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

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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.

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General store of Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery

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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

Ravine-chickens

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

 

Tree Deer Lake

Deer Lake Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought,” writes Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write. “The closer [the writer] gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

So, why do it, then? Why bother? Is it worth it to make yourself totally vulnerable to the possible censure and ridicule of your peers, friends, and relatives? To serve up your heart on a platter to just have them drag it around as Stevie Nicks would say?…

Welcome to the threshold of your career as a writer. This is where many aspiring writers stop: in abject fear, not just of failure but of success. The only difference between those that don’t and those that do, is that the former come to terms with their fears, in fact learn to use them as a barometer to what is important.

“Everyone is afraid to write,” says Keyes. “They should be. Writing is dangerous…To love writing, fear writing and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction. It’s the essence of what we do.”

Unravelling the Secret…

How do you get past the fear of being exposed, past the anticipated disappointment of peers, past the terror of success?

The answer is passion. If you are writing about something you are passionate about, you will find the courage to see it through. “The more I read, and write,” says Keyes:

The more convinced I am that the best writing flows less from acquired skill than conviction expressed with courage. By this I don’t mean moral convictions, but the sense that what one has to say is something others need to know.—Ralph Keyes

This is ultimately what drives a writer to not just write but to publish: the need to share one’s story, over and over again. To prevail, persist, and ultimately succeed, a writer must have conviction and believe in his or her writing. You must believe that you have something to say that others want to read. Ask yourself why you are a writer. Your answer might surprise you.

Every writer is an artist. And every artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds the world accountable. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

The first step, then, is to acknowledge your passion and own it. Flaunt it, even. Find your conviction, define what matters and explore it to the fullest. You will find that such an acknowledgement will give you the strength and fortitude to persist and persevere, particularly in the face of those fears. Use the fears to guide you into that journey of personal truths. Frederick Busch described it this way: “You go to dark places so that you can get there, steal the trophy and get out.”

John Steinbeck, author of Grapes of Wrath, said:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.—John Steinbeck

Finding Success Through Meaning

Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz to become an important neurologist and psychiatrist of our time and to write Man’s Search for Meaning.

Blogger Gavin Ortlund wrote: “What gripped me most about [Frankl’s] book, and has stayed with me to this day, is not the horror and barbarity of his experiences in concentration camps—when you pick up a book about the holocaust, you expect that. What really struck me was Frankl’s repeated insistence that even there, in the most inhumane and horrific conditions imaginable, the greatest struggle is not mere survival. The greatest struggle is finding meaning. As I was reading, I was struck with this thought: going to a concentration camp is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst that can happen to a person is not having a transcendent reason to live. Life is about more than finding comfort and avoiding suffering: it’s about finding what is ultimate, whatever the cost.”

Victor Frankl wisely said:

The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.—Victor Frankl

Frankl is talking about passion. “If you long to excel as a writer,” says Margot Finke, author of How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer, “treasure the passion that is unique within yourself. Take the irreplaceable elements of your life and craft them into your own personal contribution to the world.” It’s what has you up to 2 am, pounding the keys. It follows you down the street and to work with thoughts of another world. It puts a notebook and pen in your hand as you drive to the store, ready to record thoughts about a character, scene or place. “For the passionate, writing is not a choice; it’s a force that cannot be denied.”

tree water deer lake

Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Finke says it astutely: You need to be passionate about everything to do with your book—the writing and rewriting, your critique group, your research, your search for the best agent/editor, plus your query letter. Not to mention the passion that goes into promoting your book. Nothing less will assure your survival—and success—as a writer.

Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness—Allen Ginsberg, American poet

This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Nina Munteanu

References:

Finke, Margot. 2008. “How to Keep Your Passion and Survive as a Writer.” In: The Purple Crayonhttp://www.underdown.org/mf_ writing_passion

Frankl, Victor. (1946) 1997. Man’s Search for Meaning. Pocket Books. 224 pp.

Keyes, Ralph. 1999. The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. Writer’s Digest, 1999.

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

Ortlund, Gavin. 2008. “Frankl, the holocaust and meaning.” In: Let Us Hold Fast. http://gro1983.blogspot.com/2008/02/frankl-holocaust-and-meaning.html

Slonim Aronie, Nancy. 1998. Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice. Hyperion. 256pp.

 

nina-2014aaaNina 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.

 

Find Your Focus This Christmas–Reprise

christmas-ballsHow many of you are still running around preparing for the Christmas celebration or secular family festivity? Buying that last minute gift you’d forgotten or were chasing down since a bazillion days ago? Or making last minute changes to your travel plans, house-cleaning for guests, mailing of cards or parcels or meal preparations?

Well, you’re reading this blog post … That means you’re sitting down and taking a minute to relax and regroup. That’s good. Remember to breathe… while I tell you a story…

I’d just finished a three-day drive through snow and rain storms from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, to Toronto, Ontario, where I was staying for a few days before catching a flight to Vancouver to spend Christmas with my son and good friends on the west coast. Talk about fast living.

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties. After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write.

snow-christmas2008-sammyMy male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Most of us think of Christmas as a busy time, of getting together (often dutifully) with family and friends, exchanging presents and feasting. Christmas is certainly this, but that is only a shallow view of a far deeper event; and I don’t mean only for Christians.

Whether celebrating the holy light of Hannukah or the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, this season provides us with the opportunity to meditate on far more than the surficial nature of the symbols we have come to associate with the season: the Christmas tree, presents, turkey dinner, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—most of which originate from pagan tradition, by the way.

Says Lama Christie McNally (author of The Tibetan Book of Meditation), “once you dive below the surface, you will discover a beautiful clear place—like a diamond hidden beneath the rubble. It is your own mind, uncovered … Tibetans say we have only just begun the process of awakening—that we still have quite a way to go in our evolutionary process. And it has nothing to do with building spaceships or computers. The next step in our evolution takes place within.”

snow-scene-road-to-Wolfville-barn_edited-1

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

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.

Merry Christmas!

 

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 Art Reveals Truth in Science

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Mountain cabin, Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It is quite possible … that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology —Naom Chomsky

In the 1920s, physicist Niels Bohr struggled to re-imagine the structure of matter. He rejected the current hegemony of a fractal “solar system” model and sought a new metaphor. “When it comes to atoms,” said Bohr, “language can only be used as poetry.”

Bohr compared the invisible world of atoms and electrons to cubist art because, according to Jonah Lehrer in an article in SeedMagazine.com, it “revealed the fissures in everything, turning the solidity of matter into a surreal blur.” In 1923 deBroglie had determined that electrons could exist as particles or waves. Bohr maintained that the form they took depended on how you looked at them: by simply observing, you determined their nature.

Many of us believe that while art can be profound, it does not solve practical challenges of reality; only scientific knowledge, which progresses on a linear ascent toward greater understanding, resolve the serious challenges of our world and will one day solve everything.

This is, of course a matter of belief. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery.” The traditional elements of science have used a reductionist approach to understand the whole, looking at the parts and reconstructing the causal pathways. Take the synapse, for instance. Neuroscientists now know that 100 billion electrical cells occupy a human brain, that every cubic millimeter of the cerebral cortex contains a billion synapses involved in the neurotransmission of electrical impulses in perception and thought. Yet, as Novelist Richard Powers challenged, ‘If we knew the world only through synapses, how could we know the synapse?”

“The paradox of neuroscience,” said Lehrer, “is that its astonishing progress has exposed the limitations of its paradigm … Neuroscience has yet to capture [the] first-person perspective. Artists … distill the details of real life into prose and plot … They capture a layer of reality that reductionism cannot … and provide science with a glimpse into its blind spots … Sometimes the whole is better understood in terms of the whole … No scientific model of the mind will be complete unless it includes what can’t be reduced.”

Logical minds will reject art as too incoherent and imprecise to contribute to the knowledge base provided by scientific process. They will maintain that Beauty isn’t Truth, that the novel is just a work of fiction, and abstract art the arcane expression of a micro-culture.

But what of paradox? Critic Randall Jarrell contended that, “it is the contradictions of works of art which make them able to represent us — as logical and methodical generalizations cannot — our world and our selves, which are also full of contradictions.” The cultural hypotheses of artists can inspire the questions that stimulate important new scientific answers, adds Lehrer.

The irony of modern physics is that it seeks reality in its most fundamental form, and yet we are incapable of comprehending these fundamentals beyond the math we use to represent them. The only way to know the universe is through analogy.

DougFir-LighthousePark

Douglas fir, Vancouver (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Richard Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

While artists rely on imagination, much of modern physics exceeds the imagination: dark matter, quarks and neutrinos, black holes, multiple dimensions and folded space. To venture beyond the regular confines of our “ordinary world” where matter is certain, time flows forward and there are only three dimensions, we must resort to metaphor. “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device,” wrote physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, “but also as an aid to scientific discovery.” Einstein came up with relativity while thinking about moving trains; Arthur Eddington compared the expansion of the universe to an inflated balloon; James Clerk Maxwell visualized magnetic fields as little whirlpools in space. String theory is often imagined as garden hoses.

The greatest physicists of the 20th century thought metaphorically. String theorist Brian Greene wrote that the arts have the ability to “give a vigorous shake to our sense of what’s real.” Picasso never understood the equations, says Lehrer: “he picked up the non-Euclidian geometry via the zeitgeist.” A century later some scientists still use his fragmented images to symbolize their ideas. “Novelists can stimulate the latest theories of consciousness through their fiction … Painters can explore new theories about the visual cortex … Dancers can help untangle the mysterious connection between the body and emotion.”

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

college-window-UoT

Window in University College, UofT (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Both science and art benefit from exchange. By inviting art to participate in its conversation, science provides art with the opportunity to add science to its repertoire. And through its interpretation of scientific ideas and theories, art offers science a new lens through which to see itself.

Karl Popper exhorts us to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes.”

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

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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.

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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.

Beat the Christmas Frenzy and Find Your Focus

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Snow in The Beach (photo by Nina Munteanu)

How many of you are still running around preparing for the Christmas celebration or secular family festivity? Buying that last minute gift you’d forgotten or were chasing down since a bazillion days ago? Or making last minute changes to your travel plans, house-cleaning for guests, mailing of cards or parcels or meal preparations?

Well, you’re reading this blog post … That means you’re sitting down and taking a minute to relax and regroup. That’s good. Remember to breathe… while I tell you a story…

I’d just finished a three-day drive through snow and rain storms from Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, to Toronto, Ontario, where I was staying for a few days before catching a flight to Vancouver to spend Christmas with my son and good friends on the west coast. Talk about fast living.

I move around a lot these days. It helps me to appreciate some of the most simple things in life and reminds me of what I love most about Christmas: how it focuses my heart and reconnects me. I don’t mean just with relatives and friends either, although the season certainly does that. I’m talking about my soul and the universe itself. Before I became an itinerant, Christmas bustled with my responsibilities as primary caregiver, social coordinator and hostess of major parties. After I’d said goodbye to our visiting friends and done the dishes and tidied the house; after my husband and son had gone to bed, I sat in the dark living room lit only with the Christmas Tree lights and the flickering candle, and listened to soft Christmas music, primed to write.

sammy-close02 copyMy male cat, smelling fresh from outside, found his rightful place on my lap and settled there, pinning me down with love. And there, as I breathed in the scent of wax and fir and cat I found myself again.

Most of us think of Christmas as a busy time, of getting together (often dutifully) with family and friends, exchanging presents and feasting. Christmas is certainly this, but that is only a shallow view of a far deeper event; and I don’t mean only for Christians.

Whether celebrating the holy light of Hannukah or the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, this season provides us with the opportunity to meditate on far more than the surficial nature of the symbols we have come to associate with the season: the Christmas tree, presents, turkey dinner, Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas—most of which originate from pagan tradition, by the way.

Says Lama Christie McNally (author of The Tibetan Book of Meditation), “once you dive below the surface, you will discover a beautiful clear place—like a diamond hidden beneath the rubble. It is your own mind, uncovered … Tibetans say we have only just begun the process of awakening—that we still have quite a way to go in our evolutionary process. And it has nothing to do with building spaceships or computers. The next step in our evolution takes place within.”

Christmas is, more than anything, a time of embracing paradox. It is an opportunity to still oneself amid the bustle; to find joy in duty; to give of one’s precious time when others have none, to embrace selflessness when surrounded by promoted selfishness, and to be genuine in a commercial and dishonest world. If one were to look beyond the rhetoric and imposed tradition, the Christmas season represents a time of focus, a time to reflect on one’s genuine nature and altruistic destiny. A time to reconnect with the harmony and balance in our lives.

A time to sit with our cat, pinned with love, and write our next novel.

Merry Christmas!

 

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.

Finding the Muse … and Keeping It

writing-Diary in Margaritas

Writing my novel in style (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I often get asked how and from where I draw my inspiration. How do I find my muse? And how do I keep it? What I’m really being asked is: how do I defeat “writer’s block”?

 

The Journeying Muse 

Many writers complain of experiencing writer’s block at some point in their career—that affliction of not accessing one’s creativity, when the muses have all fled to Tahiti or someplace far away and you are left with a blank page or more importantly—and alarmingly—a blank mind. No desperate search, hot shower, long walk or discussion with a friend will seduce those holidaying muses back. You’re still stuck on page 49.

Here’s my solution: don’t sweat it. Embrace the emptiness and something wonderful will fill it. I said something; not necessarily what you expect. I believe that when your muse “leaves” you, it is on a journey. More to the point you are on a journey. You’re living. More often than not, our directed muse leaves us because something has gotten in the way. What you probably need to do is pay attention to that something. It’s telling you something. Ironically, by doing this, you open yourself to something wonderful. Okay, enough of somethings!…

Writing is a lot like fishing. In order to write you need something to write about. So, when the world gets in your way, you should pay attention. This is what you’re here for. A writer is an artist who reports on her society. A good artist, at least an accessible one, needs to be both participant as well as observer. So, take a break and live. Chances are, you will have much more to write about after you do.

 

Invoking the Muse & Defeating Writer’s Block 

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Pat and Joan at a writing intensive (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the over twenty years of writing both fiction and non-fiction I really hadn’t given much thought to writer’s block until recently, when I was challenged on it. This is not to say that I never experienced it. I did; I just kept on writing.

“What?” you say. “Then, you didn’t really have writer’s block!” Well, I did; but only for that particular project, and only for one aspect of that particular project. The key is to have multiple projects and to recognize that each, in turn, has multiple tasks associated with it (e.g., editing, research, discussion, etc.).

For instance, besides Novel A, whose plot had me stumped in the middle, I was working on two short stories and a non-fiction article. I was also actively posting science articles, essays and opinion pieces on my blog. In addition, I was writing news articles for an online magazine and doing my regular stint at the environmental consulting firm where I wrote interpretive environmental reports. I kept on writing.

I let the plot of Novel A sit for a while as I continued to write. That didn’t mean I couldn’t work on Novel A in other capacities: copy-editing or polishing language, for instance. The point I want to make is that it’s helpful to have other things on the go mainly because this will let you relax about the project that has you stumped. And you need to relax for it to resolve. It’s a little like looking for the watch you misplaced; it will “find you” when you stop looking.

 

Letting the Muse Return (on its own terms)

Each of you has felt it: that otherworldly, euphoric wave of “knowing”, of resonating with something that is more than the visible world: when the hairs on the back of your neck tingle as you write that significant scene … or tremble with giddy energy as you create that perfect line on a painting …or glow with a deep abiding warmth when you defend a principal … or the surging frisson you share with fellow musicians on that exquisite set piece …These are all what I call God moments. And they don’t happen by chasing after them; they sneak up on us when we’re not looking. They come to us when we focus outward and embrace our wonder for this world. When we quiet our minds and nurture our souls with beauty.

Merry Christmas!

 

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.

Stoking the Scintillation of Inspiration

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Walking along the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Many of us wish we were more creative,” Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, shares. “Many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill … we hunger for what might be called creative living.”

Many of us are, in fact, creatively blocked. How would you know if you were? Jealousy is an excellent clue. Are there creative people you resent? Do you tell yourself, ‘I could do that, if only…’ An old friend of mine used to constantly share that he would “start living and settle down” once he had enough money. It never happened; and he never did—twenty years later. That was sad; because he was waiting for life to begin, when it was already happening—and he was missing it.

Creative recovery (or discovery) is something you can learn. It is something you can enhance and direct. “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist,” says Cameron, “you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction. You will learn ways to recognize and resolve fear, remove emotional scar tissue, and strengthen your confidence.”

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. Rhythm and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. Cameron lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, 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 that 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 magical 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.

Henry Miller tells us to develop interest in your daily life; in people, things, literature, and music: “the world is … simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself,” he says.

Looking outward as well as inward allows us to explore different angles and facets of the same thing. When we see the same thing through different perspectives we rediscover something new in ourselves. We create interest and connect the world to ourselves.

Julia Cameron shares that “art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck). Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans. But it is the attention to detail that stays with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art. Even in the midst of pain, this singular image brings delight. The artist who tells you different is lying.”

Brenda Ueland tells us why we should all use our creative power: “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”

References:

Julia Cameron. 2002. “The Artist’s Way”. Tarcher. 272pp.

Nina Munteanu. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice”. Pixl Press. 132pp.

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.

Wake Up Your Muse: How My Cat Taught Me the Art of Being

My cat, Sammy, being...

My cat, Sammy … being…

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…

Pinned 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:

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 to study 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.