What I Love About Teaching How To Write

Path leading into a mixed gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

During a recent professional development session for writing instructors at UofT, I got a prompt to share what I loved about teaching how to write. We had eight minutes to write what first came to us. I found myself writing easily and quickly. Here’s what I shared:

Path through a gnarly forest in a December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I love how fluid it is. I used to work as an environmental consultant (as a limnologist) and what I loved about that job was the lack of structure and the diversity of projects. No day was the same. And—like a box of chocolates—I never knew what lay in store for me. I flourish in that kind of chaotic problem-solving.

Teaching how to write is like that.

Teaching how to write is about process. It’s about the journey and the relationships, not just about things. It’s more about how they fit together, why they work, and where they go. The act of teaching is always changing. It’s fluid, like water. And how apt, considering that our bodies are over two-thirds water. Just like water, we like to flow.

Teaching how to write is more than teaching how to use a tool, how to string a good sentence together or choosing the best word; it includes “voice”, expression, identity, freedom, and autonomy. Writing is power and I am empowering when I teach writing.

What a cool thing to do!

Path along the edge of a small woodland in the December fog, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

Why We Need to Write

Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change—Ingrid Bengis

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Moss-covered creek in Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

We’re all writers here… But how many of us, when asked about what we do, respond with “I write” or “I’m writing a book” or “I write stories”? I know. It’s complicated. It’s so much easier to leave that part out of our busy and serious lives. Besides, what do you say when the inevitable question of “so, what have you published?” comes up? All too often in North America, if you are not yet published you aren’t considered a writer. Until you’re published, you and your writing aren’t taken seriously. Even after I was published, my husband called my writing a hobby. He’s my ex-husband now.


Friend Anne walks among the giants, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What my ex-husband failed to recognize, but you and I know in our hearts, is that we live to write and write to live. Writing is the breath and light of our soul and the well-spring of our very essence. Isaac Asimov said, “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.” That was every bit as true when he was unpublished as after he’d published a bazillion books. This is more than metaphoric truth; it is scientifically proven.

Expressive 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.

Whether you publish or not, your writing is important and worthwhile. Take ownership of it, nurture it, and hold it sacred. Command respect from others and respect all writers in turn; don’t let ignorance intimidate you to silence. My colleague, Louise DeSalvo wrote in her book, Writing as a Way of Healing:

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Boardwalk among giant cedars, Revelstoke Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Many people I know who want to write but don’t or who want to write more but say they can’t find the time, have told me that taking the time to write seems, 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 … What, though, if writing weren’t such a luxury? What if writing were a simple, significant, yet necessary way to achieve spiritual, emotional, and psychic wholeness? To synthesize thought and feeling, to understand how feeling relates to events in our lives and vice versa? What if writing were as important and as basic a human function and as significant to maintaining and promoting our psychic and physical wellness as, say, exercise, healthful good, pure water, clean air, rest and repose, and some soul-satisfying practice?”

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Mossy cedar, Revelstoke Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Of course, in our hearts we know this is true. DeSalvo adds of her long journey toward accepting writing in her life: “I didn’t know that if you want to write, you must follow your desire to write … I didn’t know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn’t know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you’ll learn through writing … all you need to know about your craft … I didn’t know that if you want to write and don’t, because you don’t feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”

Writing, like any form of creativity, requires faith; in ourselves and in others. And that’s scary. It’s scary because it requires that we relinquish control. All the more reason to write. Resistance is a form of self-destruction, says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way (1992). We resist to maintain some idea of control but instead we increase depression, anxiety, and confusion. Booth et al (1997) found that written disclosure significantly reduces physiological stress on the body caused by inhibition. We were born to create. Why do we demure and resist? Because, says Cameron, “we have bought the message of our culture … [that] we are meant to be dutiful and then die. The truth is that we are meant to be bountiful and live.”

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Nina Munteanu in bliss with giant cedar tree, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

Joseph Campbell wrote: “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.” Cameron adds, “It is the inner commitment to be true to ourselves and follow our dreams that triggers the support of the universe. While we are ambivalent, the universe will seem to us also to be ambivalent and erratic.”

Seize the muse and proclaim it proudly. I AM A WRITER.


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.

How We Will Tell Stories in the Future

Cover1_LastSummoner-frontcoverIn the early 1400s, when Lady Vivianne Schoen (the hero of my book  The Last Summoner) lived, one of the largest libraries in Europe was at the University of Cambridge; it held an impressive list of 122 books. That library currently houses over 7 million books.

Books were a work of art in the 1400s. And part of an elite. Delicate, large and beautiful, they were created in the language of the church—Latin—and in turn copied entirely by hand by the monks. With the dimensions of a current newspaper, but much thicker, these large illuminated manuscripts sometimes weighed more than 50 pounds.

There is a scene early on in The Last Summoner where, under the tutelage of Pere Daniel at her father’s castle in Grunwald, Vivianne learns this arcain craft of manuscript copying.

An illuminated manuscript, the exemplar, and its parchment copy, still in progress, lay on the desk top; both were held down from curling by several hanging weights. Ink pots, gold leaf, a pen knife and a quill lay beside the sloped desk-top—the scribe’s tools.

Père Daniel had studied the art of manuscript illumination, scribing, binding and even parchment-making at the Sorbonne. Last year he’d begun to teach Vivianne the art of creating illuminated manuscripts and she had eagerly begun her own, finding that she had a steady hand at illumination. Père Daniel had shown her how to make parchment from the skins of deer that the Baron brought back from his hunts in the Grunwald forest. Despite the availability of paper, parchment was preferred “because it is velvety, folds easily and gives an agreeable flexibility to pen strokes compared with the unyielding flatness of writing on paper,” the chaplain reasoned. He always gave a reason for the painstaking preparation that involved flaying, soaking, stretching and scraping: “Parchment wants to curl onto its darker, grain side; and hastily prepared parchment wants to do it more.” Nothing was better than parchment made from game “because the vein marks left from blood in the skin when the animal died is the animal’s contribution to the art of illumination,” he attested with the fervency of a man with a passion.

Père demonstrated with exacting care and infinite patience how to use the illuminator’s tools and create a professional-looking manuscript. He provided Vivianne with parchment, a quill for a left-handed scribe, a penknife to sharpen her quills, a pot of ink and a sloping desktop. He taught her how to make iron-gall ink by mixing a solution of tannic acids and copperas with added gum arabic from the dried-up sap of the acacia tree as thickener. It was important, said the Père, to pick a mature oak-gall, one that bore a hole from the matured wasp that had developed inside and left a juicy concoction of gallic acids. The galls were then crushed up and boiled for a long as it took to recite the Pater Noster three times, he’d said. The blackness, he told her, resulted from the chemical reaction of the oak-gall potion when copperas was stirred in. He’d shown her how to create the vermillion color, commonly used in headings, which he made from brazilwood chips infused in urine and stirred with gum arabic. Vivianne never asked Père Daniel where he got his urine. She and Père also raided Theobald’s kitchen to hunt down the outer right wing pinions of a goose for making a quill pen that naturally curved to the left, because she was left-handed.

knight-cameoPère showed Vivianne how the height of the written area should equal the width of the whole page in a well-proportioned manuscript. Père also showed her how to rule the guidelines for the script and make the initial under-drawing of her illumination in plummet then in ink after which the gold leaf was applied. Vivianne had become adept at applying the gold leaf over the raised gesso, that she made of slaked lime and white lead mixed with pink clay, sugar, a dash of gum and egg glair glue. After painstakingly painting the gesso where she wanted the gold leaf to remain and letting it dry, Vivianne then carefully lowered the fragile tissue-thin leaf over the gesso and pressed down through a piece of silk then buffed the gold to a brilliant finish with a dog’s tooth by vigorously rubbing back and forth until it was smooth and the edges where there was no gessocrumbled away.

Making books was called “black art” from the black ink that stained the worker’s hands after a long day of creating type. Readers were mostly scholars and the religious elite. In fact, reading was an elite occupation. The majority of people at the time were illiterate and had no interest in books. Moreover, books were written in the language of the church, not in the commonly spoken language of the countryside such as English, French, German or Spanish.

So, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the revolutionary printing press in 1452 to publish the Gutenberg Bible, neither monk nor Joe peasant took much notice. The monks considered the product inferior to their works of art and dismissed the new technology—until it had largely replaced their trade.

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Inner courtyard of Chilean Castle, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In fact, the presses formed the very basis of the artistic Renaissance, the religious reformations and the scientific revolution, wrote Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. “The printing press allowed the spread of information that couldn’t be controlled by the clergy, kings, politicians, or the religious elite,” adds New York Times technology reporter Nick Bilton in I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. Storytelling was no longer confined to an elite clergy; books could be created by anyone and shared in the spoken languages of the people.

Bilton shares another interesting fact: Gutenberg’s printed books were as heavy and unwieldy as the original handmade books of the monks. It was much later, in 1502, that Aldus Manutius of Venice invented a more portable book that could fit in a large jacket pocket; essentially inventing “the mobile phone of his day” wrote Bilton.

Historian Alistair McCleery wrote that the political and religious leaders initially panicked over the potential for the uncensored sharing of new and varied ideas among the lay public (which brings to mind similar fears of what the internet was providing to and enabling in the lay public: uncensored self-expression by the masses for the masses). Up until then, sharing stories among the common folk was limited to oral storytelling, which suffered from inconsistency and other limitations of the oral tradition. Within a short period of time, the ability to record and share “stories” had moved from a closeted elite to the world citizen. That is what the printing press—and the Internet today—did. Both have shifted the zeitgeist of an entire world.

Storytelling today is changing again. While many people still read books and go to the cinema, watch pre-programmed TV or rent DVDs, many more enjoy their stories through other devices like computers, downloads, mobile phones and e-readers that provide material through other media and venues such as Indie and self-publishing, amateur YouTube videos, interactive games and social networks. We stand poised on the edge of a wonderful cliff that celebrates the expression — and consumer choice — of the individual. The music industry shows this the best, where people dismissed the prepackaged albums and CDs and opted to create their own unique playlists through individual song downloads. The publishing industry is currently struggling with its own painful yet thrilling metamorphosis as is the visual arts industry. In fact, they are all blurring into one large integrated amalgam of artistic expression.


Times Square in New York City (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The information you get today is coming “more and more through your friends and through your social network. It’s being distributed through channels of trust and the trust isn’t necessarily the BBCor The New York Times. It’s people,” says B.J. Fogg founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University.


New York policeman sports my friend Toulouse on his gun (photo by Nina Munteanu)

During the days of packaged content, leading storytellers were published authors, journalists and writers of newspapers and magazines. “Now distribution channels matter less and anyone with an appropriate device can be a storyteller,” says Bilton, who shares that on the internet we tend to follow individuals we trust (e.g., Clive Thompson or David Carr) as much if not more than established organizations (like Wired Magazine or The New York Times). Accessible technology, platforms, free applications and software has truly enabled the individual.  No longer confined to the written word via paper books or visual expression through movies or TV shows, storytelling has embraced many forms. Amateur and professional have equally blurred.

It comes down to content. Technology and format aside, nothing compares to a good solid story. We all listen to or watch stories. We all tell or show stories, some of us more than others and some better than others.

With the advent of new and accessible technologies and applications available to individuals, the art of storytelling has entered a new renaissance. Good stories, like good content, will always prevail and surface into prominence, like cream in milk. They have just been released into a sea of possibilities like a stream previously confined in a gorge, spilling joyfully into the ocean.

Front Cover ONLY-webHarnessing the opening range of technologies available to us will only give us more choices to tell our stories. For instance, my latest book Outer Diverse (the first book of The Splintered Universe Trilogy) was published by Starfire World Syndicate in print form and e-format and will soon be available in audiobook format through Audible. I have also created associated YouTube promotional videos and am working with colleagues to produce a short story musical video on the book. Another colleague has embraced the image of the strong female hero with a jewelry line called the Rhea Hawke Collection and is looking at other “storytelling” merchandise. I am discussing with other colleagues possibilities for a graphic novel and an interactive video game version of the trilogy that will offer reader participation in storytelling.

The future embraces story in all its possible facets. Our role as storytellers is to embrace the future in all its facets.


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.

Celebrating 2014, the Year of the Horse

nina-2015-BWgrainJanuary 31st of 2014 begins the Year of the Wood Horse in the Chinese calendar as part of the sexagenary cycle of sixty 2-character terms. Each term (representing a year) consists of a “Heavenly stem” character and an “Earthly-branch” character; these combine to generate 60 unique terms that then repeat; in this case every 60 years. This means that the Year of the Wood Horse will only occur every 60 years.

I was born 60 years ago, so this is very much my year!

The Horse (馬 午)

In Chinese culture, the Horse symbolizes nobility, class, speed and perseverance.

The magical horse is heroic, strong and can fly. Think Pegasus, Tianma, Sleipnir, Epona’s horses, the Hippocamp, the white horse of Rhiannon, the unicorn, the dragon-horse of Xuanzang, the kelpie, and the bailongma. The white celestial cloud horse, sacred to the Chinese Goddess Kwan Yin—goddess of compassion—flies in the heavens and brings peace and blessings. The horse is linked to Varuna and equated to the cosmos. The white horse is also believed to be the last incarnation of Vishnu. Buddha is said to have left this physical plane riding a white horse.


Nina hiking (photo by Merridy Cox)

Horses love to run, or fly in the case of mythic horses. They love freedom. They’re sexy, elegant and beautiful and embody the qualities of power, grace, nobility, strength, victory and freedom. In Native American lore, the horse symbol combines the grounded power of the earth with the whispers of wisdom found in the spirit wind. The Celts considered the horse noble, embodying qualities of stability, honor, trust, intelligence and strength. The horse was considered a vehicle and guide for transcendence, able to invoke courage and determination. The Celtic Ogham equates the horse with the Oak tree (a strong, stable life-affirming symbol, recognized for its tendency to attract lightning, symbolic of divine light and spiritual rebirth).

Some metaphysical writings describe the Horse as a “triangle” or “trinity” of hypostases: 1) bearing the gift of presence, elegance, and journey; 2) offering the energy of freedom, nomadic spirit, and endurance; and 3) holding the magic of telepathy and spirit messenger.

The Wood Horse (木馬 午)

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Nina leans against giant cedar in Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

2014 isn’t just the year of the Horse; it is the year of the Wood Horse, also called the Green Horse (wood being related to a growing tree and the color of young growth). The wood element is associated with spring, growth and vitality.

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Mossy cedar tree, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mossy cedar, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Wood represents the first phase of Wu Xing, an ancient mnemonic for systems with five stages or movements, used to explain a diversity of phenomena from cosmic cycles to the interaction between internal organs and from the succession of political regimes to the properties of medicines. The five elements include wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

As one of the generative cyclical engendering five elements, wood feeds fire; fire creates Earth (ash); Earth bears metal; metal enriches water (e.g., water with minerals is more beneficial to the body than pure water); and water nourishes wood.

Wood is yang in character and associated with the planet Jupiter (and Zeus, the god of thunder and lightning), the color blue, green, and the wind. It is also associated with the Azure Dragon (Qing Long) of the east, one of the four mythological creatures of the Chinese constellations. The Azure Dragon is represented in the Kiyomizu Temple in eastern Kyoto, Japan, where I visited in Spring 2013.

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Bamboo stand near Kyoto, Japan (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Chinese Taoist thought, Wood is characterized by strength and flexibility (think bamboo and willow). Wood reflects qualities of warmth, generosity, co-operation and idealism. Wood heralds the beginning of life and embraces springtime and buds, sensuality and fecundity. Wood needs moisture to thrive. Wood, in turn, feeds fire. Wood burns. A Wood person is considered expansive, outgoing and socially conscious.

The wooden horse is a potent symbol. Perhaps the best known wooden horse is the Trojan Horse, used by the Greeks in the Trojan war to gain entry into Troy and destroy the city. As told in the Latin epic poem The Aeneid by Virgil: after a 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse—the emblem of Troy—and hid soldiers inside then pretended to leave. The horse was apparently left as a peace offering to the Trojans and to the goddess Athena to ensure safe passage home. Despite the priest Loacoon’s warning—“Don’t trust the horse! I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts”—the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the elite force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the army, which had hidden under cover of night. The Greeks won the conflict as a result of this brilliant subterfuge. This is why malicious computer programs that trick users into running them as useful or interesting are called Trojan Horses.

Today, the Trojan Horse that stands in front of ancient Troy (Truva) symbolizes vigilant peace and freedom. It is a daily reminder to thousands of tourists of the power of deception in the guise of candy-coated “truths”. The ancient Greeks cleverly subverted a noble symbol of honor, grace and power through crafty deception. The noble Wooden Horse, like any symbol, is only as good as those who embrace its original truths and noble meanings. Think swastika, the pentagram, the cross.

Were you born in the year of the horse?

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Nina’s sugar maple in Little Rouge River woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Horse years include: 2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918, and 1906. Horse people are bright, cheerful, popular and fun loving (big giant grin). People born in the Year of the Horse are smart fabulous speakers who have a gift for getting through to other people. They find people and crowds exciting and love parties. Hehe… Horse’s childish innocence, sunny disposition, and natural charm attract many friends. HAR! The horse is a very intuitive animal; horse-people follow their hunches. Luckily our keen judgment and natural intuition help us make the right decisions with those crazy hunches.

Rules constrain the proud horse that needs freedom to run. Horses are elegant, beautiful and highly intuitive animals. Horse people are frank and will tell you exactly what is on their mind; they dislike hidden agendas. The Horse is complex and paradoxical: considered proud yet sweet-natured, arrogant yet oddly modest in their approach to love, envious but tolerant, conceited yet humble. They want to belong, yet they need to be independent. They crave intimacy, yet refuse to be corralled or tamed. One astrologer tells us that, “The Horse will give up everything for love.”

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Nina hiking Highland Creek, Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

What does it all mean?…

So, what does all of this have to do with you, 2014 and the Year of the Horse? Why, nothing… Perhaps everything.

It depends on whether you are mindful of the symbols around you; whether you think and write metaphorically; whether you are fanciful and whimsical; whether you appreciate the ancient wisdom of humanity and its link to the divine… Whatever your inclination, I wish you a wonderful and productive year of transformation and wonderful surprises. I for one am looking forward to 2014. I’ve embraced it as my year with its spontaneous “horse” energy for fast action and flow—my style, actually.

I expect no middle ground. It’s a year of extremes, strong fluctuations, general chaos and great opportunity. A time of fast victories and unexpected adventure. A year to travel, especially off the beaten path. A year to connect with Nature and embrace Gaia’s radiant energy. Decisive action, not procrastination, brings victory. But you have to act fast to catch up with this horse. My book about water, which I started last year (the year of the water snake), will run its course to publication this year. It is half-written and I will finish it—and get it published—this year.

Horse energy is pure unbridled spirit. Playful, wild, and independent. Horse has a refined instinct that flows through action and movement. Leap. Fly. Follow your instincts. Chase your dream. Catch it by the tail. Finish that novel. Send it off. Present that proposal. Go to that convention. Meet that publisher or agent. Assert your honesty and openness. The horse demands it.

I wish you an exciting and wonderful 2014!


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.