Our Connection to Nature and Its Magic

I just finished reading a book called The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. It’s a biography that chronicles the life’s work of one of the most influential scientists that ever existed. You probably do not know him; though his work is just as influential today as it was in his day, his name has been almost forgotten. His name was Alexander Von Humboldt. His work single-handedly changed Western civilization’s view on what nature is and how we fit in it. The way Humboldt came to his realization and shared it with the world has inspired me and helped me develop my ideas around Aurth’s magic further.

Before Humboldt, during the industrialization of Europe and America’s civil war, people saw nature as a separate entity from themselves. Nature was the wilds that had to be conquered and harvested for man’s advancement. But when Humboldt started to publish his work, the opinion began to shift towards the realization that humans are just as much a part of nature as anything else on this planet. Humboldt’s theory (now a proven fact) was that we are all connected. Everything on Earth—the rocks, birds, streams, kangaroos and even algae—is all connected in some way. What happens to one will affect the others. These connections are what Humboldt referred to as the cosmos, but we know it better as the web of life. Remember that? We learned the simplified version of it in Grade 3 science. Grass is eaten by a grasshopper, the grasshopper is eaten by a songbird, the songbird is eaten by a hawk, and when the hawk dies its body decomposes into the earth to be absorbed by the grass. If a piece of that cycle is removed, then the whole thing falls apart… hawks don’t eat grass!

Humboldt learned about our connections to nature by going out into the natural world to experience it. During his journeys, he experienced the wonder of nature. Have you ever felt that overwhelming feeling of awe while in nature? I’ve felt it when I went whale watching off the coast and saw orca whales breeching the water’s surface, and during the first days of winter when the mountains get their first white-capped sprinkling of snow. Humboldt experienced this feeling too, and he was able to translate it into books. He shared his knowledge in a way no scientist had before. He wrote scientific papers that not only included facts and figures, but also included his emotional responses to what he saw, as well as colourful descriptions of what he found marvellous. I am not sure how familiar you are with my writing (download my free ebook here!) but what this sounds like to me is magic. What Humboldt experienced and wrote about were his experiences with the magic of existence.

To me, magic is not what we see being summoned from a wand or brewed in a cauldron in movies. Magic is what gives us life and is what we feel when we experience life (again, download my ebook here to read more about this). In A Gift from Aurth there are literal magic experiences that happen, like a man breathing fire or a woman who lives in a cloud, but it’s what the magic is intended to symbolize that I am trying to develop. Aurth’s magic is a metaphor for the wonder of our existence. The magic of our world may not be able to transform a cup into a kitten, but it was able to cover a planet of bare rock and hostile water with living things. The wonder Humboldt found in nature is where magic exists in our world. It’s the true form of magic.

In A Gift from Aurth, the antagonist is mining all of the magic of Aurth for herself. When she drains it from the environment, she literally strips the world clean of all life. When she drains magic from people, they lose their gift from Aurth and their driving force. Is this starting to sound familiar? What is happening in Aurth parallels what is happening here on Earth. As the human race strips our planet of its magic, we destroy our connection with nature and subsequently the magic in our lives.

The awe Humboldt experienced when he went out into nature inspired a whole civilization to see their place on this planet differently. He was able to express his thoughts and emotions about humanity’s place in nature in a way that captivated his audience and changed their worldview. That’s what I am trying to do. I’m not quite there yet, but Humboldt’s story has brought me one step closer to helping me share the magic of Aurth with my audience.

Nobody Said It Was Easy – A Q&A with Theodore Mullens

This weeks featured art is by photographer Leon Beu. It’s one of his personal favourites and it’s one of mine too. Click on the image to see more of his amazing work.

Developing a well-rounded character has been much harder than I had expected. The main character for A Gift from Aurth, Theodore Mullens, has been a bit of a tricky guy for me to figure out. I’ve done some posts with a general idea of who he is and a bit about what gives him drive but there is still so much more to learn about him.

Last week I sat down with Theodore and a coffee to do a Q&A exercise I found through Google. It was really beneficial because it gave me a better idea of who Theodore was, who he currently is and who he might become. Some of the questions got better answers then others. One question was, “Are you left handed or right handed?”. My answer for Theodore was just “Right,” which does not give me much to work with! I did, however, notice a theme starting to come up in some of the answers. When I put them all together it resulted in an revealing look into Theodore’s past. I’d like to share it with you.

TODD: Describe your earliest memory.

THEODORE: I remember the evening of a particularly hot summer day. Mom had kept the windows closed and blinds drawn to lock out the intensity of the sun’s heat. When it started to cool down outside, she opened the back and front doors to let the evening breeze blow through the house. I was lying in the hallway, cooling off in the crosswind she had made. She had settled down in her music room to play on her piano. Mom always spent her free time at her piano. I do not know what song she was playing, but it was as gentle as the air gliding across my face. At some point the smell of the breeze became sweeter, like someone had poured a cup of sugar into it. “Smells like a storm is coming,” she called to me. Rumbling in the distance confirmed it. The tempo of her song changed. It became the dark rolling clouds beginning to dominate the sky around us. Raindrops began to pour their rhythmic beat against the shingles of our house. I laid there all night, listening to my mom and the storm play out their songs.

TODD: When was the time you were most frightened?

THEODORE: One day when I was thirteen, I came home to an empty house after school. The moment I walked up to the door and did not hear any noise from inside, I knew something was wrong. It was a Tuesday and Mom taught piano lessons on Tuesdays. The house should have been alive with music. But instead, it was silent. Why wasn’t she home? My mom also had a part-time job at the grocery store in town. She sometimes switched shifts with her friend Donna as a favour, so I told myself that was what she was doing. It didn’t seem right, but it was the only explanation I could think of. I went into the music room and started to practice the song I was going to play at the recital she was organizing at the end of the month. I played for about an hour, thinking she would come through the back door at some point and tell me how proud she was of me for practicing, but she didn’t. I decided to try calling the store. She had told me not to call her there unless it was an emergency. Something about this felt like an emergency. When I called, Donna picked up. She had not heard from my mom all day, but told me she was sure Mom would be home any second. She wasn’t. At about seven I went over to our neighbours’ house to see if they had seen her. Mrs. Donaldson answered the door. I told her my mom was missing. She laughed at me and said she had seen my mom earlier in the day. She was sure Mom was just being held up somewhere in town. So Mrs. Donaldson invited me in and made me a sandwich while we waited. Sometime around nine, Mrs. Donaldson started to call people around town to see if anyone had seen her. At eleven she called the police. A day later, a farmer from out of town found my mom’s car and her body in his field. She had overdosed on a mixture of her medications.

TODD: What was your early relationship with your father like?

THEODORE: My father was not really my father until after my mom died and I was forced to go live with him. I’d barely had any contact with him before that. He had left my mom and I when I was a baby and he never really looked back. I think he had ideas of fixing our relationship when I moved in with him, but I was not ready. I had just lost the most important person in my life and now I was living with someone who had shown she was the least important person in his. Maybe it would have been different if he had acknowledged her or asked why I refused to keep playing the piano, but he didn’t. Instead, he took me to hockey games and on camping trips. Living with him was so different from living with my mom. He had so many rules and expectations. All he seemed to care about were my grades in school and whether or not my room was clean, but neither seemed to ever be good enough.

TODD: What is your most treasured possession?

THEODORE: I still own my mom’s piano. It sits in my living room as an untouched monument to a life no longer lived. I don’t play it. It’s been so long since I even sat at it, I’m not sure I even remember how to press a key.

TODD: What’s your favourite song?

THEODORE: When I was in high school my favourite band was Coldplay. They had a song come out called “The Scientist.” When I first heard it I immediately liked it because it features piano in the melody; that, of course, reminded me of Mom. Listening to the song made me feel sad but there was a sort of comfort in the sadness. It made me feel like she was there and we were still together at our old house. The sadness has not gone away. I still feel it just as I did then. I am okay with feeling it though. It’s all I have left of my relationship with her. If it goes away then she will go away too.

One Man with Ten Thousand Bodies – Jirard Vacher

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‘The Cabinet’ comes from Juha Arvid Helminen’s series entitled ‘The Invisible Empire.’ In it he explores the division between people in uniforms and civilians. Click on the image to see the rest of the series.

There have been many people in our world who have been considered evil. They dominate civilizations and command with an asserted dictatorship over the lives of those they rule. What is often forgotten is these evil people rarely act alone. It takes a legion of devotees behind them to enforce their rules and commit their crimes. There is a dominating force in Aurth who is slowly gaining power over the magic in the world. I am not going to get into who that is just yet, but they have an army on their side of just one man. One man may not seem like much of a threat, but this one man is a man with ten thousand bodies. His name is Jirard and he has the gift of self-replication.

Name: Jirard Vacher

Age: 41

Gift: Self-Replication – Jirard is able to create multiple copies of himself. Each of his copies looks, sounds, acts and is every bit the same as the original. Each is able to interact with the world independently, but they are all connected via a telepathic link called the hive mind. This allows the replicas to communicate with each other silently and over great distances. Every replica is able to create additional replicas.

Physical description: Jirard’s body is coated in a black, oil-like substance that renders it impossible to make out any features on his face. When he talks you can see the movement of his mouth under the oil but no hole appears. The substance has hardened into a triangle-shaped sword on his left arm. It starts wide at his elbow and tapers up to a sharp point at the tip. He can use this extension of his body as a lethal weapon or as a defensive block against attacks.

He wears a black leather trench coat with torn-off sleeves (so his sword arm will fit through the arm hole), with black baggy trousers and buckled military boots. Jirard is not a big man, only about 5’5” and 140 pounds. He wears baggier clothing and big boots as a pathetic attempt to look larger.

Before Aurth: Jirard spent his adult life as a loner and vagabond wandering through the rural countryside of France during the end of the 1800s. He did not spend long in any town because he found it hard to find work. The villagers saw him as an ugly and disturbed man. He also carried a secret with him that made him feel uncomfortable staying anywhere for too long. Jirard was a serial killer who killed and tortured victims he found in the rural areas between towns, often the children of farmers working on their family’s land. He had been getting away with it for a number of years until he returned to a village where one of his victims had lived. Someone recognized him as a shady character from his past visit and alerted the authorities. After being captured, Jirard reveled in confessing to his crimes. He was soon executed without a trial.

Hobbies: Jirard takes a sadistic pleasure in killing and harming other things. Hunting Nims gives him a particular joy because they are so easy to take down.

His one love: Jirard only ever loved one woman in his life. She grew up in the same village as him. It started as a small crush, but over the years of watching her and following her, his feelings grew into love and, eventually, as it does for anyone who wants something they cannot have, an obsession. Though he longed to talk with her, he lacked the confidence to approach her or even let her know he existed. It’s not that she was an intimidating beauty or out of his social class; Jirard simply feared she would reject him. He had already been living a life of rejection from his family and classmates at school, and he could not bear to be rejected by her too. One day, when walking home from the store, he turned a corner and walked into her, falling to the ground. It was the sort of natural moment he had been waiting for to introduce himself, but before he could say anything, she started to laugh and walked away. Jirad had never felt so insignificant.

Favorite food: Jirard has an insatiable sweet tooth. He’s the sort of person who has a splash of coffee with their sugar in the morning. His preferred form of sugar is hard candies. He likes to bite down and crunch on the hard pieces instead of letting them slowly dissolve in his mouth.

Napoleon complex: Jirard has never been a leader or a winner. He is the youngest and smallest of eight boys. His older brothers were cruel to him, teasing him for being small and funny-looking. As he entered adolescence, Jirard did not grow to be any bigger than any of his brothers. His size and situation caused him to develop a complex, compensating for his size by being highly aggressive and dominating. He became easily provoked and was a bully to anyone or anything that was smaller than him. This behavior continued to get worse as he became an adult.

Role: Jirard is the henchman for the antagonistic force in Aurth. His army will be hunting and tracking Theodore as he travels through the world. What purpose would they have with a man who has no gift?

Living a Full Life with My Creative Crush Ilona Royce Smithkin

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Photo by Ari Seth Cohen of Advanced Style

Ilona Royce Smithkin is one of the muses for fashion blog Advanced Style. In the blog, she and a collection of fabulous senior women from New York City are photographed by blogger Ari Seth Cohen for their individual and creative style. A documentary about these women was recently added to my Netflix account (it shares the name of the blog). Each woman in the doc is special in her own individual way, but there was one who stuck out to me: my orange-haired creative crush delight, Ilona Royce Smithkin.

It was a specific statement she makes in the doc that really got to me. When describing her artist life, she said, “I came into my own about, maybe ten, twelve, thirteen years ago.” This is a woman who is in her 90s! She had lived an entire life before she started to live one where she was being true to herself. At first her statement really had me worried. Will it take that long for all of us soul-searching creative people to find ourselves?

No, it won’t.

I’ve watched the scene a few times now and I am no longer worried. It did not take almost a century for Ilona to discover herself. It took that long for her to embrace the person she is and focus on the things in her life that bring her joy. Ilona came into her own when she started to teach art and share her talents with the world.

At 95, Ilona still has the vivation to teach, paint, work out book deals, interview for the media, and she has a monthly cabaret show where she sings and performs. She does it all with a lovely confidence and a comfort in her freedom of self.

We all have a limited time to live our lives. People like Ilona – someone who is striving to still live a full life near the end of hers – inspire the rest of us to make the most of the time we have. We’re motivated to embrace the joys and passions in our lives now because we never know when it will be the end.

Here is a video with some clips from the Advanced Style Documentary.

Ilona says my other favourite quote in the video and I think it’s an appropriate ending to this post. “How long will I be able to do it? I can’t buy green bananas anymore.”

Make sure to check out the Advanced Style blog and watch the documentary on Netflix.

The Power and Colour of Carine

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When I saw this photo of model Alex Wek in Global Gathering for How To Spend It Magazine I immediately thought I was looking at a picture of Carine. The colour, the patterns, the hair, the pose… it’s all her. (Click on the photo to see the rest of the photoshoot. Styling by Damian Fox and Photography by Andrew Yee)

Carine is the last of Theodore’s companions for me to introduce you to. She meets Theodore with Jack when he first comes to Aurth. Carine and Jack have been in a relationship together for many years. In their partnership, she is the stability, providing a voice of reason and responsibility. Carine is a self-assured woman who does not depend on anyone for survival. I imagine her being a sort of feminist who sees herself as an equal to anyone. She would probably hate the fact that I brought up Jack in her introduction. So no more Jack or relationship talk – here are some character development facts about Carine.

Name: Carine Kinigi

Age: 28

Gift: Mass Manipulation – Carine can change the size of her body by increasing her mass. She can proportionally change her entire body or she can selectively change specific body parts. When she increases in size her overall strength also increases.

Physical Description: Carine is a Tutsi Rwandan from central Africa. Though her height can vary due to her gift, she is naturally tall and slender with long legs and arms. Her facial features are soft, petite and feminine. Her beauty belies the fierceness inside of her that empowers her to not back down to anyone or anything.

Fuchsia, lime green, electric blue, or orange – Carine loves vibrant colours. In her clothing she wears a kaleidoscope mix of colour and pattern. The outfits are an eclectic assortment of pieces she puts together, not because they match, but because she likes each individual piece. I see her wearing a shiny cropped kimono jacket, billowing harem pants, bright slippers and a colourful sash wrapped around her waist. She spends most of her time in the wilds of Aurth, so the clothes she wears often have some mud on them, and perhaps a few tears.

She thinks of her hair as a medium of self-expression. It changes with her moods and feelings. When Theodore meets her, she has her hair formed into three cones. One points back and the other two point to either side. It looks bizarre but she loves it.

Intricate golden markings of tribal patterns, flowers and words cover her skin. They are not paint or tattoos but organic metal extensions of her skin. If you were to run your hand along her arm it would feel like soft embossed leather. I say soft because her skin feels buttercream smooth. The same gold material has coated her lips and powdered her eyes.

Quirks/Hobbies: Carine has a fascination with anything weird and different. This includes people, animals, plants, art, food, clothing and anything else out of the ordinary. Normal is boring for Carine.

Her spirit animal: With this character I want to convey a demeanour of composure, strength and grace. I have this image in my mind of her being an eagle perched on the top of a dead tree; her only movements are her head scanning from left to right, surveying the grasslands around her. She is waiting for her prey to expose themselves in the grass below. When she has a clear target, she spreads her mighty wings and swoops down on her meal before the creature is even aware of her shadow.

In the A Gift from Aurth film, Carine would be played by Grace Jones because of her “I do what I want” attitude and avant-garde style.

Before Aurth: Carine lived with her family in rural Rwanda as cattle herders. She had been married to a man since she was 16 years old. They had three children together, two boys and a girl. She spent the majority of her time caring for her family and tending to their herd. Her family and home gave her an acceptable life and she loved them but she suppressed a strong sense of self to make it work. She found an outlet in her life by collecting fabrics from the market to alter her and her family’s clothing.

Political instability in Rwanda resulted in a cultural genocide of the Tutsi people in the mid-90s. Carine and her family were victims of this brutality. Her death at the hands of military extremists is how she found her way to Aurth.

Her biggest fear: Carine’s life had been a sequence of milestones determined for her by someone else. She recognized in her past how her gender, economic standing, marital status and culture all determined who she had to be. Even her death was decided at the hands of her murderer. Now that she is in Aurth, she has the freedom to become her own person and make her own decisions. Losing her freedom and returning to a life of powerlessness is her biggest fear.

Role: Carine’s responsible tendencies, her relationship with Jack and quick friendship with Theodore will bring the group together in an unexpected way early on in the story.

Creative Crush – Ira Glass

I’m going to start posting my Creative Crushes. When someone in the creative world inspires me, I want to share their influence, their work and some love.

My first crush is This American Life producer and host Ira Glass. On his radio program, Ira and his team share compelling stories of peoples’ lives based a on selected theme. Themes can be anything from the perils of intimacy to the effects of testosterone levels in people. I like listening to these stories because each one shares the nature of human connection. That connection may be between the people within the story or the connection I feel to the story’s subject. To me, the best stories are the ones we feel inside of us. They help us see a broader horizon in this world, and give us a better understanding of how we fit into it. I’m learning through my own storytelling how difficult it is to naturally build a connection with that power. So for me, listening to Ira do this week after week on This American Life is uber impressive.

Here is a video (the first of four) on Ira’s building blocks for creating a good story. One of my writing teachers shared it with me a couple of years ago. It was the first Ira Glass thing I was exposed to, and he’s been a creative crush of mine ever since.

Character Development Exercise – Clarifying Characteristics Will Keep a Character Consistent and Believable

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What words describe who you are?

I am optimistic, practical, critical, intuitive, empathetic, imaginative…

Our personalities are made up of characteristics that will consistently come up in the things we say and do. They make us into the unique individuals we are.

The same can be said for characters in a story.

I made lists of the 10 major characteristics my characters have as a reminder of who they are while I am writing how they interact with themselves and the world around them.

For example, Carine is very expressive so if something was bothering her she would naturally start to talk about it in a conversation. In contrast, Theodore is very reserved so he would likely bite his tongue in a similar situation.

Sometimes I have troubles while I am writing because I am not sure how a character would respond to the situation they are in or what they would say to someone. Clarifying their characteristics will help me keep everyone consistent and believable.

“Think Process, Not Product” – Why the Process Is Just as Important as the Product

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It’s been awhile since I last posted. I stopped posting because I have been going through a period of self-doubt. Creative writing is new to me. It’s not something that comes easily, so it can be a struggle to get my thoughts written out into sentences that convey the meaning I am trying to get across. When my written words don’t match my thoughts I get really frustrated. The frustration and my self-doubt began to fuel negative thoughts. I started telling myself I was never going to be good enough, and that because I was a horrible writer, no one cared about what I had say.

Talking to myself like that put me in a shitty mental state. So I stopped writing the story and blog posts.

But I don’t want to be in this shitty mental state anymore. Writing A Gift from Aurth is an important dream of mine. I am not ready to give up on it, and I am not ready to give up on myself!

Over the past few weeks I have been trying to change my way of thinking so I can get back on track. Part of this process has been looking back on what has inspired me. This week I bought Austin Kleon’s new book, Show Your Work! It’s the sequel to his hugely successful book Steal Like an Artist, which is a guide to “unlocking your creativity.” I read it a few years ago when I was first thinking of writing a book. Now that I am having troubles, it makes sense to look at what new advice Kleon has to offer.

Show Your Work! is the next step in the creative process. In this book, which is about how to share your work with the world, Kleon offers 10 tips on opening up yourself and your work. My favorite tip so far is #2: Think Process, Not Product. What Kleon is saying with this second tip is that the process is just as important as the final product. The process is what allows the creator to evolve and the develop the idea. In fact, the finished product can only be as good as the process. He also encourages sharing the development of your work with people because it is interesting for them to see how the idea became what they are seeing or reading. Sharing can also help someone else start their own creative process because they are inspired by what they see.

Reading that second tip was what I needed. My self-doubts are rooted in an expectation I have for myself to reach the final product. I was not giving myself room to grow as a writer. Instead, I was expecting myself to be perfect with every word I wrote. When I wasn’t, I saw it as a personal failure. Now I know the struggle is a part of the process. It’s the necessary work, experimentation and discovery that needs to happen before a final product can be made. If I stop writing, I will never get better because I will not have gone through everything it takes to learn and grow.

The second tip has also gotten me rethinking what I am posting on the blog. I have been sharing with you edited and developed ideas. Maybe I should start sharing where these ideas come from and how they take shape. As Kleon puts it in the book, “Human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do.” Personally, I relate to the struggles people go though and when someone becomes successful at something, I am interested in how they achieved it.

No one is naturally good at anything. It may seem like it when we see a beautiful painting, read an insightful manuscript, or watch a gentle recital, but what we are seeing is the finished product. We are not seeing everything it took for that person to get where they are when they present their work to the world. I think that by opening myself up and letting you see more of my process I will not only free myself of expectations to finish the story, I will hopefully also inspire you to start something of your own.

I am ready to start writing again. What are you going to start?

P.S. – It took me two days, three drafts and six cups of coffee to write this.

Turning Something into Someone – The Third Property to Aurth’s Magic – Gives Life

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This week’s featured art is by biology collagist Bedelgeuse. Click on the image to see more of his work and follow him on Instagram

One of my first posts was about how Aurth is not just the world A Gift from Aurth takes place in; it’s also a living being capable of thoughts, emotions, and interactions with other life forms. The being known as Aurth came into existence from the third life-giving property of magic.

This property says,

Magic is a life-giving force. Its light can bring a heartbeat and a soul to the inanimate. When life leaves the living, it is possible for magic to bring it back.

Aurth’s magic has an affect on life in the same way water, minerals, and vitamins do. Adding magic to an ecosystem is like fertilizing your garden with cosmic electrolytes. When an organism absorbs magic, the magic encourages it to flourish and thrive in extraordinary ways.

I have always been fascinated by the way trees become a home to so many other living things. A single tree can be covered in layers of life: the frills of ferns, a coat of moss and a metropolis of crawling creatures wandering through the crevices of its bark. I imagine trees in Aurth being the same, but what calls these magical trees home would look a little different. A crust of colourful coral could be growing through the mosses. Among the creatures would also be raves of costumed Nims swinging through the branches. The ferns would grow alongside beautiful flowers that bud into bursts of butterflies each day.

It is not only living things that can benefit from magic’s life-giving force. The rarest quality of all magic’s properties is its ability to give life. When magic concentrates in high volumes and a chance combination of coincidental circumstances unfold, magic can turn something into someone. The omnipresent existence of Aurth was given life by the magic that saturates its soil and water. The whole of the planet makes up Aurth’s body. It does not have hands for you to shake or a voice for you to hear, but it has a mind with intentions and a heartbeat at its core. Magic gave life to Aurth in this way, but that is not the limit to its possibilities. You may meet some characters in the story who could have been cast in the service of the beast in the film “Beauty and the Beast.” Magic also has the potential to invite the spark of life back into the body of someone who has died. This does not mean death is non-existent in Aurth. Death is still an inevitable future for everyone who goes to Aurth.

“Gives Life” was the last quality of Aurth’s magic for me to cover in this blog. What do you need that magic could provide? What would you become if magic transformed you? How would the world around you thrive if magic shared its life-giving light? For some inspiration, check out my posts about the other properties through the links below. Share what your imagination comes up with in the comments section or on Twitter.