On Writing: The Gestalt Nature of Passion & Success

Marsh and swamp forest in a blushing sunset, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

What is to give light must endure burning —Victor Frankl

Says Keyes: “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.”

Marsh in the Kawarthas, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.

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.  

Marsh of cattails, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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.

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.”

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

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.

Marsh near Millbrook, 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.

The Aroma of Story

Old cabin behind seeding goldenrods, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

One of my favourite smells is of pipe tobacco smoke. 

But here’s the thing:  I’m really not a fan of smoking. Both my parents were chain smokers (who wasn’t back then?) and I quickly discovered that cigarette butts carried thousands of ugly toxins and lasted years on the ground. In the one rebellious occasion that I skipped school with two school mates to spend the day in the forest, I accidentally lit my hair on fire trying to light the cigarette. Taking the karmic connection seriously, I decided that was the end of both skipping school and smoking for me.   

Cigarette butt found near a river in a park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, why the allure with pipe smoke?

Well, to begin my rationalization, pipe smoke is nothing like cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke squeals up my nose and mouth, choking my breath with an acrid burning that lodges like a smothering cancer in my throat; pipe smoke coils heavy and loose into my nostrils with lazy notes of fermenting cherry or plum.

There’s more to it, obviously . . . 

Left: Four-year old Nina Munteanu pretending to read; Right: Rue Principal in Granby, Quebec in the early 1960s

When I was little, one of my favourite things to do was hide behind the comic stand in the back corner of William’s General Store and read comic books. Superman, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Magnus Robot Fighter. So many more . . .

Mr. Williams knew I was there. I was, after all, hiding in plain sight, as kids generally do. But he was a kind man and let me stay and read for free. He recognized someone who loved story. 

The store was a typical general store of that era. Long and narrow, dark wood walls covered in paraphernalia. Shelves and stands cramped full with stuff. Anything from toys and penny candy to games, puzzles, watches, newspapers, pocket books and magazines, household necessities, shoeshine kits, canned goods and preserves, pocket knives, to cigars, pipes and the tobacco and lighters to go with them. A smoky mist settled on everything in the store and the place gave off the complex scent of old polished wood with a tobacco undercurrent. Williams might have smoked a pipe himself; I don’t recall. However, my sense-mind has wonderfully coupled that evocative aroma with a sense of freedom to immerse myself in fantastical worlds of imagination. And, in turn, to imagine my own worlds. 

That place and my experience in it not only gave me an abiding love for pipe smoke; it made me the storyteller I am today.  

Taste and smell appear to linger most in memory and yet are often neglected by writers. According to the California Institute of Technology, smell is generally considered the sense tied most closely to human memory. Smell profoundly influences people’s ability to recall past events and experiences. “A smell from your distant past can unleash a flood of memories that are so intense and striking that they seem real,” says Dr. Karl (Kruszelnicki), author of Great Moments in Science. “This kind of memory, where an unexpected re-encounter with a scent from the distant past brings back a rush of memories, is called a ‘Proustian Memory’.”

In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust writes: 

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls.

In this excerpt of The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, fragrance permeates with meaning: 

The flower shop was here and it was my father’s domain, but it was also marvelously other, this place heavy with the drowsy scent of velvet-petaled roses and Provencal freesias in the middle of winter, the damp-earth spring fragrance of just-watered azaleas and cyclamen all mixed up with the headachey smell of bitter chocolate. 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, his main character recalls the following memories, through several evocative smells: 

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer— and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich. 

Barrels of aging bourbon in Kentucky (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Part 2 of my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss how the various senses—not just smell—are strong tools in storytelling and provide examples and working exercises.

Psychologist Michael McCollough argues that environment plays a key role in human behaviors, such as forgiveness and revenge. He theorizes that various social environments can cause either forgiveness or revenge to prevail. McCollough relates his theory to game theory. In a tit-for-tat strategy, cooperation and retaliation are comparable to forgiveness and revenge. The choice between the two can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on what the game partner (or organism) chooses. The brain’s limbic system processes external stimuli related to emotions, social activity, and motivation; these then propagate an instinctual behavioural response. Examples include maternal care, aggression, defense, and social hierarchy; these behaviours are influenced by sensory input, such as sight, sound, touch, and—of course—smell.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the third book of The Alien Guidebook Series:The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

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.

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts.

Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor.

Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several writing exercises and detailed case studies.

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.

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Kentucky’s WMST-am Radio

Dan Manley interviews Nina Munteanu on Mid Morning on Main WMST-AM Radio

I was recently interviewed (on June 21) by Dan Manley on Kentucky’s Mid-Morning on Main show on WMST-AM Radio. I’ve visited Kentucky several times before, including the famous Bardstown Road in Louisville, but this time it was a virtual visit.

Dan and I talked about how I became a limnologist and ecologist, about my growing up in a small town and playing in the local forest with my older brother and sister and how we made ‘potions’ out of moss, soil, evening nightshade and water.

We talked about my recent eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” and why I wrote it and its effect on people. We covered the difference between stereotypes and archetypes and how science informs me and my writing. We also explored how life changes us and our writing and how writing, in turn, changes us.

We covered a vast range of water-related topics from the movie “Water World” to the TV show “Bonanza.” We talked about water scarcity and water politics and what Canada was doing and what’s happening in America.

I really enjoyed this interview because Dan asked me some surprising and challenging questions that led us into interesting territory. My interview with him starts about 43 minutes into the show. Go have a listen!

Otonabee River sparkles behind a hardwood forest in spring, ON (photo and dry brush 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.

How To Write Great Dialogue

Cedar trees in ice shallows of Jackson Creek, ON (photograph and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Dialogue spices narrative and increases pace because it is read more quickly. Dialogue is pleasing to the reader’s eye and gets readers involved. Dialogue is action.

Five tools for achieving relevant and exciting dialogue include: showing not telling; simplification; voice; interactive devices, and use of narrative.

Defining Dialogue and its Purpose in Story

Good dialogue neither mimics actual speech (e.g., it’s not usually mundane, repetitive or broken with words like “uh”) nor does it educate the reader through long discourse (unless the character is that kind of person). Good dialogue in a story should be somewhere in the middle. While it should read as fluid conversation, dialogue remains a device to propel the plot or enlighten the reader to the character of the speaker). No conversation follows a perfect linear progression. People interrupt one another, talk over one another, often don’t answer questions posed to them or avoid them by not answering them directly. These can all be used by the writer to establish character, tension, and relationship.

The writer uses dialogue to move the story along, increase tension and speed up pace. Dialogue helps define setting, characters and objects. It allows characters to confront each other and crystallizes relationships and situations. Dialogue can effectively deliver a punch or blow in a conflict. It can cue into a transition to a new scene

Show, Don’t Tell

Beginning writers commonly use dialogue to explain something that both participants should already know but the reader doesn’t. It is both awkward and unrealistic and immediately exposes the writer as a novice. Writers should avoid the use of “As you know…” It’s better to keep the reader in the dark for a while than to use dialogue to explain something. On the same note, characters should talk to one another, not indirectly to the reader through polemic or long dissertation and exposition.

Use Relevant Tag Lines and Reduce Them

When using tag lines for dialogue, take care to avoid the use of redundant tag lines. For instance: “I’m sorry,” he apologized; “Do you have a dog?” she asked. The primary purpose of a tag is to establish whois speaking, not necessarily how; the howis usually achieved through the actual speech. Novice writers tend to avoid “said” and replace with creative but distracting verbs (e.g., snarled, hissed, purred) or add excessive speech modifiers (e.g., he said pleadingly or he said dramatically). Instead, look for ways to express the way they said it in actual dialogue. Let the dialogue speak for itself. In the example—“He can’t be there!” she said in disbeliefdisbeliefis unnecessary because the dialogue already shows it. In truth, most professional writers use said and let the dialogue do the talking.

Develop Character “Voice” & Speech Signatures

Each of us develops our own idiosyncratic way of speaking, based on our ethnic background, the community or region we grew up in, our education and the circles we frequent. Writers can create a character’s distinctive “voice” by introducing a unique vernacular to each character. This can take on the form of a certain repeated phrase, a body movement (itself a “language”), a stutter or speech intonation or accent. For instance, I know a person who adds “don’t you think?” to almost everything he says. This says something about how that person thinks. Another person I know uses “do you see?” at the end of his phrase. Again, rather revealing. The writer can add additional depth to these specific traits by linking them to metaphor.

Use Oblique Conversation & Overlapping Speech

People often don’t respond directly to questions posed them. This may be due to them avoiding the question or excitement or rudeness. The writer can make use of these as devices to enlighten the reader on theme, plot and character, while making the conversation more interesting and realistic. People cut each other off or talk over one another all the time. You can incorporate this into your dialogue to achieve a note of hastiness, abruptness, nervousness or panic.

Intersperse Dialogue with Descriptive Narrative

Many beginning writers forget to “ground” the reader with sufficient cues as to where the characters are and what they’re doing while they are talking. This phenomenon is so common, it even has a name. It’s called “talking heads.” As writers we must achieve a balance between a lack of setting, which disorients the reader, and info-dump, which halts conversation and slows pace considerably. Narrative can also be used to contradict what’s actually said through body language or by simply telling the reader. My previous article “title” discusses ways you can use body language to reveal subtle undercurrent of communications between characters, the comic or tragic elements behind dialogue, and a character’s true feelings.  Here are some examples:

“How did it go?”

“Great,” he lied.

“Yes, I feel so much better now,” she said, eyes wandering from his.

Well, you get the picture. And I just revealed myself as a visual thinker…

Cedar trees inundated by ice sheet in shallows of Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry brush 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.

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Minddog TV, New York

I was recently interviewed by Matt Nappo on Minddog TV in New York, where we talked about the science and magic of water, climate change and how to not become cynical, the process of writing, what scares us and what takes us through it into great storytelling.

Here’s the interview:

Matt Nappo interviews limnologist and clifi author Nina Munteanu on minddog TV
Cattails oversee the snowy plain of the iced-over Trent Canal, ON (photo and dry brush 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.

The Semi-Colon is Dead; Long Live the Semicolon

Ice forms on the shores of Jackson Creek in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been a coaching writers for over two decades. I help fiction and non-fiction writers get published. I teach courses on novel writing and tutor technical and scientific writers at the University of Toronto writing centres. I’ve helped with plot, theme, characterization, and setting. I’ve worked with writers on establishing directed narratives and clarifying content. When it comes to grammar and punctuation, there is one punctuation that students of writing all too often misuse, abuse, or outright ignore: the semi-colon. They really don’t get it…And I’m trying to change that.

Recently, Dena Bain Taylor (my former supervisor in the University of Toronto Health Sciences Writing Centre), wrote a rousing post about this dear but often neglected and misused punctuation. It resonated with my experience and I just had to share it here:

The Sad Death of the Semi-Colon

As you drown your lockdown sorrows in that last bottle of wine, spare a thought for the semi-colon. Its demise, slow and terrible, long predates the pandemic.

The semi-colon is a particularly elegant piece of punctuation and doesn’t deserve its fate. I can think of a number of emojis I’d happily consign to the dustbin if it meant saving the semi-colon.The elegance of the semi-colon lies in its ability to both join and separate. It is, after all, a combination of a period and a comma.

In its glory days, the semi-colon filled two main functions.

One was to join two independent clauses; in other words, you have two elements that could stand as separate sentences but their ideas come together to make a single point. These days, people often replace the semi-colon with a period, splitting the thought into two sentences. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is replacing the semi-colon with a comma. 

Its other function is to separate elements in a list that themselves contain internal commas. See how much easier this is to read because of the semi-colons:

The breakfast menu included toast, eggs and bacon; refried rice, beans and tortillas; and coffee or juice.


Some might say that “a semi-colon was used when a sentence could have been ended; but it wasn’t.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of you may recall Kurt Vonnegut’s scathing edict in his 2005 book A Man Without a Country to all would-be creative writers: “First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” This was followed by novelist John Irving’s pithy observation: “No one knows what they are anymore. If you’re not in the habit of reading nineteenth-century novels, you think that the author has killed a fruit fly directly above a comma—semicolons have become nothing but a distraction.” And yet, author Gordon Gravley tells us that “John Irving (once a student of Vonnegut) is quite liberal with semicolons; they cover the pages of his novels like acne on the face of a fast-food restaurant employee. He loves them.” Irving was, after all, the anti-Hemingway; he often used long sentences with subordinate clauses punctuated by semi-colons. Author John Pistelli gives Irving credit for his own love of the semicolon: “Insofar as I aspired to write fiction that felt as densely fated as [Irving’s], both complex and unified, it seemed useful to adopt the mark of punctuation that stood for complexity and unity.” Who’d have thought this innocuous hybrid of comma and colon would stir such vehement condemnation, confusion, and self-denial?

Of the semi-colon, Abraham Lincoln once wrote: I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap. While Cormac McCarthy noted simply: No semicolons. Even George Orwell proclaimed: I had decided about this time that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one.

I submit that it is the semi-colon’s very quality of eluding an exact definition that gives it so much versatility. That is its power over both period and comma; like Schrödinger’s cat, it is neither, yet both. The true power of the semi-colon—aside from its quantum properties—lies in how it brings two otherwise independent thoughts together (that may share something of significance even if elusive) to elegantly compare or contrast. And to create wonderful irony. Wonderful and subtle irony! 

“Semi-colons signal, rather than shout, a relationship … A semi-colon is a compliment from the writer to the reader. It says: ‘I don’t have to draw you a picture; a hint will do.’”

George Will, Washington Post columnist

In the thread that followed Dena Bain Taylor’s article, one writer shared that his fiction editor had admonished him for using the semi-colon, proclaming that: “It’s generally not the practice in fiction.” Nabokov, Chekhov, and Woolf certainly ignored that prognosis. I have noted its use in many other excellent works of fiction; I use it in my own fiction. 

Responding to Bain Taylor’s Linked In post, John Collins, strategic and creative marketer, wrote: “A comma gives you pause; a semi-colon leaves you room to breathe. The world is full of LOLs and BRBs, but there is still room for the intentioned difference that timely breathing engenders. And because its use is becoming rarer, it becomes even more meaningful and impactful if wielded properly.”

Returning to John Irving, here is what he wrote in an essay on Dickens:

It was relatively late in his life that he began to give public readings, yet his language was consistently written to be read aloud—the use of repetition, of refrains; the rich, descriptive lists that accompany a newly introduced character or place; the abundance of punctuation. Dickens overpunctuates; he makes long and potentially difficult sentences slower but easier to read—as if his punctuation is a form of stage direction, when reading aloud; or as if he is aware that many of his readers were reading his novels in serial form and needed nearly constant reminding. He is a master of that device for making short sentences seem long, and long sentences readable—the semicolon!

–John Irving, The King of the Novel

Author John Pistelli attempts an explanation for the evolution of the growing controversy of the semi-colon, which was certainly used more in classic literature: “Dickens used commas and semicolons to give direction to breath, a script for performance. Over the course of the last century, however, we have split text from speech, literature from orature. Poetry and fiction may trace their roots to song and stage, but modern technology and reading habits have removed the voice from literature. We read silently, whether in public or private.” Despite this, Pistelli draws on the work of Christian Thorne, to extol how the semi-colon’s “push-pull suggests the tense relationship of the clauses it both marries and divorces”:

It is through punctuation marks that even ordinary writing overcomes its own ingrained positivism, its tendency to reduce the world to rubble, static things and discrete events. Commas introduce relation to the simplest sentences, as periods do disjunction. Dashes and semicolons establish relation and disjunction at once; they sunder even as they join, which makes them the typographical face of dialectical thought.

Christian Thorne

I have often used not so much typography but topography to metaphorically describe the three dimensional face of narrative: how verbs, nouns and prepositions conspire with idea to create relief; how sentences–passive / active, short or long–flow into larger relief. If words and sentences are the bones of our thoughts, then punctuation is the connective tissue of their meaning in a three-dimensional world.

With that last remark, I urge you to rethink this under-used tool. Include it in your Writer’s Toolkit and join the great writers and thinkers—from unknown to famous—who have masterfully embraced the semi-colon:

“Celebrate failure; it means you took a risk.”—Anonymous 

“I think; therefore I am.”—Rene Descartes

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“The decline of literature indictes the decline of a nation. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Love does not dominate; it cultivates.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  


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.

Age Of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “The Overstory”

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, Nina reads from the eco-fiction book “Overstory” by Richard Powers, an exploration of the relationship of trees and humanity…

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At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

theoverstoryPatricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest) and UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Olivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

EcologyOfStoryIn his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

I further explore the use of metaphor and other storytelling devices used by Richard Powers in his strongly symbolic novel in my writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Vision 2020 and Water Is…

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In February 2020, I was invited to speak and do workshops with over a hundred Grade 11 and 12 students about the future in the “2020 Vision into the Future” conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario.

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Keynote speaker Greg Lindsay talks to students at Sanderson Centre

AerotropolisJournalist, urbanist and futurist Greg Lindsay gave a rousing keynote speech to start the conference. Greg spoke about the future of cities, technology, and mobility. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He also co-authored the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

I joined a suite of technologists, visionaries and other scientists in presenting various scenarios of the future through workshops and seminars.

Workshop subjects included quantum cryptography, autonomous vehicles, flying cars, robotic surgery, zero waste, computer glasses, and my workshop “writing science fiction.”

Instructive seminars included topics such as feeding 9 billion people, mental health, AI & computers, the science and meaning of water, urban development, the future of transportation and space exploration.

How to Write Science Fiction

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Top choice image prompt for storytelling

I gave two workshops on how to write science fiction. The workshop began with a brief discussion on what a story is (and is not) and a summary of the key tools of writing good story (e.g. premise, plot, theme, character, and setting) with a focus on world-building and the role of science.

Each group then set out to create the framework for a story based on a premise from an image prompt and shared what they’d put together. In one session we all worked together with me scribing on one whiteboard, creating together as a class; in another session, small groups formed and created their own story among four to five members as I went from team to team.

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Next popular storytelling image (cover illustration for “Ecology of Story” by Anne Moody)

Amazing stories emerged in both cases from the image prompts chosen. Students demonstrated imaginative, mature and original premises and carried through with thoughtful and imaginative plot, theme and character journeys. I was very impressed.

The Science and Meaning of Water

In this seminar I gave a summary of water’s life-giving anomalous properties on Earth and discussed the history and field of limnology (study of freshwater). I explored our history with water (including our impacts) and the implications of climate change on our future with water on the planet. Points of interest included water’s many weird properties, water’s ubiquity and its origins, the hydrological cycle, and the often strange adaptations of life with (or without) water.

Water Is-COVER-webWe then discussed future implications of water scarcity (and geopolitical conflict) and some of the things individuals and communities can do. Much of the talk drew from my recent book Water Is… The Meaning of Water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

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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.