Writing tips with Tarot

As I’ve been exploring the world of esoterica, I’ve found myself drawn to Tarot. There are many different decks, but for a n00b like me, I went with the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck (affiliate, and below). As someone who writes, I love the symbolism in the cards’ designs. I’ve done a few readings for friends, but I still have to flip through Rachel Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness and the tiny booklet included in the deck for the meanings of most of the cards.

Almost immediately after I got my deck, I started thinking about ways to incorporate it into writing. Partially inspired by this exercise from Rachael Stephen, I thought about drawing a random card and using it as a jumping off point for a character’s traits. Much like with a divinatory reading, you could look up the interpretations, go as in-depth into the symbolism as you’d like, or you could just take it at face value. Obviously you’ll know your character better than anyone, but this may help flesh them out and add layers of dimensions. Use the cards to inspire ideas about the character’s occupation, physical weaknesses, fatal flaw, or a myriad of other character quirks. Don’t get too caught up in the gendered aspects of the cards. Look beyond those and think about what they could represent for your character. Make a list of seven ideas from each card, even if it doesn’t seem to fit. Remember there are no wrong or bad ideas at this stage. Get creative!

I wanted to see if I could use this for a new story idea I’ve been kicking around for about a year now. I think I’m going to work on this for NaNoWriMo. Yes, that’s four months away, but also, that’s only four months away. Remember when time used to mean something?

So I don’t have much going for this story. All I know is that it takes place at a haunted grocery store, the main character’s name is Kayla (or Karol/Carol) and she recently had to move back with her mom because of a DUI. While in her hometown, Kayla (or Karol/Carol) revisits her past while grappling with her abusive mother (who may or may not have some physical disability). Also, grocery store ghouls.

I was charged with a DUI in 2012 and I can say – without hyperbole – it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done (worse than paying twice to see Avatar). For a long time, it was a source of shame and regret. While it was a part of my experience then, I now realize it’s not part of my experience in this present moment and that those feelings no longer serve me. It’s my intention with this story to process any lingering feelings of shame or regret once and for all.

Anyway, for this exercise, I’m going to use a simple three-card spread I found on Autostraddle as inspiration to flesh out Kayla’s character arc and the trajectory of the narrative.

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

The central card represents her at the beginning of the story, her status quo. The card to the left represents something she needs to let go. For Kayla, this is her victim mentality. The card to the right is advice. Characters usually receive this advice – which they promptly ignore – from a nonessential character early in the story before the call to adventure or catalyst. This advice is essentially the theme of the story. Simply hearing it won’t do the protagonist any good; she actually has to go through the world of the story to learn it herself.

When I do a regular reading, I shuffle the deck nine times (because, according to numerology, that’s my expression number – I told you I was exploring the esoteric) while I ask the querent what’s on their mind. I listen and think about what they say as I lay the cards out. I invoke the Divine to manifest for me and for the Universe to work through me. Then the magic begins. For this exercise, I’ll do something similar thinking about Kayla (I think I will call her Kayla) and her issues in the world of the yet-to-be-titled Haunted Grocery Store Story.

10 of Wands is great card for the status quo

As I looked at the card and thought about Kayla, I listed seven ideas, without judging or censoring:

  1. It’s been ten years since Kayla’s been home
  2. She’s 28
  3. She feels tremendous shame for the DUI and is unknowingly bringing that shame back home
  4. She’s blonde
  5. There are easier ways to “carry her burden,” but she can’t see them
  6. The booklet that came with the deck says the card represents oppression. Kayla feels oppressed having to be back home with her mom (who may be named Carol), like she lost another aspect of her freedom beyond what a driver’s license provides
  7. She is “caught in a net of endless responsibilities,” as Pollack notes. She takes on “all the weight of a relationship” – how can I apply this to the relationship with her mom?

The reversed Ace of Wands proved a bit challenging initially. I appreciated that it was also a Wands card, but beyond that I couldn’t see how it related to something Kayla had to let go. If this happens to you, I encourage you to consider the card, turn it right side up if it’s reversed, and remember that there are no bad ideas at this point, just ideas. Soon, they came:

  1. She wants a magical solution, but must learn the magic comes from within, from accepting responsibility for your experience
  2. She’s looking for a handout – literally
  3. She lost her hand in the DUI – it was a violent accident and now she can’t do the thing of her dreams (whatever that is)
  4. There’s very little civilization in the card, just a faraway castle. She wanted to be a survivalist, but can’t now (because of the hand?)
  5. The hand is white – ghostly. Some element of an absent father that she’ll never know and needs to let go of that. Maybe her mom led her to believe her dad was still alive, but it’s revealed at some specific instance that he is long dead
  6. Booklet says “clouded joy.” I interpreted this as her old way of thinking – her victim mentality – keeps her happy, but only because it’s known and comfortable. Pollack elucidates the idea of clouded joy further, saying “the wonder and happiness exists even when we cannot, or will not, see it in front of us.”
  7. Pollack also writes that the card represents things ruined “through too much undirected energy.” Kayla needs to learn to focus on one thing at a time – doing too much is what caused the DUI/accident (checking phone, changing CDs)

Representing advice, the final card – the 5 of Cups – immediately brought up ideas of loss. I don’t think this story is going to have a happy ending…

  1. Kayla will appear to be half of what she was at the beginning. Maybe the hand is just injured in the DUI accident, but it has to be amputated at some specific instance
  2. The drinking issues are apparent, and she seems sad, possibly because so much of her old identity was tied to who she was when she was drinking – the fun party girl. Goes with the refusal to “contain that fiery sexual appetite” implied by the reversed Ace of Wands
  3. Two cups remain upright – her drinking issues may be something Kayla struggles with all her life
  4. She has less burdens now, but at what cost?
  5. She is just as removed from civilization as before, but it doesn’t seem to make her as happy as she thought it would
  6. The booklet mentions patrimony, which is inty considering the absent father idea (which I just came up with as I was writing this). Maybe he leaves her a cabin in the woods, and Carol didn’t tell her for some specific reason
  7. This is a card of transmission, according to the booklet. How can that advice be given to her but ignored?
  8. “When she has accepted her loss,” Pollack writes of the 5 of Cups, “she can then turn, pick up the two remaining cups, and cross over the bridge to the house, symbol of stability and continuity.” Perhaps Carol never accepted the loss of her husband and some character warns Kayla of that

Okay, so this exercise was a lot of fun! I had so many ideas about things I hadn’t even considered (like Kayla’s hair). As this was my first time integrating Tarot with writing, I veered off a few times from the prompt of the card’s position, but like I said, there are no wrong ideas at this point. I’ll have to let these marinate for a bit, but I know I’ll be using this technique in the future.

What do you think about this technique? Can you think of other ways to incorporate Tarot into your next writing project? Let me know in the comments below!

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