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.

 

Craig Russell’s “Fragment” in the time of COVID-19

Fragment-CraigRussellCraig Russell begins his eco-thriller Fragment with a TV interview of glaciologist Kate Sexsmith in Scott Base Antarctica. The interview is interrupted by what turns out to be four runaway glaciers that have avalanched into the back of the Ross Ice Shelf and a fragment the size of Switzerland surges out into the open sea. Hence the title: Fragment.

The original slide / wave and ensuing tsunami wipes out both Scott Station and the American McMurdo Station. The TV station records the moment:

Where Kate had stood to touch the map of Antarctica moments before, something hit the wall like an artillery round. It left a ragged hole through wall and map alike, framing an eerie light-show. A sheet of jewels flickered, glinting greens and blues, until a white mountain appeared and the screen went black.

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Ross Ice Shelf, Antartica

With astute prescience, Russell reveals humanity’s behaviour in the stress of such a momentous event: from scientists who understand the global significance of this rogue fragment to those who minimize its effect such as the media and tourist industry who wish to exploit this anomaly and self-centred politicians obsessed with protecting their status.

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Antartica

 

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Senator Inhofe and infamous snow ball

My first thought was: he’s stereotyping a little. Then COVID-19 broke out to become a global pandemic. The reactions of scientists, media and certain politicians (e.g. the Trumps of the world) have played out with COVID-19 just as Russell had predicted with Fragment. Then again, good science fiction reaches deeply into a society’s core being, our motivations, fears and strengths; this is why science fiction is so eerily good at predicting. The best way to predict possibilities of the future is to understand the present and, as Russell demonstrates, science fiction writers are in touch with the zeitgeist of the world.

Reflecting the American government’s ridiculous denial of climate change, and calling to mind Republican Senator Inhofe’s snow ball in the senate scene, Russell’s character David Rookland (Washington’s Science Advisor) uses the glacier avalanche and fragment that he (purposely) misunderstands to illustrate with equal lack of logic the same misguided myth: “these theorists claim that around the world, glaciers have been receding. Thankfully, as you can see in the second photo, dear old Mother Nature has proven them wrong again.”

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Blue whale

 

Russell’s chapters devoted to the POV of character Ring, a young blue whale also fragmented from his pod, are particularly touching and powerful. Chased alternatively by Killer whales and human hunters, Ring must warn his kind of the danger posed by the fragment. In one chapter Ring observes that “there’s a special taste to the air here, a tang carried north from the twin Smoking Mountains, which send their steamy vapors into the sky forever.”

Russell then weaves an inspiring legend among the blues about a whale named Long-Throat and the “hard/noisy things” that came to hunt. Men slaughtered so many and scattered the pods in all directions. According to the legend of Long-Throat, the faint bitter smell of the Smoking Mountains brought the pods together again. This had been a time, thinks Ring, when the pods were not afraid to be different, or of new places and strange experiences. But no more. “The Slaughter scarred his race and young Blues are fed fear with their mother’s milk. Fear that never heals, never sleeps. Fight it though he may, that fear lives inside him too.” Ring hopes that, by facing this new fear of the fragment and its incredible power to devastate (any whale caught under its massive moving force will drown), “the old fear can be allowed to sink away.” His course is clear: he must compose a new song to warn other blues. Ring ends up doing far more than sound the warning of the moving behemoth to his people when he is discovered by an American nuclear missile submarine. What follows is what I think is the real story and its magic.

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Ross ice shelf, Antarctica

The book is appropriately titled Fragment because in some ways the fragment is a main character, carrying the theme. It is herald, harbinger, and misunderstood by many. Its power is greatly underestimated by others, and it is set apart from its fold to become something else. Like Ring and his people. Like humanity, even. Just as the Corona virus pandemic (currently ravaging the world as I write this article) promises to change every aspect of our world, so too does the fragment.

The fragment: “….Its northern rim is a world of chaos. Pack-ice, bulldozed by the Fragment, has been swept up into a bramble, miles deep, piled up and over itself in a frozen explosion. The corpses of countless penguins lie within, broken by the onslaught. Behind this jumble rises the Wall. A hundred metres above the water line and six hundred below, the Shelf is old, formed before Columbus stumbled his way across the Atlantic. In the Fragment’s back, imbedded like spears, are vast sections of the four glaciers. Byrd, Nimrod, Beardmore, and Shackleton. Truly ancient, each is a fortress, hard as granite, laminated layer upon layer over millennia…The creatures of the sea meet the wall in their millions. The air breathers, penguins, seals, dolphins, and so on, have no hope. They swim and die, exhausted and drowned. For many of the water breathers like fish and squid, the drop in temperature near the Fragment is too much…Some species of fish, well able to withstand the cold, succumb instead to the unfamiliar fresh water that has begun to pool around the Fragment.”–Craig Russell, Fragment

In a scene near the end of the book, which could be taken out of our current COVID-19 crisis, Russell describes how carefully considered warnings by scientists are downplayed as “alarmist” resulting in devastating inaction:

When Kate Sexsmith presents a possible scenario of the Fragment smashing into Europe, the Chairman of the European Fragment Conference counters with “in that highly unlikely event” all is under control by the world community. To this dangerous platitude, Sexsmith challenges (only to receive a mealy-mouthed double-speak reply):

“Respectfully, Mr. Chairman, [says Sexsmith] the world has faced plenty of hurricanes, tidal waves, and earthquakes. But we have no historical event to compare with the Fragment. And Europe isn’t the only place in danger. There are millions of people at risk on the Caribeean islands. Many are poorly educated and have no resources of their own. When do we mov them? How do we move them? Who is prepared to take them in? And based on Stanley [which was totally destroyed by the Fragment] who is prepared to take them in on a permanent basis?”

“We are not blind to these concerns, Doctor [says the chairman]. But we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist approach. Our scientific community’s reputation for sound council is too important to risk…”

But when great disaster strikes, all peoples (whales and humanity) come together in solidarity. With new humility, kindness and wisdom. I was astonished at the way Russell pulled things together toward a unique resolution. I give Craig Russell five stars for the courage to end his book the way he did. It was pure magic. The kind of magic we all want to see more of in this currently beleaguered, divisive and consumer-obsessed world.

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Antartica

As Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort said of COVID-19, the Fragment “might just turn the world around for the better [as] an amazing grace for the planet.”

Antarctica melting

Antarctica melting

 

Whales and Intelligence:

Scientists are still finding ways to assess “intelligence”, particularly in life that isn’t human. Whales have been shown to have emotional intelligence. They show signs of empathy, grief, joy, and playfulness. All of these learned behaviors, types of intelligence, and signs of teamwork have led scientists to think about groups of whales in new ways.

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Blue whale

Most humans believe that our ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other animals, but cetaceans may be superior. According to a comparison of cetacean to primate brains from Michigan State University, “They have the distinct advantage over us in that their primary sense is the same as their primary means of communication, both are auditory. With primates, the primary sense is visual and the primary means of communication is auditory.” Communication is so great in cetaceans that there is a strong possibility they are able to literally project an “auditory image” that replicates a sonar message they may receive.  MSU describes it this way: “So a dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”

Specialized brain cells called spindle neurons are most often associated with an organism’s ability to “recognize, remember, reason, communicate, perceive, adapt to change, problem solve and understand.” Spindle neurons have been isolated in the brains of both whales and dolphins, which suggests that whales do a lot more thinking than previously thought. Dolphins, for example, have been known to recognize themselves in mirrors, solve problems, follow recipes, and associate a part of their anatomy with that of a human’s (such as when a dolphin waves it’s fin whenever a trainer waves their arm). Recent studies even indicate that dolphins are capable of creating personalized whistles that act as names for individual members of a pod. With this name, dolphins are able to communicate more efficiently while roaming the open seas.

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Mother humpback and her calf

In a Scientific American article entitled “Are Whales Smarter Then We Are?” R. Douglas Fields writes: Logically, brain function and intelligence must relate to the number of neurons. Intelligence resides in the neocortex (the thin, convuluted “rind” of the brain) rather than in other, underlying areas devoted to controlling vital housekeeping functions for the body, so Eriksen and Pakkenberg focused their investigation there. The frontal lobes of the dolphin brain are comparatively smaller than in other mammals, but the researchers found that the neocortex of the Minke whale was surprisingly thick. The whale neocortex is thicker than that of other mammals and roughly equal to that of humans (2.63 mm). However, the layered structure of the whale neocortex is known to be simpler than that of humans and most other mammals. In particular, whales lack cortical layer IV, and thus have five neocortical layers to humankind’s six. This means that the wiring of connections into and out of the neocortex is much different in whales than in other mammals. The researchers’ cellular census revealed that the total number of neocortical neurons in the Minke whale was 12.8 billion. This is 13 times that of the rhesus monkey and 500 times more than rats, but only 2/3 that of the human neocortex. What can account for the fact that whales have bigger brains — and similarly thick neocortexes — but fewer neurons? Eriksen and Pakkenberg found that there were 98.2 billion non-neuronal cells, called glia, in the Minke whale neocortex. This is the highest number of glial cells in neocortex seen in any mammal studied to date. The ratio of neocortical glial cells to neocortical neurons is 7.7 to 1 in Minke whales and only 1.4 to 1 in humans. This finding may indicate a tendency for larger glia/neuron ratios as brain mass increases to support the growing neurons. But when one considers other recent research revealing that glia play an important role in information processing (see “The Other Half of the Brain,” fromn Sci. Am. April 2004), one is left to wonder. Is the whale brain intellectually weaker than the human brain, or just different? They have fewer neurons but more glia, and in traditional views of the glia, the neurons count for much more.

In her article in One Green Planet entitled “Whales and Dolphins Might Be The Smartest Animals”, Madison Montgomery leaves us a strong message and exhortation: “While it appears that cetaceans have incredible abilities to feel emotions, understand complex problems and communicate in ways we can’t even imagine, humans don’t seem to value this. Because we assume we are so smart, we put the other creatures of the world underneath us. Knowing how dynamic cetaceans are, keeping them in glorified bathtubs and forcing them to do tricks for food is insulting and cruel. Could you imagine the pain of living in a small room your entire life and having to do flips to be fed? Sounds like a miserable existence, doesn’t it?”

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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.

 

A Diary in the Age of Water: The Rocky Mountain Trench Inland Sea

Diary Water cover finalIn my novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) the diarist writes about the huge 800-km reservoir complex built in the late 2020s in the Rocky Mountain Trench to rehydrate the United States. Of course, it’s science fiction, but it was based on real plans that went all the way to Congress in the 1960s.

Snaking along the length of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the reservoir promised to submerge numerous British Columbia towns such as Dunster, McBride and Valemount and pose an existential threat to northern communities of BC and Alaska.

 

The Trench

The Rocky Mountain Trench is a long and deep valley walled by sedimentary, volcanic and igneous rock that extends about 1,500 km from Flathead Lake in the Bitterroot Valley of northwest Montana through British Columbia to the Liard Plain just south of the Yukon Territory. Blanketed mostly by white and black spruce, subalpine fir and lodgepole pine, the northern trench stretches 3–20 km wide to accommodate the major river systems that snake along its mostly flat floor. This rich ecosystem is home to bears, caribou, moose and wolves. To the south, where the valley meanders more at lower elevation, the forest opens up and gives way to grasslands, marsh and farmland. The Trench is sometimes referred to as the “Valley of a Thousand Peaks” because of the towering mountain ranges on either side: the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Columbia, Omineca and Cassiar mountains to the west.

The Trench is a large fault—a crack in the Earth’s crust—and bordered along much of its length by smaller faults. Major structural features resulted from the shifting and thrusting of tectonic plates of the crust during the early Cenozoic Era, some 65 million years ago to form mountains. The ridges of fractured crust then pulled apart and the land in between dropped, creating the floor of the Trench.

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Rocky Mountain Trench, near Golden, B.C.

Among the major rivers that flow through the trench are the Fraser, Liard, Peace and Columbia rivers. Construction of hydroelectric projects—particularly those at Peace Canyon and Mica Dam—have disrupted the seven major rivers that once flowed through the Trench. All but the Fraser and Kechika rivers now empty into reservoirs on the valley floor; these include several reservoirs along the Columbia River in the southern trench such as the Kinbasket reservoir (created by the Mica Dam in 1973 to form Canoe Reach), and Revelstoke Lake (created by the Revelstoke Dam in 1984). Williston Lake was formed by the A.C. Bennet Dam on the Peace River in 1968. I had studied the effects of pulp mill activities for the federal government’s Environmental Effects Monitoring (EEM) Program.

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The Rocky Mountain Trench is topographically visible as it follows the BC-Alberta border south from Williston Lake

 

The Inland Sea

Like pseudopods of a hunting amoeba, the Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir system would have sent tendrils of water up river arms, and drowned swaths of ancient oroboreal rainforest. The rainforest corridor of Robson Valley—a conservation area that continues to experience existential risk due to development, resource harvest, and other disturbance—would have been one of the many casualties.

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Ancient Redcedars in old-growth rainforest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Una stopped the car and we stared out across the longest reservoir in North America. What had once been a breathtaking view of the valley floor of the Rocky Mountain Trench was now a spectacular inland sea. It ran north-south over eight hundred kilometres and stretched several kilometres across to the foothills of the Cariboo Mountain Range. Una pointed to Mount Mica, Mount Pierre Elliot Trudeau and several other snow-covered peaks. They stood above the inland sea like sentinels of another time. Una then pointed down to what used to be Jackman Flats—mostly inundated along with McLellan River and the town of Valemont to the south. Hugging the shore of what was left of Jackman Flats was a tiny village. “That’s the new Tête Jaune Cache,” my mother told me.

If villages had karma this one was fated to drown over and over until it got it right.  Once a bustling trading town on the Grand Trunk Pacific railway, Tête Jaune Cache drowned in the early 1900s when the Fraser naturally flooded. The village relocated to the junction of the original Yellowhead 16 and 5 Highways. Villagers settled close to where the Fraser, Tête Creek, and the McLellan River joined, all fed by the meltwater from the glaciers and icefields of the Premiere Range of the Cariboo Mountains. The village drowned again in 2025. I imagined the pool halls, restaurants, saloons and trading posts crushed by the flood.

“This area used to be a prime Chinook spawning ground,” Una said. “They swam over 1,200 km from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs right there.” She pointed to the cobalt blue water below us.

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Kinbasket Reservoir

The reservoir sparkled in the sun like an ocean. Steep shores rose into majestic snow-capped mountains. The village lay in a kind of cruel paradise, I thought. It was surrounded by a multi-hued forest of Lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Douglas fir, paper birch and trembling Aspen. Directly behind the village was Mount Terry Fox and across the Robson valley mouth, to the northeast, rose Mount Goslin. Behind it, Mount Robson cut a jagged pyramid against a stunning blue sky. Wispy clouds veiled its crown. I couldn’t help thinking it was the most beautiful place I’d seen. And yet, for all its beauty, the villagers had lost their principle livelihood and food. The reservoir had destroyed the wildlife habitats and the fishery. And its people with it.

Una pointed to where the giant reservoir snaked northwest and where towns like Croydon, Dunster, and McBride lay submerged beneath a silent wall of water. Her eyes suddenly misted as she told me about Slim Creek Provincial Park, between what used to be Slim and Driscoll Creeks just northwest of what used to be the community of Urling. She told me about the Oroboreal rainforest, called an “Antique Rainforest”—ancient cedar-hemlock stands over a 1000-years old. She described how massive trunks the width of a small house once rose straight up toward a kinder sun. The Primordial Grove was once home to bears, the gray wolf, cougar, lynx, wolverine and ungulates. It was the last valley in North America where the grizzly bear once fished ocean-going salmon. Now even the salmon were no longer there, she said. Then she bent low beside me and pulled me close to her in a hug. She quietly said to me, “This is what killed Trudeau.”

I stared at her and firmly corrected, “but that was an accident.”

“Yes,” she agreed. Then added, “a planned one.”

A Diary in the Age of Water

 

NAWAPA (North America Water Power Alliance)

The original NAWAPA Plan was drawn up by the Pasadena-based firm of Ralph M. Parsons Co. in 1964, and had a favorable review by Congress for completion in the 1990s. The plan—thankfully never completed—was drafted by the US Army Corps of Engineers and entailed the southward diversion of a portion (if not all) of the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers in northern Canada and Alaska, now flowing into the Arctic Ocean as well as the Peace, Liard and other rivers flowing into the Pacific by creating massive dams in the north. This would cause the rivers to flow backwards into the mountains to form vast reservoirs that would flood one-tenth of British Columbia. The water would be channeled south through the 800-km Rocky Mountain Trench Reservoir into the Northern USA, and from there along various routes into the dry regions of the South, to California and reaching as far as Mexico.

NAWAPA proposal Ralph M. ParsonsCo-1960s copy

NAWAPA was envisioned as the largest construction effort of all times, comprising some 369 separate projects of dams, canals, and tunnels, for water diversion. The water diversion would be accomplished through a series of connecting tunnels, canals, lakes, dams, and pump-lifts, as the trench itself is located at an elevation of 914 m (3,000 feet). To the east, a 9 m (thirty-foot) deep canal would be cut from the Peace River to Lake Superior. NAWAPA’s largest proposed dam would be 518 m (1,700 feet) tall, more than twice the height of Hoover Dam (at 221 m) and taller than any dam in the world today, including the Jinping-I Dam in China (at 305 m).

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Extended NAWAPA plan

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs, BC

Rocky Mountain Trench near Radium Hot Springs

 

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Restoring the Lost Art of Handwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

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

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

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

 

Links:

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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Zermatt in winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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

Then my computer refused to work…

The ski hill beckoned…

The snowshoes came out…

The sun blazed…

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

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

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

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

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Nina Munteanu explores with friend Kai near Manning Park

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

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

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

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Hoar-frost covered shrub

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

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Hoar frost covered buds

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

 

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

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

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Zermatt Alps (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with Candas Jane Dorsey

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Candas Jane Dorsey with a friend

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.

Join the discussion!

In this episode of Age of Water, we join award-winning Canadian author Candas Jane Dorsey in Calgary, Alberta, where she talks about “Ice and other stories”, teaching at university, what eco-fiction means, and how writers can be “sneaky.”

 

ListenNow button

 

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Candas Jane Dorsey

CanCandas Jane Dorsey is an award-winning Canadian author of novels, short stories, and poetry. She also served as editor / publisher of several literary presses.

Ice by CandasJaneDorseyShe is best known for her science fiction writing including the novels Black Wine and A Paradigm of Earth, and has also published poetry and short stories, including her well-known short-story collection Machine Sex: And Other Stories. Her latest collection of short stories Ice and other Short Stories spans thirty years of writing. Candas teaches writing and communications at MacEwan University. She was founding president of SF Canada and was president of the Writers Guild of Alberta. Candas was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal award for artistic achievement and community work and the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts.

 

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Nina Munteanu kayaks in Desolation Sound, British Columbia (photo by H. Klassen)

 

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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.

 

 

Age of Water Podcast

AoW Logo-smallOn November 22, 2019, co-host Claudiu Murgan and I launched the podcast Age of Water in Toronto, Ontario.

The podcast is devoted to informing and entertaining you with topics about water and the environment. We interview scientists, journalists, writers, academia and innovators who share their knowledge and opinions about the real state of the environment and what committed individuals and groups are doing to make a difference. We talk about the problems and we talk about the solutions.

The format of our podcast is a combination of chat cast and informal interview. We cover 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.

AgeOfWater-HomePage

Diary Water cover finalClaudiu suggested doing the podcast during a discussion we had about what we could do to make a difference and to help bring more awareness about the environmental challenges we face in water issues and geopolitics.

We both agreed that the podcast should not only explore the issues but also present solutions and ideas in the ongoing conversation. We wanted to point to ways others could participate by talking to those who were indeed making a difference. So far, we have talked to people about positive initiatives such as 350.org, Drawdown, blue communities, Extinction Rebellion and several others. We’ve talked to homeowners and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas on what individuals can do at home and in their community.

The name of the podcast came from my upcoming book “A Diary in the Age of Water,” a novel that chronicles the lives of four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of catastrophic change. The book will be launched by Inanna Publications in Toronto in May 2020.

Podcast CO-HOSTS

Guests have come from around the world to join us in monthly interviews on Age of Water. These have included so far: economist and educator David Zetland in Holland (aired Nov 2019); award-winning metaphysical author Rainey Highley in California (aired December 2019); Canadian award-winning author Candas Jane Dorsey in Calgary, Alberta (aired January 2020);  activist/author Kaz LeFave in Toronto (airing February 2020); Finnish award-winning author Emmi Itäranta in the UK (to air in March 2020); and Toronto film educators The Water Brothers (to air in April 2020). We interviewed environmental activist Liz Couture in Richmond Hill, Ontario (airing May 2020); Zen master Ian Prattis in Ottawa (airing June 2020), and we also talked to activist/author Merilyn Ruth Liddel in Calgary, Alberta (airing July 2020), and climate researcher / author Martin Bush in Toronto (airing August 2020). Many more are scheduled to be interviewed. For more information go to www.ageofwater.ca

Podcast MISSION

Water Is-COVER-webIn February 2020, we started a reading series on Age of Water, in which Claudiu or I read from a fiction or non-fiction work that resonated with us, followed by a discussion. The first readings is from my book “Water Is…The Meaning of Water,” a celebration of water, which was selected by Margaret Atwood as her choice reading in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading.’

Let us know if you or someone you know wishes to be interviewed on the show. If you have a work you think merits reading and discussing on the show, please let us know as well. Go to the Age of Water site, join the newsletter and email us.

 

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Nina kayaks Desolation Sound, off the coast of British Columbia (photo by H. Klassen)

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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.

 

The Careful Writer: When To Use Passive or Active Verbs

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Maple spalting with carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the most common pieces of advice I give to students of writing in coaching sessions and my classes at UofT (technical and non-fiction writing) and George Brown College (fiction writing) is that active verbs most often work better than passive verbs.

 

Active Verbs Clarify by Identifying Agent

The use of active verbs avoid confusion because they clearly identify the subject (the doer). For instance, consider these two versions:

ACTIVE: Alice walked the dog.

PASSIVE: The dog was walked.

The active sentence clearly identifies Alice as the one walking the dog; the passive sentence does not provide agency (Alice). We don’t know who walked the dog. When we use active verbs we always know the agent (of change); not so with passive. However, if we modify the passive sentence with “by”, then agency is provided:

PASSIVE (with agency): The dog was walked by Alice.

But the sentence no longer flows easily. This is because the typical subject-verb-object (SVO) flow that we are used to in the English language has changed to object-verb-subject (OVS). If you speak Native Brazilian Hixkaryana, you might be OK with that, given they organize their sentences this way. But that is not how we think and read. Here’s another example:

PASSIVE: The report was written by Ahmed, and it was found to be excellent

ACTIVE: Ahmed wrote the report and it was excellent.

ACTIVE BETTER: Ahmed wrote an excellent report.

 

Active Verbs Clarify and Empower by Reducing Need for Modifiers

Another reason to use active verbs is that a writer depends less on modifiers to prop up a weak verb, which passive verbs tend to be. For instance, which version is more compelling and easy to take in?

  1. Jill was walking quickly into the room.

  2. Jill rushed into the room.

The example below that I explore in my book The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! shows how the use of active and powerful verbs adds vividness and clarity to a scene.

PASSIVE

ACTIVE

„ Joe walked slowly into the room.

 

„ Joe sidled into the room.

 

„ The naked couple were in the bed almost buried under the rumpled covers. They were now struggling to get up.

 

„ The naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets.

 

„ Joe saw the big man sit up and stare at him angrily.

 

„ The man reared up and glared at Joe.

 

TOTAL WORDS: 38 TOTAL WORDS: 25

TheFictionWriter-NMNotice how the use of active verbs also unclutters sentences and makes them more succinct and accurate. This was achieved not only by choosing active verbs but power-verbs that more accurately portray the mood and feel of the action. Most of the verbs used in the Passive column are weak and can be interpreted in many ways; words such as “walk” “were” “sit” and “stare”; each of these verbs begs the question ‘how’, hence the inevitable adverb. So we end up with “walk slowly” “were now struggling” “sit up” and “stare angrily.” When activated with power-verbs, we end up with “sidle” “struggled” “rear up” and “glared”—all more succinctly and accurately conveying a mood and feeling behind the action.

 

When Passive Verbs Clarify…

In Chapter 17 of their book The Craft of Research (University of Chicago Press) Wayne C. Booth and colleagues stress that mindlessly adhering to the tacit rule to choose active verbs over passive verbs can in fact cloud a sentence. They suggest asking a simpler question: do your sentences begin with familiar information, preferably a main character? “If you put familiar characters in your subjects, you will use the active and passive properly,” they say.

It’s all about context.

Booth et al. provide two passages and ask you to choose which “flows” more easily:

  1. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products for construction worldwide now threatens these rain forests with destruction.

  2. The quality of our air and even the climate of the world depend on healthy rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests are now threatened with destruction by the increasing demand for more land for agricultural use and for wood products used in construction worldwide.

Most readers will find that 2. flows more easily. This is because the beginning of the second sentence picks up on the “character” (the rain forest) introduced at the end of the first sentence (…the rain forests in Asia, Africa, and South America. But these rain forests…). In the active verb version of 1. the second sentence starts with new information unconnected to the first sentence. The sentences don’t flow into each other as well.

The passive version (2.) permitted the reader to continue with the familiar “character” right away. This, argue Booth et al., is the main function of the passive: to build sentences that begin with older information. The other reason version 2. works better is that the second sentence opens with something short, simple and easy to read: These rain forests are now threatened. In the active version 1. the second sentence opens with something long and complex. The key to clarity is to start simple (and strong, with a “character”) and end with complexity; this way, you set up the reader to better understand by starting with familiar/simple and moving to new/complex.

In engineering and the sciences where I teach at UofT, teachers still demand the use of passive verbs, believing that this makes the writing more objective. This advice is often equally misleading. Booth again provide two passages to show this:

  1. Eye movements were measured at tenth-of-second intervals.

  2. We measured eye movements at tenth-of-second intervals.

In fact, both sentences are equally objective; however, their stories differ. Version 1. ignores the person doing the measuring and focuses on the measurement. Avoiding “we” or “I” doesn’t make it more objective; it does, however shift the focus of the narrative. There is another explanation for using the passive version of 1. vs. the active 2. When a scientist uses the passive to describe a process, she implies that the process can be repeated by anyone—much like providing a recipe that anyone can follow.

Consider the following two passages:

  1. It can be concluded that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

  2. We conclude that the fluctuations result from the Burnes effect.

The active verb in 2. conclude and we as subject refers to actions that only the writer / researcher can perform. In other words, they are taking responsibility for that conclusion. Anyone can measure; only the author / researcher can claim what their research means.

The lesson here is that there is no one magic stick for sentence structure and active vs. passive verb use. Reader-ease and clarity depends on context and a natural flow of ideas.

 

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

Perr-fecting the Cat Purr Meditation…

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Willow

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

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

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

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

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

Willow basking

Willow teasing me

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

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

We remain in Cat-Purr-Meditation for …

Willow looking up

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

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

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

And meditating…

 

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

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

And practice Cat-Purring-Meditation…

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

 

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