A witch between worlds — my interview with Keridwen

This interview was first published in Plumes With Attitude ( 🇫🇷 ), my personal newsletter on the benefits of writing, on August, 2022.

Keridwen is the WITCH of WIT, cofounder and resident wordsmith at one of my favorite NFT collection, Crypto Coven. As the lead writer, she has been playing a key role in helping the project find its voice and lay the foundations of its enchanting universe. We had a one-hour chat covering topics like womanhood, AI-aided writing, lore and community-building. Below is a recap of our conversation. Enjoy the read!

Note: This interview was recorded on July 21st and has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Hi Keridwen and thanks a lot for accepting this interview! You are one of the five creators of one of my all time favorite NFT projects, Crypto Coven: a collection of 9,999 stunning witch artworks. Both your theme and ideas remind me the work of a prominent French-Swiss writer called Mona Chollet. In 2018, she published Sorcières [Witches, The Undefeated Power of Woman], a feminist essay about the evolution of the witch imaginary across centuries. As a founding creator and lead writer of Crypto Coven, what are your personal inspirations and aspirations for the project?

I didn’t know this French author before, but I love her book already. We chose witches because we wanted an explicitly feminine figure that is a creature of agency. When you work with folklore or myths, there are many archetypes for women that I don’t consider similarly aspirational: the mother, the virgin, the whore, the damsel. It’s different for the witch. In addition to otherworldly powers, she's someone whose relationships with other characters don't define her. She can be anyone – even a creature of pure evil if she wants to. We are fascinated by that.

Two of my cofounders, Aletheia and Nyx, were the first to settle on this central idea for the project. It’s a collective reflection on what it means to be a woman in tech today. Just like witches, we don’t want to be defined by our relationships. We don't want our magic to come from anyone else. We don't want to exist in a narrative only to serve some other characters. Witchcraft, both historically and in modern-day stories, is one of the only ways that women are so explicitly centered and considered as the fount of their own power.

As we started building our own mythos, we were inspired by a wide range of characters. We did an exhaustive brainstorming session to collect our favorite references from fairy tales, ancient myths, fantasy books, comics, TV, and, of course, the internet. Then we started thinking through these characters: why did they resonate with us? How could we group them into fresh and interesting categories? That’s how our archetypes took shape.

So the idea was to center explicitly feminine narratives of power and agency. But it can be hard to find your own voice when building something new and pulling from so many different directions. It’s especially true in the fantasy space, where there are many norms, whether narrative or on the sentence level, that people fall into. That's where I see myself come into the picture.

I come from a literary fiction background and I love magical realism. It’s been exciting to walk between the two worlds and incorporate elements of both genres. When I joined the team I helped coalesce everyone’s ideas and shape our particular voice. That was a lot of my early work on Crypto Coven.

Each one of the 9,999 witches is made up of a beautiful artwork with dozens of traits, a unique name, but also individual stats and a personal description. To me, the beauty of the artworks alone would have easily been enough to stand out. But you decided that writing would play a major role within the project – and even within the NFTs themselves. Why did you choose to go in this direction?

The art is absolutely gorgeous and I was so excited when I first saw it. Nyx was the one who asked me to join the project in the early days. She wanted a writer to help the team shape characters that exist outside of themselves. The art team had done quite a bit of refining when it came to how the different archetypes look and how that reflects the kind of WITCH they are. But we wanted well-rounded creatures that exist within our world – not just characters you have to buy to put on top.

Nyx wanted each WITCH to have their own description so that anyone can get a sense of who they are. That was my initial mission: building the foundations of the Crypto Coven universe, the weird wilds, along with finding our voice and tone. From the beginning, we knew we wanted Crypto Coven to be a decentralized worldbuilding experience. The idea behind the descriptions was to provide a base for the community to know where to start in creating stories. On top of the art, each character would have names, astrological signs, descriptions, attunements, and personalities.

Building these foundations implied writing a LOT of text for the 9,999 WITCHES of the collection. I’ve read that you found the perfect magic trick by using OpenAI’s language generator, GPT-3. Can you tell me more about how you approached AI-aided writing?

I had never used AI before Aradia told me about GPT-3. I don’t come from a technical background, so I had no idea how it worked. The team encouraged me to experiment with using AI to help generate such a mass of descriptions. I found a lot of our voice during that period. I wanted our writing style to have echoes of the epic, the mythical. I also wanted to play with weird terms of speech and grammar, an elevated tone and some anachronistic, tongue-in-cheek notes.

In order to get to 9,999 unique descriptions, I came up with a system to separate the descriptions into five different kinds of sentences. Each was built around a specific element: what kind of WITCH they are, their hobbies, where their magic comes from, how they fit in their archetype, an exclamation to drive them forward. When I started inputting writings into GPT-3, it was outputting all sorts of things, even writing its own fiction. The results could be surprising or… terrible (laughs).

So I was using it as a free association, jumping off point. I would give it a few words and it would give me back some more. Then I would play with that and iterate. I wrote an article about my feedback on the experience and people’s reactions have been incredible. It's been kind of miraculous to read through the descriptions of some NFTs collections and guess with some certainty they replicated my process.

How did you feel about using AI for your writings before trying it out?

Like many, I had an initial misconception that this thing could put me out of my job. But when I started playing with GPT-3, the outputs I'd get were just insane. That fear quickly dissipated. It couldn’t truly replicate my work at scale, but it could iterate on it with such inspiring strangeness. When we were better acquainted, I realized it had the potential to be more of an aid than a competitor to me, and to writers in general. It felt like a kind of magic once I understood what it needed from me to collaborate. Aletheia began referring to it as my “digital familiar,” in parallel to the kind of connection a witch would make with an animal to aid their magic.

Still, I grew concerned about how much it seemed to be “cannibalizing” other people's work. Most of the time, it outputs something that feels randomized enough to believe it came up with it on its own. But every now and then, it would just pull up a full paragraph from someone's website. I remember getting an output that was explicitly an “About Me” section from an astrology blogger. I wondered whether this woman consented to her work being there.

So I did have some intellectual property concerns I did not feel comfortable with. Even if this woman's website is in the public domain, I don't want to be getting outputs that are full sentences of her work, even just short autobiographical statements. Any time I got anything that felt prewritten in that way, I just deleted the output.

GPT-3 recently got its alter ego: DALL·E 2, an AI [still developed by OpenAI] that allows this time to generate impressive images from descriptive texts. What do you think of the seemingly infinite creative possibilities offered by such a tool?

More generative art is absolutely on our radar going forward. Part of what makes having a WITCH exciting is that they have all of these attributes the computer can pull from. For instance, I’ve created a narrator for the Crypto Coven website and all our interactable experiences like the card game, Memoria. She talks to you about your archetype, where your magic comes from, and will even make fun of you if you have a low wisdom score (laughs). So we've been thinking a lot about personalization as we build on top of the WITCHES.

How can we make people feel as immersed in this world as possible? How can their WITCH be the key to that immersion? We want your character to be a central part of your experience, and we expect the same for your future interactions with our universe. Similar to video games, we’d like the choices you make have an impact on the interactions you have and the art you receive. This is important to ideas we have for upcoming projects with generative art on top of narrative elements.

Still, seeing DALL·E outputs raised similar concerns to those I had with GPT-3. I wondered where this art was coming from, and how consensual that relationship was. It does feel some parts of the outputs are coming from somewhere or someone in particular. How involved are those artists? Are they like my “About Me” astrologer? Also, to me, AI-aided art feels very different from AI-aided writing.

With GPT-3, I could change every word except one in order to create something new. It's not as interchangeable with DALL-e, because visual artworks aren’t as easily edited as writing. But I've seen some artists do exceptionally cool things by putting their own work into DALL-E, getting an output, and creating on top of it. It feels in a similar spirit to the working relationship I found.

Yeah, I can imagine DALL-E help artists expand their creative universe in directions they may not have thought of. And this makes me think of a central term for Crypto Coven: lore. By the way, I can't find a term in French that really fits its modern usage. Which leads me to ask you, how would you define lore? And how do you approach this concept within Crypto Coven?

I like to think of lore as a narrative path to worldbuilding. Some people think of the latter as a sprawling, meticulous wiki that could tell you everything you need to know about a defined universe. In my mind, lore is more focused and narrative-driven. It’s formed by writing, specific experience, and the culture built around art. It doesn’t give you everything at once. It’s oral tradition and sharing, folktales around a fire.

Our upcoming project is called the Narrator's Hut. I’ve written stories about famous witches that existed long ago, long before the WITCHES in the collection found their way to the wilds. You, the player, will soon be able to enter the Narrator’s home as your WITCH and discover magic objects, or ARTIFACTS, that contain recordings of the stories. Nyx likes to say they’re like shells, objects you can hold up to your ear and hear the tales of their origin. The Narrator is your guide to the past of this world. In contrast, the Tree of Echoes collects stories from the present. We had a community contest with almost 90 entries of writings about witches from the collection.

For us, lore is retrospective, not prescriptive towards the future. A key element of decentralized world building is opening our doors and welcoming the community to collaborate with us on the narrative going forward. As an ongoing experiment, it leaves us with questions. How do we cement a narrative past while also keeping open a narrative future? And how do we ensure the narrative future is cohesive?

When I taught fiction, I often told my students that in fantasy writing, readers expect and crave a strong sense of internal consistency. Somewhat unintuitively, fans of this kind of story often look for more details more sharply rendered than readers of realistic fiction. They don’t know the world. You have to teach them how to exist within it. We are at the very beginnings of building that up for people while also keeping the whimsy and mystery that have become central to our brand. We know a lot that hasn’t surfaced yet. I’d rather take it slow than plow through narratives that deserve a more lingering approach.

How does your approach to the concepts of lore and universe building translate to your community? Note that I expect a higher level of detail here too (laughs). In many NFT projects, community is more of a buzzword than a real pillar. That's why I'd love to hear some examples of your members' creations.

That's one of my favorite things to talk about. When it came to shaping our community, we borrowed a rule from the Forgotten Runes creators: “lore, not floor”. We had to really center what we wanted and be very clear about what we did not want. Even though we’re incredibly humbled and grateful that our WITCH holders have spent any amount of money to join the project, we want a community based on writing, art, femininity, strangeness – not trading. So we had to set boundaries on what is acceptable in curated spaces like the Discord. Xuannu had an extremely firm vision based on her observations of how other communities were running. She knew our changes had to happen quite early to be sustainable.

Since we want our narrative to be collaborative, community always needed to be central to the project. And I’m so glad our efforts paid off. Today, we have incredible members who are here because they love art, storytelling, witchcraft and role playing. Even before the WITCHES came out, we had a community contest where very early members of our Discord could put forward moodboards of images and writings. We folded many of them into the collection. Some of my favorite visual attributes and articulation lines come directly from community members! Two early community initiatives have had a significant impact on the lore. Both of them started with real existing needs that translated into fiction.

The first example is tied to the nature of Discord: everything disappears quickly and knowledge management is exceptionally difficult. We had experts from all over sharing their knowledge, and no way to gather it efficiently. One of our community members, Kagami, spontaneously created a Notion page to gather these resources and everything relevant to the project like interviews and Twitter Space recordings. Importantly, he appointed himself head librarian and tied the character of his WITCH, Neutrino, to the role. Volunteer librarians from the community have joined his ranks to contribute further in their areas of expertise. The Library even has its own Twitter account, and posts a roundup of everything that’s happened in the community at the top of each week. When Kagami and a team of other community members launched the Coven Cats NFT collection, they centered lore and storytelling as well. Recently, he published a story about what happens at the library after dark, overseen by his CAT. I mean, how cool! I love how a very practical problem spiraled into a narratively rich and central part of the wilds.

The second example is that of the detective agency. Again, it started with a very specific need from the community. Some people had identified their dream WITCH but didn’t know how to get in contact with the owner and make them an offer. Someone from the Discord, OldKing, stepped up and started to investigate on Twitter and Etherscan in order to find a way to contact specific WITCH holders. Not only did it work but the team of detectives has expanded. Today, the agency has become an integral part of the lore, with detective noir stories featured on the website. It's really exciting to see the community creating their own narratives. To me, it's the coolest thing in the world.

The current bear market reinforced some widely shared convictions outside of the space, such as “crypto is a ponzi” or “NFTs are just a fad”. But as someone with a fiction writing background turned prominent NFT creator, I guess that web3 actually changed your life. So how do you respond to such claims?

We often say that we are a “show, don't tell” NFT project. We prefer to under-promise and over-deliver. We have a very spare roadmap on purpose, as, in my eyes, the accusations of scheming often come when teams make all these extraordinary, seemingly impossible promises and don’t deliver. We made a pointed effort not to do that. With us there’s a love for art, story, community. We’re building a world you’ll be able to interact with on a map. We want to make a second generation of WITCHES that’s more affordable and accessible.

As long as we’re here, building it, writing it, and our community is here doing it with us, it’s not a fad. And you're absolutely right: joining the Crypto Coven founding team has completely changed my life and trajectory as a writer. The narratives you mention are often coming from people who judge NFT projects from only a financial perspective, who haven’t seen or participated in the kind of work we do.

When I faced external doubts and misunderstandings of crypto and NFTs in my personal life, I responded by showing the project. I invited people to look at the beauty of the art, to read some of my writing on the website, to feel the community spirit in our Discord. I believe that showing is the best path towards larger understanding – and eventually changing minds about what’s happening in the space.

I wanted to come back with you on one of the particularities of the Crypto Coven founding team. The five of you chose to stay anonymous and associate your respective identities to your witches. I think it adds to the aura of mystery around your project, but I can imagine that it’s essentially a matter of online safety. As female creators within an ecosystem dominated by men, there is no doubt that being anon is safer. How working under a pseudonym has changed your personal experience of living online?

You’re right: mystery may be an integral part, practically we chose pseudonymity for our safety. But when we set out, we had no idea the extent to which it would increase our immersion in the story and community. Really, how fun it would be! We created the WITCHES as characters in our world and we wanted people to play as one. It turns out our pseudonymity has encouraged many community members to do the same and immerse themselves in their character. It was really fun to see people not only put their NFT as their profile picture on Twitter or Discord, but also change their name and start roleplaying as their WITCH.

I have a lot of close friends in our community who I only know by their witch name. We recently hosted our first IRL events at NFT NYC and I made the choice to dress as my WITCH with two big orange ponytails and a black dress. It was magical to meet our community members in person – some of them dressed as their WITCH, too – and to embody one’s character as part of an immersive experience that started online.

From the outside, Web3 can seem difficult to access or even intimidating - especially if you're not a software engineer or visual artist. What would you recommend to writers who are remotely interested in the ecosystem but don't know how to take their first steps?

First, I think it’s important to say that people not only want you here but need you here. When Nyx pitched the project to me, she said technology is just technology until someone builds something cool on top of it. That was a huge shift for me. Sure, NFTs must be fascinating from the technological point of view of an engineer. But what’s so exciting about them, for me, is how that technology enables more diverse individuals to create art of all kinds – paintings, stories, poems – and be fairly attributed and compensated. Artists should know you don't need to fully understand how the technology works to be the person who's doing the cool thing with it. Just because you're not technical does not mean that you don’t have a place here.

Personally, I work with a team. Our work involves art, story, and code. It’s a life-changing experience and I’d recommend teaming up with other creatives and engineers with a variety of strengths – if you have access to them. But if you're a more solitary artist and you'd like to go at it alone, there are people who are paving that path for you.

For instance, one of our community members, Amac, writes poems in the desert to pair with miniature paintings and mints them as NFTs. And she's doing it all on her own! The proceeds support her first book. The tooling for solo builders is getting much better, so it's not as inaccessible as it may seem.

To this end, we try to be as transparent with our process with Crypto Coven as possible. We want to show people – especially women and people from marginalized communities – that we’re doing it, and they can too.

This reminds me of my conversation with Dame, whom I had received interviewed just a year ago. One of the things he talked about was the challenge for underrepresented people in the tech industry to claim their place in Web3. What impact of the project made you particularly proud to have contributed to the creation of Crypto Coven?

We love Dame! Even just one year ago, the aesthetic of the space was largely masculine and did not feel explicitly welcoming to everyone. Many women told us that they minted (or bought) a WITCH as their first NFT because it was the first project that truly resonated with them. And I'm really grateful that this has changed so much since we started. There are now a ton of really wonderful and explicitly feminine projects with a wide variety of skin tones.

On a more personal note, I’ve also been very pleased to hear from community members that the project has inspired them to write again. Especially around our Tree of Echoes contest, a few people reached out to say it was their first time experimenting with fiction since they were teens. I’m proud of contributing to creating a space that makes people feel both welcome and creative. Receiving such incredible feedback from the community has been a magical part of the process.

I couldn't imagine a better conclusion! Thanks a lot Keridwen for such a great conversation. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for the future of the Crypto Covens’ universe.

  • Forgotten Runes Wizard Cult: “The wizards are doing some spectacular work, and we were inspired by their vigorous storytelling and community values when we first got started.”
  • Coven Cats: “Our first community-led expansion project! Each CAT has an archetype, attributes, a CATiculation, and more just like the WITCHES. The team is exploring the connections between WITCH and CAT in short stories, publishing now.”
  • Desert Minis: “Alex Maceda sells poems paired with small paintings, both inspired by her time in Joshua Tree. The proceeds of the collection go towards her first book.”
  • COVERGIRLS: “Girlknewyork is one of my favorite tattoo artists, and she’s making the jump to NFTs. While she’s famous for her visual art, I adore her writing. I’m happy to see more people like her enter the space.”
  • The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino: “Calvino is one of my favorite magical realists, and his play on the sentence level inspired much of the style I’ve formed for the coven.”

Read my other interviews:

Subscribe to Plumes With Attitude
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.