Sometimes we become so focused on the nitty-gritty technical aspects of writing and publishing that we forget the power of the unconscious mind, the part that understands story at a fundamental level.
In today's episode, Caroline Donahue talks about how to use the Tarot to find a way into your creative unconscious.
Caroline also hosts the fantastic Secret Library Podcast, which I have been on several times talking about creativity and writing.
Have you ever wished there was a tool that could tap into the unconscious parts of your brain to help you write your book?
If so, I have great news for you: that tool exists, and it’s the Tarot.
As many people associate the tarot with fortune telling or personal growth practices, they are often surprised to hear that can also be used to support the writing process. These 78 cards depict a full range of human experience, from big moments in our lives to the more mundane and everyday events. Rather like a good book, right?
As you don’t need to be a tarot reader – or even an enthusiast of the cards- to benefit from using it for your writing, I won’t go into the history of the tarot for the purposes of this post. Instead, let’s get right down to writing.
First, let’s talk about how to pull a tarot card as part of your writing process
The tarot is most useful when you ask a specific question, but one that doesn’t have a yes or no answer. “What is missing in this scene?” is a much more useful question, for example, than “Is this scene working?” We’ll discuss examples of questions for particular situations below.
Once you have your question, shuffle the deck. You can mix the cards loosely in your hands, spread them over the surface of the table and then reassemble them in a deck, or just shuffle them like regular playing cards.
Hold your question in your mind as you shuffle. Sometimes a card will fall out – I always look at that card when this happens. If no card falls out, then pick any card that feels right to you and turn it over.
Don’t rush to a tarot book or outside validation for the meaning of the card. Instead, look at the picture on the card in front of you.
- How does it make you feel?
- What do the images spark in your imagination?
- Are there any personal associations you have with the image?
The most important meaning of this card is the one that appears in your own mind.
See if your interaction with the image answers your question. Sometimes the events portrayed in the picture is enough to reveal the path forward for your story. Look for the emotional level of the card if you had a character motivation question. If your question was about plot, see what’s happening in the card and if this can help you.
The mind abhors a vacuum and will begin to assign meaning to any image it sees.
Take advantage of this tendency and allow your mind to fill in the gaps between your question and the card in front of you. You can do this by thinking or take it a step further by freewriting or journaling in response to the question and the card.
After you’ve explored your own associations with the card, you can look up the traditional meaning, if you choose, for additional insight. But make sure you know what it means for you first – all that matters is whether this process helps your writing, not whether or not you “got the card right.”
Now, let’s move on to specific situations where tarot can help you write.
Here are 4 ways that tarot can assist you in finishing your book.
1. The planning process
If you are a planner or plotter, the tarot can become your companion as you build your outline. As you’ve made outlines in the past, do you recall the moments when you aren’t sure how to get your character from point A to point B, or when her motivation isn’t entirely clear to you? That’s the moment to pull out the tarot.
Good questions for this stage:
- Why is this important to this character?
- What is his/her/their greatest fear?
- What is my character trying to achieve?
If you’re more of a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants, the tarot can be your companion through the entire draft. Once you have your idea for your story, you can write forward until you hit a wall, and then pull a card to move ahead. It’s a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure process, and can be great fun.
Prompts for pantsers:
- Who will my character meet in the next scene?
- What obstacle is about to appear?
- Little does he/she/know BUT…. (Freewrite on what this reveals)
3. Character development
There are many complex spreads floating around, but something as simple as “past, present, and future” of any character can open up a lot of discovery. This is also amazing to do for your antagonist, as their psychology is every bit as important (and endlessly fascinating, I find!)
Specific cards to pull for character:
- Overview of their childhood
- Relationships: pull a card to represent their mother, father, grandmother, etc.
- Their greatest wish/what they are seeking in the story
- The Achilles heel for your main character OR your antagonist.
4. When hit with writer’s block
This is perhaps the greatest gift tarot has to give you as a writer. When it feels like there are no more ideas, no more scenes, and no clear way forward, the tarot offers 78 prompts to move you through.
Often we dry up because we aren’t seeing the full complexity and opportunity in the story. The tarot is pure gold for mining meaning and getting your pen moving across the page again.
Prompts to bust through writer’s block:
- What am I missing here?
- What is the most interesting thing about this story?
- Whose point of view should I explore?
- What is lurking under the surface?
Resources to get started
If you’re new to tarot, I’m SO excited for you. There is a world of beauty out there right now and so many amazing decks. It can be a bit overwhelming, so here are some tips to help you navigate the wild world of tarot:
- Pick a deck with art that speaks to YOU. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a popular or must-have list (including the one below!) if the art leaves you cold. Choose a deck with your heart.
- If you learn to love tarot, you may want a few decks eventually – different art has a different tone. For example, I use a different deck for my heroine than for my antagonist.
- If you can find a new age bookshop where you can handle the cards and see them up close- buy there. Cards feel different online than they do in your hand.
With that said, here are a few of my favorite decks and a book on tarot meanings that caters to creatives:
- The Wild Unknown: beautiful animal imagery, black and white drawings with pops of color
- Spolia Tarot: Collage deck printed on gorgeous card stock. Dreamy and rich
- The Mary-El: Very strong imagery. If you want to get deep into the shadow, this is your deck
- The Rider-Waite-Smith: the classic standard. Many contemporary decks use interpretations of this imagery. If you’re interested in learning the cards, this system is good to know
- Aeclectic.net is a great resource to see the images of hundreds of decks- have a browse and find your own favorite!
- The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin is an excellent book on tarot card meanings that is written with writers and artists in mind. One of my favorites.
- Story Arcana is a self-guided email course on writing with tarot that I created and a great next step if you want to learn more.
Have you ever used the tarot in conjunction with writing your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, writing coach, and literary tarot reader living in Berlin. She is the host of the Secret Library Podcast and the co-editor of the anthology I Wrote it Anyway. She is currently working on a novel. Her next book, Story Arcana: Writing with Tarot, will be out in early 2019.
[Author photo and tarot deck photo with notebook copyright Danielle Cohen.]