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 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.

Age of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “Barkskins”

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 Podcastcovers 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 novel “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx a poignant exploration of the forest industry in Canada and North America.

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Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (Rene Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America starting with the arrival of the Europeans to contemporary global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France “to clear the land, to subdue this evil wilderness,” says their seigneur. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and build a timber empire.

Barkskins AnnieProulxProulx immerses the reader in rich sensory detail of a place and time, equally comfortable describing a white pine stand in Michigan and logging camp in Upper Gatineau to a Mi’kmaq village on the Nova Scotia coast or the stately Boston home of Charles Duquet. The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect and a fierce hunger for “more.”

The novel rolls out events in a relentless stream of life and death; no character is safe from the ravages of nature or the notions of that time period. While most of the book flows like a great amoral river—filled with feckless, unheroic and at times miserable characters—there are moments of emotional shoring. They act like exclamation marks for their rarity.

EcologyOfStory“The reader comes to realize that the novel isn’t really about the human characters so much as it is about the forests,” Gus Powell of The National Postconcludes of Barkskins. “As [the forests] disappear, the narrative seems to recede in importance, revealing a crucial interdependence between the human and the natural world previously handled almost entirely as subtext. This is especially true in the novel’s closing, where the anger and despair that have characterized the novel shift into an outspoken environmental advocacy.”

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

 

nina-2014aaa

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.

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

Cedar trunk base

Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

Beetle bore holes pine log

White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

larval tracks in pine wood

Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

WoodpeckerHole on cedar

Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

TurkeyTail fungus on tree-LR

Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

uprooted stump carbon cushion fungus

Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

rotting maple log2

Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

rotting maple log

Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

Spalting

Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

Intarsia using blue-green spalted wood

Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The 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 Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

International Writers’ Festival at Val David

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International Writers’ Festival & Retreat with Flavia Cosma, Val David

In the middle of June 2019, I drove to Val David, Quebec, with poet-songstress and friend Honey Novick. We had been invited to participate in Les Mots du Monde, the nineteenth international writers’ and artists’ festival of readings, songs, and discussions. The location was the residence of international poet Flavia Cosma. Cosma has been hosting the writer’s event for close to a decade in her large house in the forest just outside the resort town of Val David in the Laurentians.

The program spanned two days of lecture, readings, performance and art by artists and writers from Argentina, Romania, Mexico, USA, Laval, Montreal, and Toronto.

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International Festival among the trees

Poets, writers, musicians and artists included Honey Novick, Hélène Dorion, Tito Alvarado, Dinorah Gutiérrez Andana, Flavia Cosma, Gerette Buglion, Yvan-Denis Dupuis, EcologyOfStoryJeremiah Wall, Nina Munteanu, Nancy R. Lange, Nicole Davidson, Carmen Doreal, MarieAnnie Soleil, Luis Raúl Calvo, Louis-Philippe Hébert, Melania Rusu Caragioiu, Anna-Louise Fontaine.

I talked about my experience and process of writing my upcoming speculative novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, coming out in 2020 with Inanna Publications. The novel chronicles four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of extreme change.

I also shared examples of my recently launched writing guidebook “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press). The 3rd guidebook in my Alien Guidebook Series, “Ecology of Story” focuses on place and environment and how these form the heart of a good story.

Throughout the festival, we were treated to magnificent ethnic food and refreshments. Interesting discussions on the international literary scene over wine and desert followed.

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Lunch at Flavia’s

I shared good conversation with fellow poet and water advocate Nancy R. Lange. She had given a compelling presentation on her recent book “Les Cantiques de l’eau” (Marcel Broquet) and knew about my book “Water Is: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press). Of course, the best thing to do was exchange books—which we did. Nancy is the literary ambassador for the Eau Secours organization and has promoted responsible water stewardship through her writing and presentations for many years.

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“It is not the cliff that shapes the ocean. It is the ocean that shapes the cliff. Fluidity is always the greater force than rigidity.”—Nancy R. Lange

 

On the final day, the writers and artists put on a public performance at the Val David Centre d’Exposition.

C'est La Vie Cafe

C’est la Vie Cafe, Val David

Val David

Val David is a small resort town located in the Laurentian Mountains about 80 kilometers from Montreal, Quebec. The village is known for its food scene and its artistic character. When I was there, I sampled the local cafes and experienced the street market, which offered a diversity of locally made and sourced produce and crafts.

 

 

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

One-Day Writing Intensive in Georgian Bay

On June 22, 2019, I joined Honey Novick and Cheryl Antao-Xavier as presenters of a one-day writing intensive at Noël’s Nest Country Bed & Breakfast near Port McNicoll.

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writing group at Noel’s Nest

A small group of dedicated writers joined the intensive and we explored topics to do with writing, manuscript preparation and submission, as well as publishing models. This included meaningful discussions and writing exercises, readings and sharing.

writers writing2I talked about the importance of theme to help determine a story’s beginning and ending. We also discussed the use of theme in memoir to help focus the memoir into a meaningful story with a directed narrative. I discussed the use of the hero’s journey plot approach and its associated archetypes to help determine relevance of events, characters and place: all topics explored in my Alien’s Guidebook series.

As part of the intensive at Noël’s Nest, a magnificent lunch was served along with refreshments. The day was sunny and warm. And perfect in the shade. We ended the intensive with a short nature walk led by naturalist Merridy Cox.

Liana-Lillian writingWhile everyone left at six, I stayed on with a friend. I’d booked the night and looked forward to a restful evening among deer, rustling trees and a chorus of birdsong. The owner had left us some leftovers for supper, and, as we dined on a smorgasbord of gourmet food and wine, I reveled in Nature’s meditative sounds. The night sky opened deep and clear with a million stars.

The next day we enjoyed exploring southern Geogrian Bay, which included the small towns of Port McNicoll, Midland and Penetanguishene. Georgian Bay is part of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes.

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Pine Island by Tom Thompson

The bay itself is quite large, comprising about four-fifths the size of Lake Ontario. Eastern Georgian Bay, where we were exploring, is part of the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. Granite bedrock exposed by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, forms a rugged coastline dotted by windswept eastern white pine. The rugged beauty of the area inspired landscapes by artists of the Group of Seven.

The shores and waterways of the Georgian Bay are the traditional domain of the Anishinaabeg First Nations peoples to the north and Huron-Petun (Wyandot) to the south.

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Georgian Bay at Port McNicoll

The bay was a major Algonquian-Iroquoian trade route when Champlain, the first European to explore and map the area in 1615–1616, arrived and called it “La Mer douce” (the calm sea). Originally named Waasaagamaa by the Ojibwe, the bay was renamed Georgian Bay by Lieutenant Bayfield of a Royal Navy expedition after King George IV.

After driving through Port McNicoll, we drifted into Midland, where we enjoyed a delicious crepe at La Baie Creperie. On the recommendation of a local, we then moved on to Penetanguishene to the Dock Lunch for the best ice cream in Southern Georgian Bay.

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La Baie Crêperie in Midland

Upon leaving, I realized that I’d only seen a small portion of the Georgian Bay area and vowed to return soon.

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Eager writers work on an exercise I’ve given them

Writing intensive June 22, 2019

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

“The Ecology of Story: World as Character” Launched at Type Books, Toronto

ECOLOGY_Poster-web2UofT instructor and writer Nina Munteanu launched the third book in her acclaimed “how to write” series at Type Books, Toronto, on July 4th, 2019. The launch of “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” celebrated writing and place through readings, songs and talks by local writers, poets and singers.

“The Ecology of Story” was created to address the need for writers to better acknowledge the central role of place in story and better address the interrelatedness of environment with character on a journey.

“The Ecology of Story” appears in two parts; Part 1 is dedicated to basic ecology with a focus on strange and wonderful relationships in the natural world; Part 2 integrates metaphoric connections between character and place/environment to deepen meaning in story.

 

 

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Launch at Type Books

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

The Ecology of Story” teaches the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character in fiction. For excerpts of the book go to EcologyOfStory.

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Launch presenters

Launch at Type Books

Poet and song writer Honey Novick opened the launch with an inspirational song. Ted Nolan, Maureen Scott Harris and Nehal El-Hadi read poems and works that addressed lost rivers, particularly of Toronto. Merridy Cox discussed the science of binomials. Costi Gurgu read from his most recent work Reciparium, and Cheryl Xavier read her poem to the Banyan tree. Honey closed with another song, ending the formal part of the event.

Launch Presenters

Honey NovickHoney Novick is a poet, voice teacher, singer and songwriter. Honey is the winner of the Empowered Poet Award, CAPAC, Yamaha Classical Music Competition in Japan, among others. Honey wrote music for CBC’s Morningside and sang for Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

 

Ted NolanTed NolanE. Martin Nolan—is a poet, essayist, editor and voice of the trees. He teaches in the Engineering Communication Program at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at York University. His latest work is a chapbook written in collaboration with some trees entitled: “Trees Hate Us.”

 

MaureenScottHarrisMaureen Scott Harris is a poet, essayist, and rare books cataloguer. A UofT grad in Library Science, she received the Trillium Book Award for poetry for Drowning Lessons and was the first non-Australian to be awarded the 2009 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize for her essay, “Broken Mouth: Offerings for the Don River, Toronto.”

 

Nehal El-HadiNehal El-Hadi is a writer, researcher, editor and journalist, who explores the intersections of body, technology, and space. Her writing has appeared in academic journals, literary magazines, and forthcoming in anthologies and edited collections. She is currently a visiting scholar at York University and sessional faculty at the University of Toronto.

 

MerridyCoxMerridy Cox is a naturalist, photographer, editor, indexer and poet. She is also managing editor of Lyrical Leaf Publishing. Merridy has a degree in biology and museum studies;  her poetry focuses mostly on the natural world around her; her poems and photographs are published in several literary anthologies. She has edited several books, including this one!

 

Costi GurguCosti Gurgu is a graphic designer and illustrator as well as an award-winning science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer who is published in anthologies and magazines throughout the world. He is a former lawyer and was art director for lifestyle and fashion magazines in Europe before moving to Canada. His latest novel—RecipeArium—was called the new new weird by Robert J. Sawyer and was nominated for an Aurora Award.

 

cheryl-xavierCheryl Antao-Xavier is an editor, interior book designer and publisher with IOWI. She has been publishing emergent writers since 2008 and continues to offer self-publishing solutions to writers and companies and organizations. She recently released her book: “Self-Publishing the Professional Way: 5 Steps from Raw Manuscript to Publishing.”

 

Launch sign outside

 

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

NewYork 2140By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation.”—Amitav Ghosh, 2017

…Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Nina Munteanu’s A Diary in the Age of Water. Richard Power’s Overstory. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water

Diary Water cover finalWhat these novels have in common is that they are all Dystopian Eco-Fiction. Humanity’s key role in environmental destruction serves a strong thematic element. In eco-fiction dystopias (as opposed to political or socio-cultural dystopias such as Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale) the environment—whether forest, ocean, water generally, or the animal world—plays a key character.

Our Literature in the Anthropocene

In 2017, Amitav Ghosh observed that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence (The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). “How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works?” writes Fredrick Albritton Jonsson of The Guardian, who observes that, “for Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by ‘modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.’”

Windup GirlAccording to Ghosh, plots and characters of contemporary literature tend to reflect the regularity of middle-class life and the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences, one that depends on a principle of uniformity. Change in Nature has been perceived as gradual (or static by some) and never catastrophic. Extraordinary or bizarre happenings were left to marginal genres like the Gothic tale and—of course—science fiction. The strange and unlikely have been externalized: hence the failure of modern novels and art to recognize anthropogenic climate change.

From Adam Smith’s 18th Century economic vision to the conceit of bankers who drove the 2008 American housing bubble, humanity’s men have consistently espoused the myth of a constant natural world capable of absorbing infinite abuse without oscillation. When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis proposed the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, many saw its basis in a homeostatic balance of the natural order as confirmation of Nature’s infinite resilience to abuse. They failed to recognize that we are Nature and abuse of Nature is really self-abuse.

Jonsson suggests that these Enlightenment ideas are essentially ideological manifestations of Holocene stability, remnants from 11,000 years of small variability in temperature and carbon dioxide levels, giving rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the resilience of the natural world. “The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant [and dangerous] expression.”

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Louise Fabiani of Pacific Standard suggests that novels are still the best way for us to clarify planetary issues and prepare for change—even play a meaningful part in that change. In her article “The Literature of Climate Change” she points to science fiction as helping “us prepare for radical change, just when things may be getting too comfortable.”

Referring to our overwhelming reliance on technology and outsourced knowledge, Fabiani suggests that “our privileged lives (particularly in consumer-based North America) are built on unconscious trust in the mostly invisible others who make this illusion of domestic independence possible—the faith that they will never stop being there for us. And we have no back-ups in place should they let us down.” Which they certainly will—given their short-term thinking.

TheOverstory“To counteract this epidemic of short-term thinking,” says Fabiani, “it might be a good idea for more of us to read science fiction, specifically the post-apocalyptic sub-genre: that is, fiction dealing with the aftermath of major societal collapse, whether due to a pandemic, nuclear fallout, or climate change.”

I suggest widening the genre to include good dystopian eco-fiction, which includes not just post-apocalyptic tales but also cautionary tales, worlds in upheaval, and satires. Dystopian literature is ultimately an exploration of hope through personal experience. The eco-fiction protagonist navigates their dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias can enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.

On the Role of Dystopian Eco-Fiction

NaturalSelection-front-webI recently shared a panel discussion with writer Kristen Kiomall-Evans at the 2019 Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston entitled: “On the Role of (Dystopian) Literature and Environmental Issues: Can Books Save the Planet.” The audience of mostly women shared enlightened input in an open discussion, which spanned a range of topics and directions from what dystopian literature actually is to whether we are turned off by its negativity—that it may be too close to reality and makes us cringe and want to hide. One person even brought up Game of Thrones as an example; which I then bluntly suggested was not real “story”—it is a stream of episodic sensationalism and horror—aimed at thrilling shock value, not fulfilling meaning.

The group explored what Eco-Fiction is and the possibility of how eco-fiction writers can influence their audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn.

 “Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action. Margaret Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, envisioning our future, and imaginative use of “product placement” to gain reader engagement and galvanize a movement of action.

Optimism in Story

I pointed out that good dystopias—like all good fiction—follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve (which Game of Thrones may never do, certainly not well—J.R.R. Martin’s books series upon which it is based are not even finished yet!). Eco-Fiction Dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Think Day After Tomorrow, Year of the Flood, Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox.

WaterAnthology-RealitySkimmingPress copyIn 2015, I joined Lynda Williams of Reality Skimming Press in creating an optimistic science fiction anthology with the theme of water. My foreword to Water addressed this point:

As we drank Schofferhoffers over salmon burgers, Lynda lamented that while the speculative / science fiction genre has gained a literary presence, this has been at some expense. Much of the current zeitgeist of this genre in Canada tends toward depressing, “self-interested cynicism and extended analogies to drug addiction as a means of coping with reality,” Lynda remarked. Where was the optimism and associated hope for a future? I brought up the “hero’s journey” and its role in meaningful story. One of the reasons this ancient plot approach, based on the hero journey myth, is so popular is that its proper use ensures meaning in story. This is not to say that tragedy is not a powerful and useful story trope; so long as hope for someone—even if just the reader—is generated. Lynda and I concluded that the science fiction genre could use more optimism. [As a result,] these stories explore individual choices and the triumph of human imagination in the presence of adversity. [Each story explores] the surging spirit of humanity toward hopeful shores.

New Perspectives in Story

Evans spoke of the emergence of and need for a strong voice by marginalized groups who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved out and water shorted, and suffering malnutrition, violence and disease.

FifthSeason-JemisinEvans pointed out that afro-American writers (e.g., Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin) and indigenous writers (Cherie Dimaline, Daniel Wilson, Drew Hayden Taylor) are an exciting voice, providing a new and compelling perspective on ongoing global issues.

I would add that the “feminine” voice—the voice of women and the voice of ecology and those who embrace the gylanic voice—are needed. This was strangely not mentioned in the group—perhaps because we were all women—but one. Such a voice can help personalize the experience to readers, by creating discovery, connection and understanding—and ultimately serving a key force in engaging readers to act.

Envisioning Our Future Through Story

One audience member shared a yearning for an optimistic focus through an envisioned world where solutions have successfully created that world. She wasn’t so much suggesting writing a utopia, but including elements of future wishes as an integral part of the world, following Ghandi’s wise advice: be the change you seek. In a recent interview in which I also participated in The Globe and Mail on women science fiction writers, Ottawa writer Marie Bilodeau addressed this concept:

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

People are looking for hopeful fiction that addresses the issues but explores a successful paradigm shift. One that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible.

Product Placement in Story

Editor and naturalist Merridy Cox suggested that writers could make motivating connections through altruistic (not market-driven) “product placement.” She gave the example of an Ash tree. The Ash (Fraxinus species) could subtly make its name, its character and ecology known in the story, along with its plight—its destruction by the non-native invasive emerald ash borer. The use of metaphor and personification would easily link the Ash to a character and at the same time illuminate the reader on a real aspect of the environment to consider. Another example she gave was of the threatened bobolink bird, now all but gone. The bobolink originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and moved to living in hayfields and fallow fields—building their nests on the ground in dense grasses. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotation and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge.

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Bobolink mother and her chicks

 

Such “product placement” essentially gives Nature and the environmental a personalized face that can easily interact with the story’s theme and its characters. “Product placement”—like symbol—lies embedded in its own story. In the case of the bobolink, it is a story of colonialism, exploitation, and single-minded pursuit at the expense of others not considered, known or understood. These examples have anthropogenic connections to human behaviour, action and knowledge—all related to story and theme.

MockUpEcology copyIn my new writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character I discuss and explore how some authors do this impeccably. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Janet Fitch, John Steinbeck, David Mitchell, Joanne Harris and many others.

Writing for the Anthropocene

Learn how to write for the Anthropocene: from Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections and symbols between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

The Ecology of Story will be released by Pixl Press in June 2019.

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

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Birds on Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

An allegory is a complete narrative whose images and material things represent an abstract idea or theme such as a political system, religious practice or figure, or a philosophical viewpoint. The entire narrative is a metaphor in which all components are symbolic. Most fairy tales, folk tales and myths are allegories. Examples include: Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Beowulf.

The narrative of allegory is a fractal nest of symbolic names, places and things, that contribute key elements to the story (e.g., Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in Star Wars; Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd; John Savage of Stanger in a Strange Land; Darwin Mall in Darwin’s Paradox; Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings; Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels). Setting and place in allegory symbolizes the theme being explored (e.g. Orwell’s farm in Animal Farm represents a totalitarian world of oppression; the road in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress represents the journey of humankind; the island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies represents the world at war).

As an aside, the science of place names, geographical names or toponyms (derived from a topographic feature) is called toponymy. The city of Montreal, for instance, is a toponym (named after le Mont Royal). Toponyms often come through the local vernacular. Given their link to cultural identity, such place names can provide a significant symbolic role in story.

Animal Farm-GeorgeOrwellIn Animal Farm, George Orwell uses animals to describe the revolution against a totalitarian regime (e.g. the overthrow of the last Russian Csar and the Communist Revolution of Russia). The animals embrace archetypes to symbolize the actions and thoughts of various sectors within that world. The pigs are the leaders of the revolution; Mr. Jones represents the ruling despot who is overthrown; the horse Boxer is the ever-loyal and unquestioning labor class.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, tells the story of a narrator who falls asleep and dreams of a man named Christian fleeing the City of Destruction while bearing a heavy burden (e.g., symbolizing his own sins) on his back. A character named Evangelist shows Christian the way to Celestial City, a perilous journey through the Slough (swamp) as characters called Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Hypocrisy try to lead him astray.

LordOfTheFlies-WilliamGoldingIn Lord of the Flies, William Golding explores the conflict in humanity between the impulse toward civilization and the impulse toward savagery. The symbols of the island, the ocean, the conch shell, Piggy’s glasses, and the Lord of the Flies, or the Beast, represent central ideas that reinforce this main theme. Each character has recognizable symbolic significance: Ralph represents civilization and democracy; Piggy represents intellect and rationalism; Jack represents self-interested savagery and dictatorship; and Simon (the outsider in so many ways) represents altruistic purity.

Many of Golding’s potent symbols to power his allegory come from the natural world. These include the use of smoke, fire, and snakes to invoke the imaginary beast (that exists within each of them). The scar left from the plane crash that destroys this natural paradise symbolizes our savage and destructive nature.

Allegories may also be powerful as satires. The social commentary of satires expose and criticize corruption and foolhardiness of societies, groups or even individuals through humor, irony and even ridicule. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a good example of satire and parody. Swift targets politics, religion and western culture through satire. Aspects of place, landscape and setting are effectively used to feature his commentary. Another excellent example of political satire and use of place and setting with embedded character is found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

TheHandmaidsTale-MargaretAtwoodExcellent examples of satires with less obvious allegorical structure (but it’s there) can be found in the genre of science fiction—a highly metaphorical literature that makes prime use of place and setting with archetypal characters to satirize an aspect of society. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a satirical response to his observation of humans’ addiction to (sexual) pleasure and vulnerability to mind control and the dumbing of civilization in the 1930s. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four satirizes humanity’s vulnerability to fascism, based on his perception of humans’ sense of fear and helplessness under powerful governments and their oppressive surveillance. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale satirizes a society in which a woman struggles in a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship patriarchy where women are forced into a system of sexual slavery for the ruling patriarchy.

Other examples include Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Each of these stories examines the world of the day and provides critical commentary through premise, place and character. In each of these stories, place and setting help define premise and theme (e.g., what is being satirized.)

 

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from The Ecology of Story: World as Character released in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

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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 Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.