World Creation: A Book From a Map

For fifteen minutes after every lunch when I was in grade six, from her desk in the far front corner of the room, Penny Gwillim read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to our class. I was already a storyteller by then, but those stories read by Penny Gwillim inspired me to write.

Tolkien populated his world with story. Every named element — person and place — had a purpose and story built into it. Every horizon hid a land beyond. Each name and land had a history and significance. This built boundless depth and breadth into Tolkien’s world. And, as these persons and places overlapped, so their purposes and stories intertwined.

Today’s post is about world building. It is about creating endless story potential by mapping instead of outlining.

My favourite Tolkien quote is this.

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached — or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).

— J.R.R. Tolkien (1945)

He also extolled, in the same letter (1945), “the heart-racking sense of the vanishing past”.

Tolkien’s underscoring of names and unexplored-places-beyond-horizons with histories and stories, to me, is a powerful way to build worlds.

Plotting and Pantsing

I am a plotter and a pantser. I typically write short stories and poems on my computer with no plotting nor sense of where the story is going, other than the steeping inspirational idea. Many of these stories and poems comprise my best writing. They sing and dance for others and me. Long stories and “important” poems I sketch, write on loose-leaf, then after several versions revise and edit further on computer.

The sketch is my tool of choice: a quick list, map or outline of places, events, scenes and characters that I typically then ignore and pants around. On the continuum of pantsing to plotting, I believe most writers do some form of sketching a little in each story. Usually I sketch after I get a good start on a story.

A Sudden Insight

I have been writing several unrelated magical-realism shorts over the years. I label these as fantastic folktales. They are subtle stories, with that unmistakable undercurrent of impossibility and fantastic flowing through them. They are explorations of my imagination and my craft, vents of my passion. They have different styles, different characters, different premises, nothing really connecting them.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I woke with the idea of creating a map for one of these stories. And to this map I added the landscape of another story, then another. Suddenly, these stories all fit together. They even had a chronology to them. Further, the map and story element connections suggested several connector and origin shorts. And under them was that hidden undercurrent of overarching fantastic which suggested it own story.

It seems so obvious, with that map and the similarity of the genre of the stories, that the stories belong together, that beneath them was a larger, suggested, untold story.

Several of the stories are ready for publishing. Others need fleshing and tweaking. But this is a project I am excited to pursue. This is a book I want to write.

It would be just if my first book contained a selection of my short stories, which each took a short while to write, rather one of my long ones that I have worked on and played with for so long. And to discover this potential in an odd urge to create a single-short story map is thrilling.

My Take on Plots and Maps

Plots come in many forms. Some plots originate from intuitive exploration (pantsing). Some from first drafts. Some from outlines. Others from maps.

Maps also build worlds (more) and, unlike the constriction of outlines, manifest unending stories, just like Tolkien’s names and horizons.

Every map is an outline to endless stories. Details and names infill a world with story. Horizons in space and history inspire a broader and deeper world and more story.

A Comparison of Outlining and Mapping

Outline maps out a story. Like a pathfinder of new lands and events, it explores the lands and events and chops a route through them. The path it picks clearly leads further travel through the lands and events. But it also restricts the possibilities of exploration. It winds from point A to point B, however complex the labyrinth of its trail. Further travel may head off the outline, but in doing so will clear its own route — its own outline — between A and B.

The outline is a good guide and even its winding and rolling trails and oxbow loops can be revised into a smooth road.

Map outlines a world. It does not blaze a trail from point A to point B, but instead suggests wilderness (forests, oceans, city blocks), encounters and adventure between and far beyond the two points. The map opens new places, new events and new context to explore — in fact, uncounted places and events, and burgeoning context. But more importantly it reveals endless new places, events and context to explore once the current story is complete. And a map can be grown. Its limits can be pushed deeper and farther beyond what the map revealed before. Horizons always have story beyond them. Unnamed places can always be named.

The map is an atlas of unending potential tales. It is not direct and smooth like an outline, but it reveals possibilities and twists the outline misses.

Used together, the map and the outline can guide the writer to and through grand stories. The outline unearths and shepherds a story. The map opens and reveals a world of stories. Just like Tolkien emphasized.

How do maps influence your stories and build your worlds? Join the conversation. Comment below.


World-building Resources

Culture-generating Resources

Map-making Resources


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1945.) Letter 96. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. First Edition, 1981. Carpenter, H. and Tolkien, C. London: George Allen & Unwin. P. 125.

Interview: The Blade of Ahtol with Dan Gillis

I am honoured to announce the publication of a new epic fantasy and to present my second interview on this blog.

My last interview, with Malyn Mawby, featured her incredible scrapbooking and blogging journey, 10minutes, for the Art House Projections 2012 Sketchbook Project.

Author Dan Gillis This interview features Dan Gillis, a good friend and member of the Write Group, who yesterday published his first book, Sapling: The Blade of Ahtol.

The Blade of Ahtol is an epic fantasy novel. It follows a band of outcasts who find themselves hounded by evil forces. I will start my post with my review of the book.

Sapling Cover Review of the Blade of Ahtol, Book 1 of the Sapling cycle in the Aerluin Weave saga, by Dan Gillis.

Since Llian wandered and Aerluin was lost, evil has steadily crept across the lands, building itself to conquer all of Aeredia.

The pickpocket, Firah, joined by her burly patron, Tohm, a bartender; Zyr, a monk shrouded in layers of mystery; and Shien, an expelled patriot seeking heirlooms stolen from his family, venture out and soon find themselves thrust together and targets of the spreading evil. They attempt to flee, only to be doggedly pursued by their enemy and even by their allies. When they also become afflicted with madness, possession and magic they cannot control, how can Firah and her companions survive to save Aeredia and Aerluin?

Sapling: The Blade of Ahtol is set in a world of conflicting magic, where demons possess humans, and monsters enslave farmers and villagers. Factions clash in their struggle for control and in all of this is a violent race to find someone to embody the growing evil or the essence of Aerluin. In the midst of this turmoil, Firah is a sensitive; she is attuned to the magic moving through Aeredia, making her a receptacle for good and evil. Her sensitivity makes her trackable and constantly dogged by those who would possess her. In a world where loyalties shift and alliances and adversaries switch, any move, even flight, is dangerous.

I like Gillis’ Blade of Ahtol. Dan pulls us through a complex world using engaging characters, a rich story, a dynamic pace and embedded backstories. Dan’s attention to detail provides a history even to the geology and conflicting magic in his unique world. His clashing cultures develop different perspectives on this history and their often-hostile interactions. The atmosphere is tense, even in the enervating and the tranquil sequences between his fast-paced, yet clear, fight scenes. These calculated fight scenes are meaningful to Dan’s story and his world; they are not contrived conveniences. In similar fashion, Dan manages to expertly embed, rather than insert, informative backstories, and ulterior motives and goals, into his epic tale. This last is refreshing as backstories are often the bane of story flow; here they contribute to the fiction. Dan also sprinkles liberal doses of humour and romantic tension throughout his story as well as interesting cues specifying change in point of view, timing and scene, and visual icons, matched to a calendar explained in an appendix, identifying the date of events in the novel.

I had a few chances to listen to Dan reading portions of this riveting tale and love the way the story reads when he recites it. I think any reader who is interested in fantasy and suspense will love this novel. I highly recommend it.

Check Dan’s novel out. It is a good story.

To mark the occasion of the publication of Dan’s first book, I interviewed him about his novel and writing practice. Here is what he had to say.

SU: First, congratulations, Dan. It is incredible to watch the editing, revision and publication processes in action.

SU: Share some things about yourself. Who are you?

DG: I am a teacher of a most imaginative group of people, that being junior high. They inspire me everyday, to say nothing of general source material for teenage characters. I think of my creative experiences in my young teens [adolescence] and I want to foster that same feeling in the youth today. Its most rewarding with the self-proclaimed non-writers who learn to create amazing tapestries of imagination. Anything creative I have grown to enjoy and participate in; namely painting, sketching, digital media, photography, guitar, drama/theater, martial arts and starting a family. I guess you can say I received a lion’s share of creativity and I have tried not to bury it in the ground.

SU: That is interesting. I also felt most creative when I was a teen and I see it all the kids, from Grade 5 to Grade 12, that I teach. I believe kids are the most creative people in the world.

SU: What were your first stories and poems like? What were they about?

DG: What a range of stories took shape!

In one case a boy is taken by a secret organization and a small micro-computer is implanted in his brain. When he escapes and remembers nothing, he is thrust into chaos as the organization tries desperately to recover their investment. He is most surprised when the computer comes online and assists him in his attempts to escape recapture. I was 15 when I imagined that one.

In another yarn, my sister and I collaborated when I was 18. Beings have come to earth. They are time travellers and are fleeing their world in destruction. The earth story is somewhat dystopian, with an oppressive government that has the earth locked down. The travellers decide to help a young boy and girl with their struggle.

My poetry was lively and comedic. Teenage angst rolled out occasionally, but for the most part it was lighthearted fun. Classic titles include “To Live and Die in LA (Language Arts)” and “Pass the Napkins Please.”

SU: Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?

DG: My father once wrote a poem for each of his children, which was placed in each of our personal journals. I was very young when I received mine. I have treasured that poem for decades which symbolizes a father’s love and creativity. I know my father loved to read and maintained a personal library of his favorite books. Most were academic, but it was clear that poetry and humor were integral to his preferences. My dad has supported me in all my creative and academic pursuits and has never faltered. What more of a treasured friend and mentor could I ask?

SU: How would you describe the Blade of Ahtol to someone who has not read any of your work?

DG: I have found this sort of question a challenge because of the scope of the project. Sapling falls into the genre of epic or high fantasy as just one of many unique and varied stories to be told in Aeredia. The Blade of Ahtol is an introduction to the world and establishes a context for the power that drives the conflict for all the narratives that will follow in the Aerluin Weave.

The fantasy genre is certainly replete with many worlds and characters. While I have endeavoured to create an interesting and unique mechanic to the genre, my joy of writing is in the exploration of the human condition. As such, the Blade of Ahtol is as much a character study of those who struggle against the corruption of power in others as it is in themselves. I have always found this a compelling theme to write about. Firah is very much the catalyst for the reader’s discovery; a character who knows little of the world outside and is caught up in the power games of others. While the narrative is written from various perspectives, the general flow of the novel follows the young girl along her journey. Firah is a character that you can become very attached to – faults and all.

SU: What is your favourite part of the Blade of Ahtol?

DG: Hands down, the part I love to read the most is the interactions between Zyr and Nuril, particularly the encounter during the skirmish of the White Guard and the Blade of Ahtol. This backstory was the most taxing to write as I felt so much for Tehsa and the threads of fate which change her life. As with most writers, I have a vested interest in all my characters and the troubles I create for them. As I indicated earlier, I get attached to the characters and they feel very real to me.

SU: What is your favourite part about writing?

DG: Creating images with words is a rewarding undertaking whether in narrative or poetic form. The more subtle but effective device work is the ultimate challenge. I am always trying to refine this craft and make the writing richer and more efficient.

SU: What is writing to you?

DG: Writing is a form of expression as much as any other medium such as art, drama, martial forms and many others. Each medium offers a special form of communication to the recipient. Out of all the forms of creative expression I love writing for the ability to convey the thoughts, hopes and desires most accurately. Yet, it lacks in perfect description of character and settings without a laborious diversion from the plot. Cinema is a direct contrast of these points, offering perfect visual clarity, but limited to verbal dialogue as far as understanding motivation. In this way, I imagine my writing in many forms at once to understand the full effect. Often I will imagine my sequences in cinematic display. I create maps to get a sense of distance and scope of the world. I draw on my knowledge of martial forms to guide characters into combative sequences. A friend of mine at the time of writing created music specifically suited to each chapter; it was tremendous. So writing is only one sibling in the Creative family and without every member involved it can feel slightly dysfunctional.

SU: Did the writing of the Blade of Ahtol influence your life? How?

DG: This was the first novel I ever tried and it certainly opened my eyes to the reality of published writing. Thankfully, the traditional market is changing with the ever increasing options of self-publishing. I once queried a series of agents with the rough novel and received a healthy dose of reality. I learned then the amount of work and sacrifice that would be required to complete the project. I took the challenge and worked hard with my outstanding editor to produce an amazing piece of work. Now with self-publishing, I can strike off one of the ol’ bucket list of life accomplishments.

SU: What is your creative process like? What happens when you sit down to write?

DG: I find that when I am teaching certain units in Language Arts that it triggers my own creativity. I also have noted that while I am out for long bike rides my brain tends to linger upon my various projects. It feels like peeking into doors. Sometimes inspiration comes rapidly and I must pull over and start entering my ideas into my phone (my memory should not be trusted for when I get back home). The synopsis of ideas generally comes then, the framework if you will, and when I sit down and write the stylistic forms simply come along then. I certainly have felt more creative when I feel my body is healthy.

SU: What advice would you give to a beginning writer? Why that?

DG: Allow for the expansion of ideas. As you reflect upon your plot you will find ways to improve, expand and enhance your text. Don’t rush your revisions, allow time for the creative process to continue. There are wonderful additions that can happen in this critical phase.

Oh, and listen to your editor.

SU: Can you describe something you wrote that was so stimulating that you could not get your mind off of it?

DG: Well, I hope you’ll excuse me for getting sentimental and personal. When the day came to propose to my wonderful and dear companion, I had a feeling of what to do. To propose to her with a poem seemed to encapsulate all of who I was. When I sat down to pen that most sacred and vital verse, I felt like a channel had opened to a source of power an Ashori could only dream of. I felt it flow from me so easily and I almost felt like an observer. There was no construction or revision of any sort. When I think of the marvel of that night and the twenty minutes of sweet joy where my soul and pen were in harmony – I am forever grateful. That was my greatest achievement and not to mention it would be an insult to inspiration.

She said yes.

SU: Congratulations.

SU: Did you have a message in mind when you wrote [the Blade of Ahtol]? What did you want to share from it? What did you want to keep?

DG: I did not have an intended message to convey initially as Sapling began as a creative outlet to explore the cellars and attics of my imagination. Much of university study was literal interpretations – I needed a place to go where I could shape the rules and outcomes of my own creations. How liberating! I know that Sapling is a study of loyalty and personal sacrifice. That theme grew powerfully as I created the story.

SU: Did you get out of this story what you expected and wanted? What did you learn?

DG: I learned that great ideas are only the beginning. There is a whole other craft that goes unmentioned far too often and that is the genius of editing and the art of clarity. Thank you, Shawn for your expertise, keen eye and clever mind.

SU: You are a Language Arts teacher. How do you inspire your students to get the most out of what they explore, create and investigate?

DG: Finding the joy in reading often takes that special spark of entertainment. I love doing readers theater with the students, trying on voices and being animated. I also dive deep into the story with the students and encourage them to try and find books in their genre of interest. We have had much success noticing elements of stories and the writer’s craft. When they create their own stories, I encourage them to expand their writing using their favorite stories as models. This includes all the techniques that lead to interesting ideas. It is certainly rewarding to see struggling readers or writers have the creative ‘aha’ moment.

SU: What are you working on now?

DG: I am revising and editing the second book, Sapling: The Broken Halls, which was written in the same year as the first book [(2004)]. I am halfway through DOVE which was mentioned earlier in the interview [read the full interview]. Another intriguing project that been ongoing is a supernatural thriller called Crossing Over. I don’t think I can be pinned down into any genre, or at least my brain doesn’t seem to think so.

SU: How can readers contact you or learn more about your books? Where can they read some of this story or other pieces of your work?

DG: I have creative works scattered over various places. Readers can go to my dedicated creative works page at Facebook called Ad Infinitum Creations. You can follow me on Twitter @AerluinWeave. Over at Tofield Write Group I have a member page. For a look at my poetry and graphic poetry you can check out Lands of Myth. Some interesting forum writing I did with my good friend Talia (check out her youtube channel) turned out some wonderful machinima in the Guild Wars setting. It is entitled the Fire of the Covenant and encompasses two full series of episodes. Zyr was featured here, and I even snuck in some voice acting. One of my favorite scripts about the afterlife was featured in this series. Some of my graphic novel work is found at my old guild’s hangout page. I am sure you will all love Keryn (also featured in the video series) who happens to be one of my favorite characters. I wouldn’t dare argue that point with her …

Ad Infinitum Creations:

Ashes & Steel / Rebirth (Halftoe)
The Fall of the House Ridow (Dan the Skald)

Fire of the Covenant: (et al)
The link to my forum writing was for video scripts written by my good friend Talia based on our Forum RP.

Graphic Art:
Fire Dream: Fire of the Covenant Spin-off Comics (Great White Norn)

General Art and Storywork:
Ad Infinitum Creations scrapbook (Ad Infinitum Creations)

The link for the actual writing which I write under the Halftoe pen is here:
Private writing palette (Halftoe)

SU: I would like to thank you, Dan, for agreeing to be interviewed. I hope your work inspires others to share their own experiences and stories with the world.

This was an excerpt of my interview with Dan. You can read the complete interview here and buy the Blade of Ahtol at Amazon.

To learn more about the Blade of Ahtol and Dan, visit his blog and his Tofield Write Group member page. You can follow him on Twitter @AerluinWeave.

Blogging The Write Group

The Write Group has a new blog. We have moved from our wiki on Wikispaces and expanded into our blog on WordPress.

The Write Group is a writing club with members who write fiction and non-fiction in either prose or poetry forms. We write in many genres and write everything from two-liners to novels. Some of us are professionals, some are hobbyists. We have everything from published writers to others who are just starting out.

Come peruse our blog and other resources.

The Write Group

777 Challenge Untagged

Its origins are mysterious, its age unknown, its call impelling. I stumbled upon a post that responded to a networking and writing exercise called the 777 Challenge.



The Challenge is quite simple:

Post 7 lines (at least) from the 7th page in prose or poetry you are currently writing, then challenge (tag) 7 other writers to do the same.

I am new on the scene — at least to the online writing community — yet I think the 777 Challenge will be fun … and revealing. So I’m trying it. Yep, I’m self-tagging. And the writers I will tag are strangers to me. I am interested to see who I meet and how this goes.

Seven Lines

I decided to pick seven lines from (the seventh page of) the second chapter of a novel, called Heartlodge, that I am working on. This chapter is entitled Stories.

In this passage, Abby encounters a magic book — though, aren’t all books magic?

The black letters in the book moved. They swooped out of the darkness surrounding the stars, landed on the open page near its bottom right, flowed across the sheet as if it were a stream and lifted off at the top left as the words they formed were pronounced. They disappeared into sound as the words were spoken, almost as if they became Uncle Wit’s voice as he talked. Yet the darkness around the stars did not diminish.

‘Uncle Wit? Where did these words come from? They weren’t here before.’ Yet they seemed to have always been there like Uncle Wit’s voice, the breeze and the warmth of Simon beside her. “

~ © 2012 Shawn Urban, Heartlodge

You might think that five-year old Abby is about to go on an incredible journey. The fact is however that she is in the middle of one in this passage … and her destination will be even more incredible. You might also think that Heartlodge is a children’s book. It is not. It gets dark and deep, starting in the first chapter. In this passage, for instance, Abby already lost her parents, is alone and is about to realize that she is lost. It all leads to a cosmic conflict.

Seven Challenges

Since I am new to the online writing community, I will pick, with a die, seven writers with blogs who I follow on twitter. That should randomize my choice of victims um … tagged writers to pass this challenge on to.

And the winners are:

This is not the most diverse list. I was hoping for more genres and writing forms, and writers from other cultures. But the die rolls as the bell tolls as they say.

Enjoy your 777 Challenge, everyone.

So, what do you think? Did I meet the challenge? Are you intrigued by the passage? Leave a comment, or a question. I would love to hear from you.

Synergy and Convergence

I just saw a commercial for an interesting-sounding movie, called The Odd Life of Timothy Green, about a boy who is born out of his parents’ wishes and the Earth. That is all I know about the movie.

But that reminded me of a short story I wrote a couple of years ago, about a girl born of Water and her parents’ wishes. How neat is that?

They say that ideas flow until they meet in a node and while in that node many people combine these ideas into similar constructs. So it was with Darwin and Wallace, so it is with many literary works. It has happened many times to me and tonight it happened again.

I can’t help but smile.



I called my story A Pril o’ the Thirst. It is a Jack tale, only the main character is April. And yes I wrote it to be read at the March 31, 2010, meeting of the Write Group, the closest meeting to April 1 of that year.

The premise is that during a severe drought, the girl was born of the last bit of Water to a miller and his wife, who lived in a water-mill at the edge of a village. The girl, made of wish and magic, spreads magic and hope during her “typical-Jack” adventures. But she is also made of Water and upon her death, after a short life, Water returns to the village.

It is not coincidence that I equated the name April with Jack, nor that I thought of writing a Jack story for April Fool’s Day. I took a Storytelling course in 2004 from Gail de Vos at the University of Alberta. One of her grad students converted a Jack story into a contemporary April story to celebrate the approach of April 1 in 2004. All I can remember of that story is that it involved highrises and the Edmonton river valley. Yet the synergy of Jack, April and April 1 made an impression on me.

A Pril o’ the Thirst was a fun tale to write. I look forward to watching The Odd Life of Timothy Green when it comes out.

What do you think about idea nodes and converging creations? Have you ever experienced similar phenomena?

Inspiring the Next Generation

I have some interesting news to share.

The Grade 10s in one of the schools where I sub began their poetry unit in English this week. I subbed for them yesterday.

One of their tasks yesterday was to write a poem in one of the forms they had already learned, then share these with the class. There were some very reluctant students; they had a low opinion about this sharing business, particularly their contributive involvement in it.



I decided to break the ice by sharing one of my poems. And I had access to two: those I published in this blog.

The poem I chose to share was Van Gogh and the Moon. It was a hit, particularly when I explained to the kids that the poem was an in promptu (five minute) response to a writing prompt in the local writing club.

So, yes, I got a chance to plug the Write Group as well; I told the kids that students from the school were part of the group, which peeked more interest.

But more importantly, it got each of the students to open up and share some of their poems, not just those they wrote in class yesterday, but those they had access to through their iPhones and other devices.

It was a perfect marriage of teacher and student sharing, technology (I used the Smart board; the students used their devices), and encouragement and modelling by example.

It never ceases to amaze me how well these teachable moments go when the teacher releases control and opens up to her or his students. (Of course, it also never ceases to amaze me how badly such moments go as well at times. There is a definite case for timing and thoughtful and responsive judgement here.)

These students have everything to be proud of. They have incredible imaginations, and a deep and active appreciation for written communication.

Moments like these remind me how much I love teaching, and learning with, these students.

This article is cross-posted in Digital Substitute and Stefras’ Bridge.

Van Gogh and the Moon

One of the many things I love about writing clubs, such as the Write Group, is the surprise writing exercises we do in them. Today, two of my students — not already members — joined the Write Group and I prepared tic-tac-write prompts to inspire our creative juices.

This was the perfect exercise to entice my students and draw them in. They enjoyed themselves, which really is the point, and one even overcame his shyness and read his response plus a few other works aloud.

Prompt: Tic-Tac-Write

The tic-tac-write board is a 3×3 grid with nine prompts in it. These prompts have setting, character, plot, event, perspective, atmosphere, starters, object and random slants to them. They are arranged so that prompts along a single line — either row, column or main diagonal — could form a story with some creative thought.

These combinations are not so obvious that a story can be written without some thinking, and the writer need only pick any three prompts on the board, rather than only those in a line. This arrangement ensures that the writer has plenty of story prompt options to choose from.

In today’s meeting, I handed out four unique prompts (given below), which increased the variety of story writing that the group shared afterward. The group loved them and the stories they produced.

Board 1

Humour Write a letter to yourself. Was it my fault the doorbell rang?
House in the middle of the block This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything! About time I got out of that cookie.
Someone dies. Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. Solve a mystery using clues left behind.

Board 2

Rewrite a nursery rhyme from a character’s point of view. You got laid off today. Caramels
Smelly as a skunk Van Gogh Shut up and deal!
Procrastination Raisin pie Let us go then, you and I.

Board 3

Easter without eggs Write a palindromic piece. Sisters
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be. Baby blankets Minor character takes over scene, then leaves.
Beer, book, bed Promises made Bumblebees

Board 4

Your car shutters. Straight, crooked Drawing straws
The train whistle blew. Stop scratching! A banana, marbles and a bag
Orange The wind picks up. What’s that?

Van Gogh and the Moon

I picked Nursery rhyme — Character POV; Van Gogh; and Let us go then, you and I from Board 2, and worked in Procrastination and Caramels from the same board. Here is my response.

Van Gogh and the Moon
© Shawn Urban

Let us go then, you and I,
over the moon and across the sky.
No there is no time to paint.
The sun comes up,
then it will be too late.

Yes, the stars are beautiful tonight.
And the sickle of the moon is great.
But look there now,
the moon nigh fades.
Let us go then, you and I.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
why do you procrastinate,
admiring the dish and the spoon?

The cat on his fiddle
will play all night,
though that will end soon.

Van Gogh, Van Gogh,
chewing on your caramel,
with sugar rotting your teeth,
the dog is not barking to play with you,
but to tell you that time will not wait.

Let us go then, you and I,
Van Gogh, before the moon disappears.
Look already your stars are gone.
There is nothing left for you to paint.

Van Gogh, spit out that caramel.
We must jump and leap over the moon.
And look here what you have done.
The sun is up, the moon is gone
and you have ruined this nursery rhyme.

I wish you all a great today and a creative tomorrow.

Prompt Sources


This morning, in my garden, I had a conversation with a little bird. He told me everything!

Figment Daily Themes

Write a letter to yourself. — January 5

Give your favourite item baggage using anthropomorphism. — January 6

Solve a mystery using clues left behind. — January 24

Weird Fortune Cookies

About time I got out of that cookie.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock — C.S. Lewis

Let us go then, you and I.

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be.

All other prompts were supplied by members of the Write Group or me. (Just in case some of these come from elsewhere, let me know and give me a reference and I will check it out and credit the source here.)

10minutes by Malyn Mawby

UPDATE: Due to Twitter’s buying and shutting down of Posterous, Malyn’s 10minutes sketchbook blog has been moved to WordPress, The Sketchbook Project 2012 – 10 minutes. Please visit the new site, enjoy Malyn’s sketchbook and sign her guestbook.

I am excited to present my first featured site, 10minutes, created by Malyn Mawby of Sydney, Australia. This post also features my first interview, which I conducted with Malyn about her site.

10minutes is a mini- or finite blog, having approximately twenty entries, but it is the context of these entries that makes it unique. The real work is the sketchbook the blog complements, documents and interplays with.

This sketchbook is the personal artwork and journey of Malyn as she explores her creative and playful side, and “endeavours to become a less frustrated artist”. The stories of Malyn’s sketches and journey are told in her blog.

The following video showcases her sketchbook. I think you will concur from this video that Malyn’s artistry and creativity are spectacular. Her blog showcases this work, Malyn’s thoughts and the meanings her sketches have to her in even more detail and with more love.


I had the honour of interviewing Malyn about her Sketchbook Project and this is what she had to say.

SU: How did it feel to put yourself “out there” for the world to see? Would you do it again?

MM: I was comfortable putting myself out there because I didn’t think it was particularly personal. Besides, I was always upfront that I wasn’t a true-blue artist; on the contrary, I was working on getting better. The blog auto-posted to twitter so I got feedback on both channels. The feedback was worth the putting myself ‘out there’ so-to-speak.

“I would definitely do it again. My youngest daughter (10 y.o.) voiced that she would join me, too. This is quite telling in itself, i.e. the effort I put in was well worth the results in more ways than one. She did clarify that she didn’t have to blog about it. 🙂

SU: Were there any surprises that you encountered during and after your project?

MM: Yes! I didn’t think that many of the entries would be inspired by my Twitter friends, most of whom I haven’t met in real life. Strangely enough, too, the realisation that ‘time is not my cage’ came as a surprise even though I suspected this to be true even before embarking on this project. Obviously, this played in my mind and influenced my choice of theme.

SU: You mentioned in your Prince and Picasso reflection that you realized Picasso’s work, and the work of all people who create things, is an autobiography. How did your sketchbook project capture your autobiography?

MM: It captured the people who moved or inspired me at the time. It hopefully showed the things that inspire me. It even captured an epiphany. That’s pretty awesome for something that only took 2 months.

SU: Okay, I would like to ask you an artist to artist question now. Do you feel that your sketchbook project captured story both in of itself and transcending to your life and the world around you? Did you see this story in your mind before you began each sketch or did it develop as you sketched?

MM: I didn’t expect this project to touch as many lives as it did. I should add that as a surprise, shouldn’t I? I think most artists only have a rough idea to begin with and then let loose, as part of the creative process. I did not know going into the process that Picasso would move me so, or that I was even going to a Picasso exhibition – that was such an impulsive thing we did as a family. I loved the idea of seeing inspiration everywhere and trying to capture a bit of that. I think I even ‘searched’ for inspiration and that’s a good thing!

SU: What advice and recommendations do you have for others – artists, professionals, learners, practitioners – who wish to journal their own journeys of activity?

MM: Inspiration is everywhere. Sometimes they come easily and sometimes we have to search. It’s so human to try to capture a bit of that somehow, through words, pictures, music, whatever. In this sense, we are all artists BUT not all of us make time to unleash the artist within. My advice then is this – time is not your cage – let the artist in you fly!

“And this applies to me as well!!

“This post “On Creativity – How?” is relevant.

SU: What did you want to share with your sketchbook and blog? What did you want to keep? You expressed a conflict about preserving the personal facets of your sketches. Now that you have had time to absorb your sharing of your work, do you feel you betrayed this preservation or ensured it?

MM: Creating the videos and final piece – mail art – helped me let go. Reflecting back, I don’t have many original pieces at home. I often make things to give away. It was a little tougher with this one because, as mentioned, it involved so many people and became quite a personal journey. It is no surprise that I got attached to it as I would to a personal journal.

“Interesting point on feeling betrayed. I think I would feel less true to myself – and thus feel betrayed – if I didn’t submit the sketchbook. Does that make sense? I was always going to let it go. I just didn’t realise it would be as hard as it was.

“In all authentic connections with people, we show a bit of ourselves; authentic connections are personal. I am negotiating the blurry line of what’s really personal and not to be shared BUT that is a different learning journey again. You can get a hint of that in this post, “Of hopes and dreams“.

For more of our interview, please visit my full Malyn Mawby interview document. And please also visit 10minutes. You will be spellbound.


While you are visiting 10minutes, sign Malyn’s guest book and let her know what you think. All comments there, here and on the interview are welcome.

Read my previous posts on Malyn’s Sketchbook Project.

UPDATE: Due to Twitter’s buying and shutting down of Posterous, Malyn’s 10minutes sketchbook blog has been moved to WordPress, The Sketchbook Project 2012 – 10 minutes. Please visit the new site, enjoy Malyn’s sketchbook and sign her guestbook.

The Fool-witch in the Schnapps

The Schnapps

Festive Fastnacht! Heureux Mardi Gras! Bon Carnival! Feliz Terça-feira Gorda! Cheerful Pancake Tuesday!

Today is a special day around the world as Christians prepare for Ash Wednesday and Lent. Fastnacht is the time of release, of indulgence, the opposite of Lent, when strict behaviour and abstinence are observed until Easter. It is the day when the world eats pancakes — I ate soup.

My memories of Fastnacht are sharply personal. It was during Fastnacht that I met my first witch!

And she wasn’t alone …

I wrote an essay in which I described my encounter with this witch. Below is an excerpt of that encounter.

“… an old woman with a hunched back, big nose, wide grin and conspiring wink. She leans on a walking stick, carries a leather pouch and offers a shot glass in a toast. Asters and daisies grow about her feet; young black spruce grow behind her. A crow sits on her shoulders, offsetting the orange full moon and few clouds in the twilight sky.

“The woman, of course, is a witch. … I remember this witch and a hundred more like her, marching one warm afternoon down a German street with their traditional, home-made white blouses, brown skirts, red headkerchiefs and hand-carved wooden masks covering their faces. Most carried hazel brooms with twig wisps; some carried whips. Between them rolled horse-drawn wagons with wooden cages beneath that could fit a couple dozen spectators pulled from the crowd and a dozen in gallows on top. We had noisemakers and clay badges to protect us from the grasping witches. I remember quite vividly one reaching for me. It took my parents to shoo her away, for my noisemaker and badge were not doing the trick. For a seven-year-old child quite aware of the stories of Hansel and Gretel and himself in the land where these stories were set, this Witch Parade was an awesome and scary experience.”

The Fool-witch

I have many hobbies, among which is oil painting.

That memory of the Witch Parade never left me and has always been an igniter of my imagination and a source of inspiration. So, I let my imagination carry me as I played with my memory, and I composed the following oil painting.



This painting was extremely fun to create as I spend considerable time playing with light, shadow, blends and three-dimensions in it. Notice that it contains two styles of painting: realistic foreground (the witch) and impressionistic background (the hill and trees to the left).

The above photograph shows an intermediate state of the painting. Several features were touched since, particularly the pond which has since been darkened to emphasize the night and the “suspense” of the scene.

The inspiration for the painting came from the label on a bottle of Schnapps of all things. This bottle of Schnapps is full of elements of sorcery and fire folklore. I describe it and its symbolism in detail in the essay I mentioned above. The following image is a photograph of it.



The bottle’s true dimensions are: 4×1.5×0.75 inches.

I completed the painting last November.

The Oil

Play is what we do when we enjoy ourselves and others. It inspires our imagination, revitalizes our minds and strengthens our bodies. It sparks curiosity and creativity, and focuses our senses. And when it becomes public, it moves those who witness it.

But it also shapes and constructs our practical wisdom, so contributing to our ever learning and maturing nature.

Painting and writing are two of my favourite hobbies, which is why I devoted a blog to them. What hobbies inspire you to grow?

Revisiting the Solstice – A Year Later

Today marks the anniversary of my first post, Merry Eve of Winter Solstice, on this blog.

It is a good day to reflect on the blogging I did this year, the comments I made on other blogs and in tweets, and the impact I think these made on me as a person and a writer.

Stefras’ Bridge is still a young blog. I continue to discover what I want this blog to be, and to adjust to posting. So, my posts are few and distant. Yet, I am proud of the posts I have shared so far.

I published a couple of prompt posts, What if you came across a magic gate? and Story of My Name, which I have used to acclaim in Write Group meetings to inspire writing. These posts were fun to write. More I’m sure will come.

I published one of my poems and will likely publish some more. The poem I published is an amusing one about the Write Group that people still enjoy, particularly since the “attic” where the Write Group meets monthly, though really a top-story room in our local library / town hall, is real.

In fact, the Write Group features prominently in this blog. It is after all the primary means by which I socialize and share with other writers. My mentioning of the group here reflects my joy and pride of being a member in it.

I even posted about my inaugural experience of recruiting writers to our club. This was the first active recruitment the Write Group undertook in years, so, fortunately for me, it was a resounding success and exhilarating experience.

In that post, and others, I referenced posts in my professional blog. I find my writing blog and my professional one intertwine. Perhaps it is because writing and teaching dovetail in so many parts of my life. Perhaps it is because Stefras’ Bridge and Digital Substitute began on the same day, a year ago. Or perhaps it is because I am writing both blogs simultaneously and have yet to learn to separate their contents. Several of my posts in both blogs have reflected this interrelationship, and I expect will continue to do so.

My latest post, Moving the Quill, is a response to a series of interactions I had with one of my friends, fellow teachers and fellow artists, Malyn Mawby, about creativity, our pursuit of it and hiatus from it, and the inspiration sparked by honest and altruistic camaraderie. The best we can do is inspire others to be inspirational.

In all, this has been a fun inaugural year of blogging. I look forward to more.

One post I am thinking of publishing is a review of Malyn’s latest work in progress, a wonderful sketchbook inspired by a world sketchbook project. Her work is awesome and deserves recognition.