“Think about what you love, Hildegard. Trust it. That’s where your talents lie and where you’ll find happiness, even here.”
In Mary Sharratt’s splendid new novel ILLUMINATIONS, this advice is given to Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) shortly after the eight-year-old girl is tithed by her family to the Catholic Church; Hildegard is deemed unsuitable for marriage because of her otherworldly, prophetic visions. The religious path chosen for Hildegard is shudder-inducing in its severity: she is forced to serve as handmaiden to Jutta, an unbalanced young anchorite renowned for her masochistic piety and unworldly beauty.
Unlike other nuns, anchorites were walled within tiny cells, never to view sunlight or venture into the world—a living death so the anchorites may be reborn in Christ. A meal a day, slid to them through a revolving hatch, offers the barest sustenance to their bodies. Despite this, Hildegard finds ways to flourish. A novice monk brings her books and plants, allowing her to experience the world forbidden to her; his advice and friendship protect her from Jutta’s violent mood swings. As the years pass, the girl learns of Jutta’s tragic past and grows in compassion. Hildegard also learns to read, write, and even compose music. Her visions of the divine continue, offering her comfort in her grave-like enclosure.
Thirty years later, when Hildegard is finally freed from her walled-up cell after Jutta breathes her last, her life truly begins as a composer of sacred music, an expert in the holistic use of plants, and author of nine books. Hildegard’s magnum opus Scrivas—”Know the Way”—shares her religious visions, which present a uniquely feminine experience of the face of God. Sharratt writes, “The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.”
There are so many things I love about Mary Sharratt’s writing in this novel as well as in her previous DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL. Sharratt has a true gift for giving voice to the oft-times disempowered women of our past, whether they be Pendle witches or a Benedictine abbess. A psychological intensity infuses Hildegard’s inner life and relationships with others. Sharratt’s descriptions are visceral and often heartbreaking in their evocation of interior life reflected outward:
“I smuggled precious crumbs to the courtyard. Holding them in my cupped palms as an offering, I hummed softly until a wild mourning dove flew down to peck the morsels from my hand, her feathers fanning my wrists. Parts of me flew with her as she winged away into the forest. Part of me walked beneath those rustling woodland boughs and breathed that pure air, my soul blessed by so many living things.”
Though I already knew the outlines of Hildegard von Bingen’s extraordinarily creative life, I raced through ILLUMINATIONS to find out what would happen next—Sharratt is a mistress at creating narrative tension. Ultimately, I found ILLUMINATIONS deeply moving on many levels, possibly the best book I’ve read this year. As a woman, artist, and writer, I can’t help but believe that Hildegard’s triumphant story of survival can be more universally viewed as the story of any abused or shunned child who finds salvation in creativity. (I’m thinking in particular of Terri Windling’s book THE ARMLESS MAIDEN AND OTHER TALES FOR CHILDHOOD’S SURVIVORS.) While our creative visions may not be as directly spiritual as Hildegard’s, they show us what we love. And there is where we’ll find our happiness.
Mary’s publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has kindly provided me with one giveaway copy of ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN. To win it, simply leave a comment by midnight, October 21, 2012. Not seeing a comment form? Click on the blog title, which will bring up the form at the bottom of this post. Alternately, send your comment to kris [at] kriswaldherr dot com.
The rules: Only one comment per person. Book can only be shipped to U.S. or Canadian mailing address. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here October 22nd. Good luck to all!
I first met Margaret Peot as an artist, not as an author. Her book INKBLOT: Drip, Splat, and Squish Your Way to Creativity came to my attention when I was curating a children’s book art exhibition. We instantly hit it off—I was impressed with her warmth, talent, and passion for the artistic life as well as her ability to multitask life as an artist and a mother. Accordingly, I was delighted to learn that Margaret has come out with a new book, THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE, which bears bears the lofty subtitle of “Finding Your Way in the Business of Art.”
Just as she did in INKBLOT, THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE expands upon Margaret’s great gifts for encouraging creativity in the world. The book is also a work of art in itself—a gorgeously designed full color trade paperback filled with art, photographs, and inspiration. The designer in me is especially taken with how beautifully produced it is. The high quality paper stock and strong binding ensure that THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE is intended as a permanent part of an artist’s library.
Margaret takes a two prong approach in this upbeat, practical book. First off, she examines how ingrained beliefs about artists can undermine our ability to make our way in the world. From there, she presents all of the facets involved in earning a living with your art: ways to nurture your creativity, how to find clients, and more. Helpful worksheets are included which walk the aspiring artist through the practical steps they need to take to make a living. An added bonus are interviews with successful artists, such as painter Marshall Arisman and children’s book illustrator Jennifer Sattler, which offer insight into how they managed to find their way as self-supporting artists.
While the advice in THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE is pitched toward visual artists, there are lots of practical ideas here for any creative person seeking to profit from their talents: how to put together a business plan, ways to assess your strengths and weaknesses, and even get health insurance and deal with taxes. All of these offer reassurance and hope that yes, you can make a living as an artist. After all, what’s better than a life spent doing what you love?
“There is a myth in our society that artists have to struggle, live in freezing garrets (La Bohéme), and never have enough to eat…. Despite our resolve to ignore these societal biases, we artists still think that we are not really allowed to choose what we want to do for a living, but instead must merely grab any opportunity offered to us…. Like everyone else, as an artist you have a choice as to where you live and what you plan to do there. You can shape a life for you which is exactly right.” — Margaret Peot, THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE
Good news: Margaret’s publisher North Light Books is giving away one copy of THE SUCCESSFUL ARTIST’S CAREER GUIDE. Think you’d find it a boon to your creative life? Here’s how to enter the raffle:
1. Leave a comment on this post by midnight, June 21, 2012. Only one comment per person. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here on Friday, June 22, 2012. The small print: Book can only be shipped to U.S. mailing address.
2. For an extra entry, include in your comment a piece of advice you’d give another artist or writer. An example: I always tells aspiring authors to find a critique partner to swap manuscripts with before sending their manuscripts to an agent or publisher. Or, better yet, a critique group!
Good luck to all!
I’m so pleased that internationally acclaimed tarot creator Joanna Powell Colbert is my guest for today. Joanna’s Gaian Tarot has just been published by Llewellyn Worldwide to much critical praise. It was previously published as a limited edition and has been in the works for some nine years.
I plan to post a review of the Gaian Tarot soon. In the meantime, here’s the short version: it’s a stunning and important addition to the tarot world. I adore it! And here’s more good news: one lucky blog commenter will have the chance to try the Gaian Tarot for themself: Joanna is generously offering a giveaway of the newly published Llewellyn edition of the Gaian Tarot. Info on how to enter the giveaway is at the end of this post.
Kris Waldherr: You’ve been working on the Gaian Tarot over the past nine years—a long period of creative development and dedication! What was your experience of “living” with such a long project? Did you ever lose hope you’d ever finish? What advice would you give other artists undertaking major projects such as yours?
Joanna Powell Colbert: I loved the process so much that, even though I was glad to finish the project, I felt lost without it. A very strange feeling! I loved coming up with the ideas for the cards, being inspired on my daily walks, searching for messages in the natural world, finding them and incorporating them into the cards. It was exhilarating and exciting. I felt so connected to Spirit and to the earth.
I never really lost hope that I would complete the deck. I knew I would, because I felt like I had an “assignment” from Spirit to finish it and see it out in the world. I did despair at times, over how long it was taking. And I got very, very tired of the medium of photo-realistic colored pencil painting. In fact, I don’t know that I will ever do another piece of artwork in that particular medium again.
Advice for other artists undertaking major projects like this? Persistence! Take it one step at a time, while keeping the big picture in mind. Set aside blocks of time in your schedule that are earmarked for working on your project, and keep that time as sacred. I had to say “no” to a lot of events and activities I would have enjoyed, in order to stay home and make art. And if your life runs away with you, and you get off course, just get back on course with no shame or blame.
KW: It’s been a pleasure to watch the Gaian develop over the years on your very lovely website at GaianTarot.com. Through it, I became very familiar with the Major Arcana cards. So it was a revelation to spend time with the minor arcana cards. Many of them feel so intimate in their detailed vision of nature—spawning salmon (Ace of Water), shooting stars in a night sky (Eight of Fire). They feel like snapshots into nature’s most precious workings. How did you decide on the images for the minors? Was there any difference in your approach to them than for the Majors?
JPC: For both the Majors and the Minors, I would ask myself: Where does the voice of Nature appear in the themes of this card? And I would go for long walks on the island, seeking inspiration. For the Minors, though, I did a lot of preliminary work on structure. I made a chart — a spreadsheet, really — with the four elements (Air, Fire, Water and Earth) across the top, and the numbers and people cards down the side. I got very clear about the meanings of the numbers and the people card qualities. I also made lists of correspondences and symbols for the elements. Then I would fill in the boxes on the chart with ideas for images that would bring together the quality of the number with the characteristics of the element.
For example, let’s look at the 4 of Water. To me, “four” means: boundaries, creating a container or sacred space, a foundation. Water is all about emotions, spirituality, dreams and visions. So I was meditating on “creating a container for sacred dreams and visions” — and I was struck with the image of a well. A well is a literal container for water! And there is a tradition of sacred healing wells in Britain. I had visited Chalice Well in Glastonbury, and it seemed like a no-brainer to set the 4 of Water there, because it brings in the extra added meaning of healing. In the card, we see a woman kneeling by the well, gazing into it. I obscured her face on purpose, so that the reader or querent can decide whether she is despondent or at peace, as she gazes into the waters of the well.
KW: In your deck, you’ve corresponded the suit of Pentacles (or Coins) with the element of earth. I think your Five of Earth is one of my favorite cards in the deck, which surprises me; usually the Five of Earth is considered a dire warning of material impoverishment. In your version the journeyer is protected by nature against the elements—a more hopeful vision. Can you tell us a little more about creating this card?
JPC: Sure. I believe that every card in every deck carries a range of meanings from light to shadow. The image on each card usually emphasizes one over the other, but as readers, we know to be aware of the entire range. I don’t like readings where the querent is left hanging with one of the more dire cards. I want to help the querent find a way out of their current predicament. So, my 5 of Earth does indeed depict a survival situation: the hiker is lost in the woods during a storm. (This could, of course, be a metaphor for illness or financial stress, among other things.) But here’s the key: the hiker knows he has the survival skills necessary to wait out the storm and make it out of the woods. He knows how to build a debris hut for shelter. So even though he is cold and uncomfortable, he is not likely to die during the storm. He’ll find his way out of the woods once the storm has passed.
The idea for the debris hut came from my nature awareness studies with my friend Chris Chisholm of Wolf Camp & College. Making a debris hut is one of the earth skills he teaches his students in his wilderness survival courses.
KW: On a related note, what is your favorite card in the Gaian Tarot? Why?
JPC: The Guardian of Water. She is the “Goddess” card in the deck for me. I have a particular affinity for the Ocean Mother, in all the ways she manifests around the world in various cultures. I love this piece because I think it perfectly captures the compassion of Tara and Kwan Yin, pouring out the waters of mercy upon a troubled world.
KW: Now for some publishing questions! The Gaian Tarot is available both as a self-published limited edition and as a traditionally published deck with Llewellyn Worldwide. These days so much of the dialogue in the publishing industry is about the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional house. Some authors prefer the financial benefits and autonomy of self-publishing; others want the stamp of approval of a publishing house. How have these two paths served you?
JPC: I’ve had the best of both worlds, and I’m very grateful for that. In terms of money, I will most likely make more money with the limited edition than I will make with the Llewellyn edition. But I am very happy that Llewellyn was able to produce the deck in a format that is affordable for almost anyone. So anyone who wants the deck can have one, and that gives me a lot of joy. Llewellyn of course has great distribution channels, which I could never replicate as a self-publisher. So the benefits of being published by a house are, as you say, the stamp of approval (Capricorns love that!), and becoming more widely known. [Note from KW: Tauruses love this too!] I am hopeful that people who buy the Llewellyn deck will want to take classes or workshops with me, join my Gaian Tarot Circle online community or book tarot consultations with me. Like I said, the best of both worlds! Self-publishing is better for making money and having creative control over the finished product; a publishing house is better for advancing your “fame” and reputation.
KW: Do you have any preference for one mode of publishing over the other? Would you self-publish a deck again in the future?
JPC: I have been sitting with those questions for awhile. I think I would have to look at each project individually and think about ROI (Return On Investment). I worked for nearly a decade on the Gaian Tarot with no financial compensation. So it was quite gratifying to finally make a decent chunk of money through sales of the limited edition. If I can produce other books or decks quickly, I would be more likely to seek a publishing house. Of course, there’s always the “best of both worlds” scenario, too. As long as publishers are amenable, I think I’d always like to publish a high-end version along with a mass market version. Yes, I would self-publish a deck again, if I had plans to create another deck, which I don’t. Not at the moment, anyway!
KW: What advice would you give to anyone looking to publish a tarot deck? Or even just looking to break into publishing?
JPC: Come up with a unique vision for your deck, and stay true to it. Make sure it comes from your heart and the promptings of Spirit. Don’t worry about whether or not your idea is commercial enough for a publisher. You can always publish it yourself. Learn how to write a killer non-fiction book proposal — take a workshop, or read (and follow) a good book on the topic. Do your market research and create a promotion plan. Build a platform (online and offline) while you’re creating the deck so you will already have a tribe of “fans” when the deck is published. Go to tarot conferences and writers conferences, and network with editors and agents. (Sometimes at conferences you can book a time slot to pitch your project to an editor or agent. Even if they turn you down, you will learn a lot!)
Don’t give up.
KW: Finally, what are you working on now? Do you have future books or decks underway?
JPC: My current focus is on teaching, more than art or writing projects. I teach online courses as well as in-person workshops, on the Gaian Tarot, earth-centered spirituality and manifesting your dreams. I’m currently in the midst of planning my schedule for 2012. One project I’m very excited about is creating a Gaian Soul Retreat for women, with an emphasis on creativity, spirituality and nature. I’m looking for a venue here in the Northwest, maybe on one of the islands. It will probably be a four day retreat in late summer or early fall of 2012.
I am tossing around the idea of an oracle deck focused on plants and animals, with no humans in it. But so far it is just an idea. I went on a writers retreat in July, and received a “divine download” for a new illustrated book. The working title is “Reading the Book of Nature.” It’s a series of illustrated meditations based on practices I’ve collected from many sources over the years on how to create a deeper relationship with the natural world. I cover some of this same material in my workshops. I’m very excited about it!
Thanks, Joanna, for a wonderfully inspiring interview! As I mentioned above, Joanna has offered one copy of the Gaian Tarot to raffle off here. To win, simply leave a comment by midnight, October 2, 2011. The rules: Only one comment per person. Small print: Deck set can only be shipped to U.S. mailing address. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here on Monday, October 3rd.
Good luck to all!
A quick round up of recent publications by three of my favorite colleagues:
1. My cousin Vicky Alvear Shecter‘s book CLEOPATRA’S MOON was just published by Arthur Levine Books. CLEOPATRA’S MOON is a young adult historical fiction novel about the only surviving child of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony. Based on real events and individuals in history, it tells the story of a young woman determined to carve her own future after the tragic loss of everything she’s ever known and everyone she’s ever loved. It’s garnering some much-deserved rave reviews:
“This novel has romance, drama, heartbreak, and adventure…Shecter writes about the world of ancient Egypt and Rome with wonderful detail, making it come alive…A fantastic read with some valuable history.” — School Library Journal
“Fascinating historical novel…Cleopatra Selene proves a stalwart heroine, and the novel’s atmospheric setting and romantic intrigue are highly memorable.”— Publishers Weekly
“The historical context and characters are well drawn…makes for intriguing storytelling…a romantic and exciting story.” — Kirkus
2. The trade edition of Joanna Powell Colbert’s long-awaited Gaian Tarot is finally available from Llewellyn Worldwide. Joanna created the Gaian Tarot to speak directly to the hearts of those who practice an earth-centered spirituality. Though the deck has been available as a collector’s limited edition, I’m pleased that the Gaian will now be available to the world at large. I know how many years Joanna has worked on this project—a real labor of love.
3. Finally, Susanne Dunlap, author of IN THE SHADOW OF THE LAMP, THE MUSICIAN’S DAUGHTER and other wonderful historical fiction novels, has branched into iPhone development with several colleagues. Their WordWit app from Ballpoint, Inc. pairs misused words with their evil twins, explains them clearly, and provides entertaining examples from literature and the media. It’s also beautifully designed. A delicious mixture of reference app and game app, WordWit will get people interacting with words in a whole new way. I was fortunate to try the app in beta format—fun and totally addictive. Download WordWit from the App Store.
Congratulations to everyone! But wait, there’s more: In September, I’ll be interviewing Vicky and Joanna about their newest publications. I’m really looking forward to learning more about their creative processes. Plus there will be giveaways of CLEOPATRA’S MOON and the GAIAN TAROT courtesy of Scholastic Books and Llewellyn Worldwide.
Last year, I interviewed acclaimed novelist Stephanie Cowell about her book CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, which relates the little known story of Claude Monet’s first wife, Camille Doncieux. Good news: CLAUDE AND CAMILLE is now available in paperback with a gorgeous new cover—and we’re giving away five copies of it. (Rules and more below.)
Besides CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, Stephanie’s other best-selling novels include MARRYING MOZART and THE PLAYERS. She is currently writing a novel about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Here’s an excerpt from last year’s wonderfully inspiring interview:
KW: CLAUDE & CAMILLE is quite the delectable tearjerker — Camille is such a quicksilver, tragic muse! What was the hardest part about writing about her? What did you find most compelling? Most difficult?
SC: Camille was the most difficult character in the book and the last to develop into a full, complex character. In an early version she was just a sweet young thing from a poverty background, but when I learned her background was upper-class it made a difference. When I was in my early 20’s I knew a few girls, one who kept lying because she wanted to appear fascinating and then didn’t know truth from fiction and a few (me too) who threw away good homes to live in poverty and wash diapers by hand, feeling we were among the genuine people. My editor kept coaxing Camille from me during the editorial stage and she just grew into something we both didn’t expect. Her terror of growing older, her secret letters to an unknown man…that sort of all came to flower (so to speak) towards the end of the writing process.
KW: One of the things I loved about CLAUDE & CAMILLE is the visceral sense of nineteenth century Paris you’ve evoked — the artists’ gatherings with their rough red wine, the scrounging for oil paint, the renting of model’s clothing, and so on. It’s all very La Bohéme. Can you describe your research process? How long did it take? Do you research before you begin to write?
SC: Research takes place before, during and then after in a way. You keep adding things. I love to find bits of daily life and stick them in. I guess I was researching the whole time. Various biographers had different opinions of the characters, and of Camille herself there was very little known at all. I worked with old photographs and paintings and many books. I walked the streets of Paris where Claude had walked and I went to Giverny….
You can read the rest of the interview here.
As I mentioned above, the good people at Crown Books has generously given us five copies of the paperback edition of CLAUDE & CAMILLE to give away. (Not one. Not two. But five!) To win one, simply leave a comment by midnight, April 14, 2011. It’s that simple. However, if you want to spice it up with a recommendation for a novel you recently read and enjoyed, I’ll give you a second entry. I’m always interested to hear what others are reading!
The small print: Only one comment per person. Book can only be shipped to U.S. or Canadian mailing address. Winner will be chosen at random and announced here April 15th. Good luck to all!