulate our general health and determine our own well-being is proven in experiments involving “placebos”. First described in the medical literature in the 1780s, the placebo effect has been documented in some amazing examples of mind-over-matter. Time writer Jeffrey Kluger in his February 23, 2009 article “The Biology of Belief” describes how Parkinson’s disease patients who underwent a sham surgery that they were told would boost the low dopamine levels responsible for their symptoms actually experienced a dopamine bump. Newberg described a cancer patient who regulated his tumors based on his belief of a drug’s efficacy (his tumor shrank).

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Hoar-frost covered shrub

In a post about Brain-Mind-Interfaces (BMI) on The Alien Next Door, I discussed the notion of using our minds to control computers and robots either inside us or close to us and the current technology that is making that possible. Then my good friend, Margaret, told me about this workshop on neurotherapy that she’d attended given by a Dr. Paul Swingle in Vancouver. “He uses biofeedback for the brain to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity

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Hoar frost covered buds

disorders, epilepsy, anxiety, migraine, trauma, and depression,” says Margaret. “It’s all based on the idea that we can control our brain activity and that through training, the brain can learn to modify its own electrical patterns for more efficient processing or to overcome various states of dysfunction.”

 

Neal Krause, a sociologist and public health expert at the University of Michigan, found that people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what’s going right in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression. In another study, he found that people who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people who don’t. Victor Frankl could have told him that!

p.s. speaking of belief, I got all my writing done in the end! My computer decided to behave itself and I got very productive…especially after the chocolate cake.

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Zermatt Alps (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Finding the Right Time and Place to Write

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

 

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Snow in the Beaches, Ontario

During a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist with an environmental consulting job, was a devoted 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 had 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.

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Nina Munteanu teaching in Mahone Bay, NS

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write, you won’t write. 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

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The Beaches boardwalk (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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?

C'est La Vie Cafe

a coffee shop in Val David, Quebec (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, where its desultory conversations and laughter—and wonderful smells of fresh coffee—provide a pleasant living-landscape for my muse. I also enjoy my daily walk with a notebook or iPad in the park along the river near my house. I teach writing at the University of Toronto St George campus in downtown Toronto and just recently discovered an enclave that excited my muse. The outside breezeway at Knox College, with arched ceiling and columns, adorned with hanging plants, is pure magic. The breezeway cuts through an outside courtyard of gardens and yard, populated with songbirds and the gentle rustle of a refreshing breeze. Benches and small tables and chairs line the breezeway, ensuring a writer’s sanctuary.

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.

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).

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

Perr-fecting the Cat Purr Meditation…

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Willow

Her name is Willow, and she helps me centre my being…

Willow is a diminutive 18-year old Russian blue cat, who I looked after for some friends in Mississauga. When I first met Willow, she responded with reticence–like all smart discerning cats. She appeared so delicate, I was scared to pick her up. I soon realized that this was a fallacy. That not only could I pick her up but that she loved to be held. I just needed to learn how.

As soon as I did, we became best friends. And it all came together with the Purring Cat Meditation.

It starts out with her finding me “doing nothing terribly important” like typing on the computer, or something. A soft but decisive tap of the paw on my leg and I have to smile at her intense look up at me with those guileless emerald eyes. I abandon my work–how can I ignore such a plea?– and pick her up. After all, I know what she wants…And so starts our journey toward “nirvana”… the meditative state that will centre our beings and ultimately save the world.

I wander the house with her. We check out each room and make our silent observations. We end up in the bedroom upstairs, where she normally sleeps (except when she’s decided to join me on my bed to sit on me and purr in my face in the middle of the night).

Willow basking

Willow teasing me

In her sanctuary, we drift to the window that faces the back yard, now in the bright colours of fall. The window is slightly open and a crisp breeze braces us with the deep scent of autumn. I breathe in the fragrance of fallen leaves, mist and bark…

Willow settles into a feather-light pose in the crook of my arms and I hardly feel her. More like she and I have joined to become one. We are both purring …

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

Willow looking up

“Time to pick me up, Nina!” says Willow

I have no idea … It feels like moments … infinity … it encompasses and defines an entire world. We’ve just created something. Just by being.

Cats–well, most animal companions–are incredibly centring and can teach us a lot about the art of simply being.

And meditating…

 

I write about this more in my article entitled “Wake Up Your Muse: How my Cat Taught Me the Art of Being“.

Whenever I run across a bout of writer’s block or need to stoke my muse, instead of trying harder, I stop and reach out for my cat-friend.

And practice Cat-Purring-Meditation…

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Winter on the road to Wolfville, NS (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Nina’s short story collection of eco-fiction can be found in “Natural Selection” published by Pixl Press. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

How Walking in Nature Helps Me Write

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Staircase to Rouge River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I don’t often get writer’s block. I just walk out of it into Nature.

My favourite place to walk is the forest, along a river.

Walking in a forest unclutters my mind and soul. The forest is simple in its natural complexity. Its beauty combs out the tangles of human complexity like a dam dissolving and grounds me back to the simplicity of natural life.

The river trickles in the background as I step through dappled light and inhale the organic scents of the forest. The forest and the river help me re-align and focus—without trying. That’s the magic of it. It’s in the not trying.

I carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas that come to me. They always do. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process.

My favourite park is the little woodland of the Little Rouge River, located off a small road hidden from the sprawling desert of suburbia.

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my old maple leaning over the Little Rouge River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was spring when I first entered this forest. I inhaled its complex smell, awakening with spring flowers. At my entrance, chipmunks scattered and scolded me for interrupting their calm. I chuckled and thought that I’d seen more within the space of one minute here than I had in a year in the suburb I currently live in. A duff-strewn path led me beneath the pungent smell of pine and cedar. I made my way toward the riverbank where beech and maple leaned over the water. I found a place to write.

When I returned in the fall, the forest was a mix of colour.  Most of the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves in a revealing show of textured grays, gray-browns and blacks. The bare trunks and fractal branches contrasted with the deep greens of the conifers. Rogue trees—like the oak and beech—still claimed their leaves, adding deep russet tones to the varied grays and deep greens of the canopy. The forest was now more open, emerging with ancient magnificence from a soft brown carpet on the ground. The air was fresh with the scent of loam, decaying leaves and saprophyte activity.

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A shallow part of the Little Rouge ices over with the first snowfall in late autumn (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I strayed off the path toward the riverbank again. I was looking for the old sugar maple I’d spent time with the previous spring. After several bends in the river, I saw it, leaning precipitously over the river like an old man sharing an intimate story. It had already lost its leaves; they covered the ground in a soft carpet. The old tree literally hugged the bank in a braided network of snaking roots; like a carved figurehead hugs the prow of a great tall ship.

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Burl on my maple (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eager to see my old friend up close, I scrambled down the overhanging bank using the old maple’s root “stairway,” then ungracefully dropped onto the cobbles below. Every part of my gnarly old maple tree was splendid. Its shaggy trunk stretched up with typical silhouette of branching-out arms that every Canadian kid drew when they were six. The horizontal roots stretched out in a tangle and stitched the bank together, keeping it intact.

The Little Rouge River calls me to sit and listen to its flowing song—a joyful playful symphony of breaths, chortles and open-throated froth. I sit. And still my breath. I find my whole body relax from the tension of the suburban drive. I am home, sighing with a rhythm I’d forgotten. Re-aligning. Bones with rock. Rock with twig. Twig with root. The animals no longer scold me. They have resumed their natural rhythm, as I merge into scenery. And write…

****

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gnarly cedar roots (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What I do is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. I share great company with people who used walking (usually in Nature) as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing). All great walkers.

Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains: “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry. Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture.

YellowBirch-winter

Yellow birch trunk (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Stanford researchers demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. They showed that the act of walking significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants and that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.

“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry,” writes journalist Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker (2014). “When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxgen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial to memory) and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

SONY DSC

Nina Munteanu walks the forest (photo by Merridy Cox)

While walking is good for our creativity and general well-being, walking in a park or wilderness is so much better. Researchers in Europe and Japan found that anxiety and depression was significantly reduced in the presence of green space and that it boosted attentiveness, focus and academic performance. Vegetation creates “a halo of improved health.” Dr. Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois demonstrated that just seeing a tree helps cognition and promotes a sense of well-being. While a human-made environment of objects—cars and buildings—requires high-frequency processing in the brain; a landscaped environment allows the observer to relax his or her attention, resulting in reduced muscle tension, lower heart rate, and a generally less stressful physiology.

Finding a favourite tree might be the best thing you do to boost your creativity.

 

Forest path-NS

Forest path in Nova Scotia (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Nina-willowtree

Nina Munteanu by a large willow tree (photo Jane Raptor)

Cameron, Julia. 1992. “The Artist’s Way”. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.

Deasey, Louise. 2015. “Negative Ions Are Great for Your Health”. 
Body and Soul.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 170pp.

Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.

Wells, Nancy M. 2000. “At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning”. Environment and Behavior 32 (6): 775–795.

 

 

nina-2014aaaNina 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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

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

Sammy

I’m not a very patient person. I make no time for writer’s block or lingering in useless limbo over some plot issue or misbehaving minor character. I write pretty much to a tight schedule: this short story to that market by this date; edits to this book to the editor by that date; blog posts created by such and such a time; an article to another market by another date. It goes on and on. When I go to my computer to write, I write.

Then there’s Sammy. My cat.

Who likes to jump on my lap, make himself all comfortable and then lie over my arm — trapping it along with five of my typing digits. Now what??? Some of you would advise me to simply pull out my pinned arm and/or shove him off. But how can I disturb such a blissful creature? He is so content furled on me, so satisfied that he has captured that wandering appendage of business that is all his now. Content in the bliss of now. In the bliss of cat-purr-meditation…

sammy-2010-01_edited-1Pinned in the moment, my mind first struggles with the need to pound out the next line. My mind then rephrases and teases out nuances of that line. Finally, it wanders out with my gaze and I find myself daydreaming in a kind of trance. Giving in to the cat-purr-meditation.

And it is here that magic happens. In the being; not in the doing.

This is the irony of writing and the muse. To write we need to live; we need to have something to write about and we need to be in that state of mind that allows us to set it to print. I am at my best as a writer when I am focused on the essence of the story, its heart and soul beating through me with a life of its own.

My cat Sammy isn’t the only vehicle to my magical muses.

 

Waking up the Muse

Here are a few things that help me entice those capricious muses into action:

snow-christmas2008-sammy

Sammy hunting

Music: music moves me in inexplicable ways. I use music to inspire my “muse”. Every book I write has its thematic music, which I play while I write and when I drive to and from work (where I do my best plot/theme thinking). I even go so far as to have a musical theme for each character.

Walks: going for a walk, particularly in a natural environment, uncluttered with human-made distractions, also unclutters the mind and soul. It grounds you back to the simplicity of life, a good place to start.

Cycling: one of my favorite ways to clear my mind is to cycle (I think any form of exercise would suffice); just getting your heart rate up and pumping those endorphins through you soothes the soul and unleashes the brain to freely run the field.

Attend writer’s functions: go to the library and listen to a writer read from her work. You never know how it might inspire you. Browse the bookshelves of the library or bookstore. Attend a writer’s convention or conference.

Visit an art gallery, go to a movie: art of any kind can inspire creativity. Fine art is open to interpretation and can provoke your mind in ways you hadn’t thought before. If you go with an appreciative friend and discuss what you’ve seen you add another element to the experience.

Go on a trip with a friend: tour the city or, better yet, take a road trip with a good friend or alone (if you are comfortable with it). I find that travelling is a great way to help me focus outward, forget myself, and open my mind and soul to adventure and learning something new. Road trips are metaphoric journeys of the soul.

Form a writer’s group: sharing ideas with people of like mind (or not, but of respectful mind) can both inspire you and provide the seeds of ideas.

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

 

 

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

My Writing Retreat in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Ravine-house

Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

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

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

Breakfast Room

Noble Restaurant, Prince of Wales Hotel

Horse carriage01

Horse and carriage on King Street

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

FredGamula

Fred Gamula

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

PrinceOfWales-patio

Patio of Prince of Wales Hotel

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

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

Nina-ottoman store

Nina and her favourite hippo

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

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

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

wayne-gretzky-whisky

Wayne Gretzky with his “99”

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

IMG_0865

General store of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

PorkWithSangria

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

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

Ravine-birdhouses

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

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Free range chickens roam the vineyard at Ravine

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

 

nina-2014aaa

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Limestone Genre Expo—July 2015

I recently attended the inaugural festival of the Limestone Genre Expo (July 25, 2015) for writers in Kingston, Ontario. The festival gets its name from the city’s moniker, based on the many heritage buildings constructed there using local limestone.

It would have been a very long trip from my digs in Nova Scotia; but I’m currently in Toronto, teaching writing at UofT and George Brown College. I still had to get up earlier than I normally do to get to the 1-day festival that started at ten in the morning.venue

It was worth it.

Organizers Liz Strange, Barry King, Delina MacDonald and Marlene Smith nailed everything right. Being the first of hopefully many more, this writers’ festival wisely started small. But, like the good Doctor’s tardis, the venue belied its size by being dense with quality and diversity.

Alison Sinclair

Alison Sinclair

The Ongwandada Resource Centre, where the festival was held, had lots of parking with a friendly well-lit ambience inside under an atrium with tables and chairs for gathering and several rooms for panels and workshops.

The festival covered several of the major genres such as fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance and mystery, with representation by well-known authors in each. Organizers offered a triple track program from 10 am to 5 pm that included panels, informative workshops, readings, novel pitch sessions with CZP

Sandra Kasturi of CZP

Sandra Kasturi of CZP

and Bundoran Press and first page critiques with Caro Soles. Festival organizers populated their program with well-established writers from their own communities. Readers of genre fiction and writers looking to learn and network were given the opportunity to meet some of the top genre writers in the region. The venue included a book fair, box lunches and a snack stand. The only thing missing was a primo coffee bar.

Marie Bilodeau

Marie Bilodeau

The small venue provided an intimate setting for great networking. I had a chance to meet many of my old friends and to make new ones. Marie Bilodeau, an Ottawa fantasy writer, gave an exquisite reading of her new series “Nigh”. Alison Sinclair, recently moved to Ottawa, beamed as she showed me the new release of her Eyre series, “Contagion” by Bundoran Press. Aurora-winning short story author Douglas Smith gave

Doug Smith

Doug Smith

an informative workshop on how to market and sell your short stories. His excellent guidebook “Playing the Short Game” sold for a special festival price. I caught Derek Newman-Stille sitting in the lounge over a box lunch and discussed his radio show in Peterborough and traded stories with Hayden Trenholm, publisher of Bundoran Press and aurora-winning author of the Steeles Chronicles. Other writers who I had a chance to visit

Alyssa Cooper

Alyssa Cooper

with and meet included Caro Soles, Sandra Kasturi (of Chizine), Alyssa Cooper, Eve Langlais, Matt Moore, Nancy Kilpatrick, Matthew Johnson, and Violette Malan.

The organizers—themselves published genre writers (Strange writes fantasy, horror and mystery and just released her first science fiction novel, “Erased”; King writes science fiction)—started the festival in response to an observed need to showcase genre writers in the Kingston area, otherwise rich in non-genre writing festivals. “Kingston is in an interesting position because we do have so many writers and we do have the WritersFest and so on,” explained King to Peter Hendra of the Kingston Whig-Standard. King felt there was room to showcase this literature in Kingston and the surrounding area.

Derek Newman-Stille

Derek Newman-Stille

“I find that genre fiction can sometimes be seen on a lower status as ‘literary fiction’, and that stings,” Strange confided to me. “I thought [the LGE] would succeed because there are not that many festivals of this sort, and after we put feelers out to see who might be interested in attending the positive responses were overwhelming.”

Caro Soles

Caro Soles

Strange added that “nerd culture” these days is more mainstream than in the past, thanks to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Strange concluded that this is a good thing for writers of romance, sci-fi, horror, mystery and fantasy and observed that genres are blending a lot more (e.g., historical fantasy, paranormal romance, etc.). I personally write mostly blended genres: science fiction thrillers; SF eco-fiction; historical fantasy and romantic SF.

Violette Malan

Violette Malan

I asked Strange for her opinion on whether the festival was a success and what the organizers plan to do for next year. She gave a resounding yes; they had double the numbers they’d hoped for and didn’t lose money (a common challenge with writing festivals). With most events tending to be in spring or fall, they chose summer, which worked well and showed off Kingston.

Liz Strange, Marlene Smith, Barry King, Delina MacDonald

Liz Strange, Marlene Smith, Barry King, Delina MacDonald

Based on the feedback and success of the con, it looks like the festival next year will run two days.

Now that’s great news!

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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.

Walking Helps Me Think and Imagine

the beach-2013i

Boardwalk in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve written many articles and over a dozen books and readers often remark on my imagination with something akin to awe and incredulity. I often get asked where I get my ideas. Let me tell you a story first…

A Toronto friend—himself a prolific letter writer—shares that his ideas come to him during his daily walks (you’ll find his witty, humorous and somewhat pithy letters in the National Post, Globe and Mail or Toronto Star … almost weekly). David Honigsberg doesn’t use his car (that’s reserved for when his son is in town) and he walks every opportunity he gets, whether it’s a short jaunt to the coffee shop several blocks from his work place or a long trek to his home in Mount Pleasant after a lunch engagement near Bloor and Yonge. He tells me that he uses his phone to capture his “eureka” moments in what may now be considered unorthodox—he doesn’t make digital notes (it’s not that kind of phone!) but instead leaves a series of voice mails on his home phone. When he gets home, David replays his messages and writes out his letter to the editor.

What Dave does is not new to creative thinkers all over the world and throughout time. He shares great company with people who used walking as a venue toward creative thinking (and writing); people like Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Soren Kierkegaard—just to name a few. All great walkers.

the beach-2013

The Beach, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Aristotle conducted his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens. His followers, who chased him as he walked, were known as the peripatelics (e.g., Greek for meandering). Darwin refined his ideas on natural selection and other topics during his frequent walks along his “thinking path”, a gravel road called Sandwalk Wood near his home in southeast England. Dickens walked for miles each day and once said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” Beethoven often took solitary walks. He strolled the Viennese woods for hours, finding inspiration for his works and jotting them down on a notepad that he carried with him. Nietzsche loved his walks in the mountains. He wrote, “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” For Wordsworth, the act of walking was one in the same with the act of writing poetry. Both involved rhythm and meter. Henry David Thoreau was known for his great walkabouts. Walking through nature for Thoreau was a pilgrimage without a destination—more discovery and rapture. “Taking a long walk was [Steve Job’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation,” wrote Job’s biographer Walter Isaacson. Writer and avid walker, Soren Kierkegaard writes:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

In the April 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Pshychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz demonstrated that walking boosts creative inspiration. Using the Guildford’s Alternative Uses Test they showed that the act of walking, whether inside or outside, significantly increased creativity for 81% of the participants. Oppezzo and Schwartz were able to demonstrate that the creative ideas generated while walking were not irrelevant or far-fetched, but innovative and practical.

Snowy Path scarborough

Snowy day on Scarborough path (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the September 3 2014 issue of The New Yorker, journalist Ferris Jabr describes why this is the case:

“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

It isn’t just strolling or sauntering that stimulates the creative mind to new heights.

Stoking the creative artist inside you may be as simple as giving your mind the chance to wander—and taking the time to pay attention. In her book The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron talks about how “rhythm” and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. She lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, strolling, steering a car. I can testify to the latter—how many great plot ideas have I cooked up while driving to work! Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claimed that his best ideas came to him while he was driving the freeway. Negotiating through the flow of traffic triggered the artist-brain with images, translated into ideas. “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” Einstein was known to have remarked. Scientists tell us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.

The magic part in this is to pay attention. Pay attention to your life experiences; don’t ignore them. Sit up in the bus and watch people, play with the images, sounds and smells. Get sensual and let your eyes, ears, nose and limbs delight in the world. It’s amazing how interesting the world becomes once you start paying attention.

So, to answer the question above about where I get my ideas: in one word, everywhere.

Of course, I find those “s” activities mentioned above very helpful in quieting my mind to “listen” to my creative spirit and see; they calm and focus me. I would add another “s” word–scrawling–to the list. While Dave sends a voice message home on his phone when he gets an idea, I carry a notebook with me to jot down my eureka moments. I find writing by hand additionally helps in the creative process.  What works best for me is a walk in Nature. Nothing beats that…having a dialogue with the wind, or the chiming birds and rustling trees, the gurgling brook or surging sea or tiny insect, the soothing sun…rough bark of a fir tree… The texture of the world…

“The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.”—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

References:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. “The Artist’s Way”. Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, NY. 222pp.

Dillard, Annie. 1974. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial. 304pp.

Downden, Craig. 2014. “Steve Jobs was Right About Walking” In: The National Post, December 23, 2014.

Munteanu, Nina. 2013. The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice. Pixl Press, Vancouver, BC. 170pp.

Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. 2014. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4: 1142-1152.

 

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.