Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of Sacred Art and Seidr/Old Norse Traditions (the ancestral wisdom teachings of Northern Europe). She has published three books: Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) in 2016, Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) in 2019, and Medicine of the Imagination – Dwelling in Possibility (An impassioned plea for fearless imagination) in 2020.
She has presented her work on both The Shift Network and Sounds True. She appears in a TV programme titled Ice Age Shaman, made for the Smithsonian Museum, in the series Mystic Britain, talking about Neolithic arctic deer shamanism. Her fourth book, about the pre-Christian spirituality of the Netherlands and Low Countries, will be published in 2022. She has started her fifth book about the runes of the Futhark/Uthark. In response to the 2020 pandemic, she has opened an online school called Pregnant Hag Teachings to make more of her classes available online.
Author interview – Imelda Almqvist
Hi Imelda, welcome to my blog! Please tell us, when did you start writing, and why?
I grew up in the Netherlands and still remember how excited I was about my first day at primary school. My overriding thought was: ‘Now I will actually learn how to read and write!’ I still remember sitting at my small desk and forming those first letters on paper. It felt like magic then and it still feels like magic today!
In adult life, I have since discovered that there is a very direct connection between magic, writing systems, and symbols. The (so-called) vibrational languages, such as Sanskrit or Hebrew, make this very clear:
The word Abracadabra may derive from an Aramaic phrase meaning ‘I create as I speak.’ This etymology is dubious, however, as אברא כדברא in Aramaic is more reasonably translated ‘I create like the word.’ In the Hebrew language, the phrase translates more accurately as ‘it came to pass as it was spoken.’
I soon started spending a lot of time in my bedroom, dividing my time equally between writing and painting, also combining the two: writing stories and illustrating them.
My mother was not impressed by this new trend. She felt I was displaying anti-social tendencies! She would drag me down the stairs and tell me to ‘re-join family life!’ I’d be back up the stairs as soon as parental surveillance allowed. I would write stories in my head even while participating in family life.
Ha, I can’t believe you grew up in the Netherlands, too! That can’t be a coincidence. At what age did you take yourself seriously as a writer?
I moved to London in my early twenties and decided to write a novel, which I never published. The process of writing made me realise that I needed to work on myself in order to move beyond the ‘healing myself through auto-biographical writing’ stage (and that a bit more life experience wasn’t a bad ingredient for mature writing either!) By then I had just completed Art School (in Amsterdam) and I soon put my focus on painting instead. Around that time, I also embarked on training as an art therapist and learning how to hold therapeutic space for other people. We had three children over a span of four years and I clocked up a lot of intensive shamanic training.
I started writing a regular blog in 2011, and discovered people appreciated my writing. (One of my first ever blogs was inspired by our 7-year-old youngest son asking: ‘Mum, are you going to be a ghost when you die?!’) In 2015, I revisited my long-standing dream of writing a book. It was not fiction but a book about building spiritual toolkits (and survival kits) with children and young people.
How long did it take you to write your first book?
It took exactly ten weeks to write Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit for Life, over the summer of 2015. I could not work on the project full-time, due to parenting, teaching, and seeing clients, but I freed up two days a week to get it done. Once I had a book contract, I made the unpleasant discovery that editing a book is as much work as writing a book! Some major lessons in self-editing (and mastering the rules of the publishing world) followed! However, I embraced learning those as vital professional skills and my first book was published by Moon Books in 2016! It has done well and it is used by people all over the world, who are involved in helping children find their spiritual compass.
What was your last book about?
My most recent (third) book, Medicine of the Imagination, was published in October 2020. It is an impassioned plea for a fearless and skilful use of the human imagination. If we don’t master that vital skill, we will keep on repeating the mistakes of the past.
My (not yet available) fourth book has just gone into production (a week ago!) The title is North Sea Blood in My Veins: A reconstruction of the pre-Christian spirituality of the Netherlands and surrounding areas. It will come out in the Spring of 2022.
I have been an international teacher of both Sacred Art and Seidr (Old Norse Traditions) for years. People from the Netherlands would attend my courses and say: we love all the Scandinavian and Nordic material (my husband is Swedish and I run a school in Sweden called True North!), but when will you teach the (pre-Christian) ancestral wisdom teachings of the Netherlands? I tried to fob them off by saying ‘Maybe, one day, who knows!’ but when I committed to doing some research, I soon became hooked.
I then found a surprising amount of material lurking just under the surface of everyday Dutch life. I also realised that, not having lived in my country of birth for thirty years, that I needed to heal my relationship with the Netherlands (I was only too happy to marry a Swede and move to Sweden and, next, to the UK). This book is my way of ‘repaying a debt’ (in the Northern Tradition ‘Debt’, Skuld, is the name of the Norn who weaves or carves ‘what is to come’. The guiding principle is a balancing of what has already come to pass. In plain English: in the Nordic cosmology the ‘Future’ is the balancing of ‘the Past’ in the ‘Here And Now’!)
I really enjoyed reading material in Dutch, Frisian, Flemish, even Afrikaans and German. I realised how most of that material is not accessible to people who do not speak Dutch—so I wrote the book in English.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on two books about the Runes, based on classes for Rune Magicians I teach. These books are about a personal approach of working with Runes (not just the Elder Futhark but also the Anglosaxon Futhorc and the Frisian Rune Row) I have developed, based on folklore, mythology, ethnology, and linguistics.
What is your writing process like? Do you plot or do you just dive in? How many drafts do you go through before the work is final?
Our middle son Elliott (who is 19) is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing (at Lancaster University). He told me recently that there are two kinds of writers: Gardeners and Architects! He and I are both ‘Gardeners’. I dive in. I research things as I go. I re-write entire passages as my knowledge grows or I unearth a new piece of information (often by reading material in another language. I read in about twenty languages, courtesy of my excellent Dutch Grammar School education and actively learning many languages ever since. I am currently learning Finnish so I can read the Kalavala in the original!)
I have incredibly messy drafts where I leave notes to myself in red ink (research this further, talk to an expert about that, etc.) Then I do many rounds of polishing, pruning, and editing, to arrive at the right word count and produce something a publisher can actually bear to look at!
What do you struggle with most as a writer?
Creating undisturbed time!! I often feel I am constantly ‘fending off’ teenagers, students, and clients to ‘get anything written at all’. Over the years, I have also learned that there is a way of being ‘in flow’ with this. When I was writing my first book, our three children would walk in and out as they pleased, to chat to me—but I soon discovered that they were unfailingly saying things that mirrored or improved where I was ‘at’ in terms of the book. So, I wove in their contributions and credited them.
The same thing was true for my second book (Sacred Art): it was teaching groups of people (on different continents) and moving through deep process work with them, that provided the truly luminous and life-changing material for this book. I could never have written it as a recluse. (Misquoting John Donne) I am not an island after all—my mother (now in her eighties) will be reassured to hear!
What advice would you give to writers dealing with the same or similar struggle?
People often ask me this and my answer is:
- Compartmentalise time: for example, I have writing days, teaching days, client days, and painting days and I stick to that with focus and discipline.
- Try to see the (unavoidable) interruptions as injections of inspiration and innovation (cross-fertilisation).
- Draw hard boundaries when it comes to ‘avoidable interruptions’. I remember other mums at my sons’ school making fun of me for ‘sticking to painting for days rather than showing up for coffee mornings’. They thought it was a bit pretentious, but it saved my sanity (and my professional life too; I had painting commissions to complete).
Have you always had that struggle or has it changed over time?
What has changed (and is still changing) is our sons growing older and more independent. Two out of three are now at university and living in student accommodation. What has also changed is that, in 2016, my (Swedish) husband and I bought a house set in a very remote location in Sweden (‘where the Forest meets the Sea’!). I get to spend extended periods of time all by myself there, often not seeing another human being for days on end. That satisfies my craving for solitude and for diving deep into ‘Forest Medicine’ (embracing the Forest and all its inhabitants as my teacher), dreaming and envisioning new creative projects.
Do you prefer the term ‘writer’ or ‘author’, and why?
Since I was eighteen years old and started Art School, I have always called myself a painter, not an artist. Both because it is more specific (I am a painter, not a sculptor, for instance) and the word artist has many 20/21st century associations I do not apply to myself. I make and teach sacred art, not (post)modern or contemporary art. Sacred art is spirit led, art in service to powers and beings greater than myself, it is not focussed on my persona as the artist. Instead, it seeks to open portals for other people on other worlds. (And going on the daily feedback I receive, it seems to do that!)
For similar reasons, I prefer the word writer, because it has connotations of freedom. It can refer to a wider range of practices, such as diary writing or writing picture books for children, poetry, the old-fashioned art of writing letters (rather than ephemeral emails or SMS messages), and so forth.
In reality, I almost never call myself either a writer or an author because it is not my primary activity or identity. People see (and approach) me predominantly as a painter, teacher, and seiðkona (healer, spirit worker). My preferred term for myself is Forest Witch, honouring my healer ancestors!
Who’s your favourite author?
I am sorry but I cannot possibly answer this question without injuring myself or others! Our (London) house, which also operates as a school, is gradually turning into a library. During break times, my students will take books off shelves and sink into them, huddling up in a corner, lost to the world.
My husband and I joke about how the famous Library of Alexandria (which burned down in 48 BC) is being resurrected! We even have books in the bathroom! I have hundreds of authors I admire…
That sounds like quite a paradise! Perhaps not as paradisiacal as your home in Sweden, but still…
So, I’m guessing you’re not going to like this question either: What’s your favourite book?
Same answer as above, I am afraid! It is usually the book I am reading at the moment (and exactly right now that is The Secret Language of Cells: What Biological Conversations Tell Us About the Brain-Body Connection, the Future of Medicine, and Life Itself, by Jon Lieff). The book I just finished is The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller. I am also re-reading Plants of the Devil by Corinne Boyer—they are all fabulous books in their own unique way and there is a pile waiting by my bed…
What’s your favourite book on the craft?
I don’t own any books offering advice for writers (as I said earlier, it is not my primary focus or occupation).
What’s the best writing advice you were ever given?
I have not received any formal writing advice, but what got me writing my first book was people, based all over the world, being referred to me by colleagues, asking to buy a book (guidance about shamanic practice with children and teens), which did not yet exist. The backbone of that book consists of organising and presenting answers to all the tricky questions people had been asking me for years. It was remarkably easy to write because I had already written hundreds of emails and blogs addressing all the burning issues and sub-topics.
What I will add, if I may, is that the best advice I ever received as a painter (during one year when I did not have access to a studio) was that ‘No one else can or will ever make the paintings only you can make. There is no rush, they will wait for you, no one will take them from you!’ The same thing is true for writing and your unique voice!
I so believe that! Thank you for sharing your time with us, Imelda.
You can find Imelda on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Her online school Pregnant Hag Teachings can be found here.