Tarot and Me: A Love Story
My fascination with tarot began long before I started writing YA. I was still in college when my aunt, a woman I’ve always admired for her passion and willingness to try new things, learned to read cards. While the rest of my family loved getting readings, I suffered from a major case of urban legenditis (I blame Celeste from Days of Our Lives). After months of watching everyone else enjoy their readings, I finally figured out the obvious: the cards aren't magic or cursed or blessed or otherworldly. They're simply a creative tool to help us gain insight and perspective about ourselves, our relationships, and our world.
Years later, I bought my first deck and began studying the cards for research on my novel, Fixing Delilah. The more comfortable I got with reading tarot for research, the more I wanted to explore how writers could use the cards in other exciting and inspiring ways.
Tarot is highly symbolic, and as such, deeply connected to universal human experiences and storytelling traditions. The cards help uncover and connect unconscious thoughts and ideas already lurking in our minds and hearts -- something all writers and artists strive to do. Call it the muse, call it the universe, call it plain old inspiration. The cards are just one way to find and explore it.
Tarot Tips for Writers
Since those early Fixing Delilah days, I've learned to use tarot in my writing practice in a number of ways:
• Plot brainstorm. Perfect for plotters and pantsers alike. Whether you already have characters and other story elements in mind or you'd like to start fresh with a blank slate, you can do a plot spread, drawing one card to represent each step in the hero's journey (or beat sheet, 3-act structure, universal story, Truby's 22 steps, or any other plot method or non-method you're using). For pantsers, you can flip cards to generate ideas for random scenes and see how you might fit them together later. I've used the standard Rider-Waite deck for quick plot brainstorming because it's colorful and the symbols are fairly easy to interpret, especially when you're looking for some quick jumping off points that don't require a ton of introspection.
• Character development. Each card is like a beautifully colored springboard of potential personalities, physical traits, strengths and weaknesses, issues, careers, passions, and personal history ideas! Even without knowing the card's intended meaning, writers can brainstorm by looking at a card that features a person and asking: what is this character wearing? What's going on in his world? What words come to mind when I study his face, his surroundings? If I stepped into the card and looked around, what would I see through her eyes? Who are her friends? For those ready to experiment with card meanings, you can do different spreads for individual characters and relationship, such as a 3-card past/present/future spread, or a single card that answers a question: What do I need to know about my main character? What is she hiding? What is her biggest fear? Who is her closest ally? Using the Deviant Moon deck (perfect for exploring deep issues and a character's "shadow side"), I combined the past/present/future and "what do I need to know" exercises for some of my prewriting with Jude and Emilio in my latest YA, The Book of Broken Hearts. The cards helped clarify their relationship and Jude's narrative goals. Finally, since the major arcana card meanings are largely connected to Archetypes, you can start with card and its archetypal meaning, and then journal ideas to generate deep character from there, or reverse the traditional meanings for a new twist on the familiar. For example, I'm working on a project with a character inspired by the High Priestess card, but reversed -- a powerful, imposing woman with good intentions that got twisted into something sinister.
• Conflict and stakes. Similar to the character development exercises above, you can do a spread that answers questions like: what does my character stand to lose in this scene or in the novel overall? Who is her greatest foe, or who is the character most likely to get in the way? What other rocks can I throw at her? How can I make these mini-conflicts even worse? What's the worst possible thing that can happen? Of course, each of these questions can turn into sub-questions, and each card can build into new spreads and new questions that weave together in exciting, unpredictable ways.
• Writing prompts, story ideas, and unblocking writer's block. Whether you're looking for some writing prompts to practice outside of your big work in progress, ready to start something new, or you've hit a wall and you just don't know where to go from here, throw down some cards. Pick one, or do a spread, and write about it. You can use a combination the example questions above or just free write whatever comes to you. See what sparks your creative mind. This exercise is especially helpful if you need a break from your project, because it's like permission to write something completely random and off the wall. Without deadlines or expectations, you might loosen the chains enough to surprise yourself with something amazing. Even if the new piece doesn't turn into anything, it can still jumpstart your creativity and allow you to return to your work with fresh eyes and a hopeful pen.
• Prioritizing multiple projects. On those rare occasions when I don't have a deadline or other project looming, I might do a spread to focus broad ideas or chose between two or more competing ideas. I'll ask the cards: what should I work on next? This exercise helped me decide to work on a project that I ended up selling to Simon Pulse in a 2-book deal a few months back, so I stand by it 100%! The cards, they are the smarts!
• Dreaming. I've found that regular tarot reading and journaling makes for more lucid, vivid, and frequent dreams. And you never know when a particularly intense dream will trigger a bestselling story idea! If you're a daydreamer, you can also draw cards at random, space out, and just see what creative images and words float in.
• Navigating the emocoaster. This might be one of the most important uses of tarot for authors. Once you get comfortable doing readings, you can use the cards to evaluate your career path, calm your thoughts after reading a tough review, cope with rejection, plan for the future, learn from past mistakes, make difficult creative or career decisions, and embrace the inevitable uncertainties that come with any creative endeavor.
• Lots of other ideas! In an informal Twitter poll, a few tarot-savvy authors shared their own favorite uses for tarot in their writing. @ebelleful used cards for foreshadowing and devising a method of killing. Tarot helps @amandacoppedge do some out of the box thinking and character personality development. @Sibarium has a tarot reading in her WIP. @malindalo enjoyed getting her own reading and mentioned a creativity retreat where a teacher used tarot.
These are just a few of the many ideas for incorporating tarot into your writing practice. The more you play and experiment with the cards, the deeper and more often you'll be able tap into your own creative well in ways you never would've imagined. Truly, the possibilities are endless!
So… where do you start? The cards, of course!
Picking a Deck
Because the imagery on the cards can be so personally symbolic and meaningful, I highly recommend picking up your own deck so you can get a close look at each card, hold it in your hand, see it from different angles and perspectives. But even if you don't have a deck, you can still view card images and interpretations online (I'll list a few sites in the Tarot Resources section below). Also, if you're just starting out, I suggest using the popular Rider-Waite deck until you're comfortable with the basics before moving on to some of the more creative and nonstandard decks out there.
And all those old tropes about how you must be given your first deck as a gift, or the deck must be blessed by ghosts from Romania, or cried on by the tears of an angel, or held by a dead man, or charged under a blue moon, or anything else you've seen on TV? Forget about it. I bought my first deck at Barnes & Noble in Union Square, my second one came as a gift from a writer friend to celebrate the launch of Bittersweet, and my third one I ordered online because I came across the artist's website and loved the images. So order a deck online, pick one out at your local metaphysical store, even grab one of the many sets on display at most bookstores. Once you have your deck, you can perform any rituals you want -- just don't get caught up in old legends and lose sight of the most important things: getting comfortable and familiar with your cards, and incorporating them into your writing practice!
Tarot Resources: A Few Faves
If you're ready to give Tarot a try or you're looking for a few places to explore, here are some excellent starting points:
• Tarot for Writers, by Corrine Kenner. Corrine is an experienced reader, teacher, author, and tarot deck creator. I was so excited when this book came out! I use it whenever I'm working on something new. It features spreads for story creation as well as plotting tips, tarot-inspired prompts, and card interpretations -- lots of things I've incorporated into the exercises above. And guess what? We're giving away a copy to one lucky winner! More on that at the end. :-)
• Tarot Plain and Simple, by Anthony Louis. This tarot reference book includes how-to notes on popular tarot spreads and detailed interpretations of each card and its reversal (for cards that come out upside down). It's easy to follow and perfect for beginners (my aunt sent me this book when I began studying tarot, and I still refer to and recommend it often).
• Psychic Tarot - Using Your Natural Psychic Abilities to Read the Cards, by Nancy Antenucci and Melanie A. Howard: I wish I'd read this book when I first started learning tarot! It helps aspiring readers learn to interpret cards intuitively rather than memorizing standard card meanings. Each card has a basic general meaning and symbolism, but beyond that, cards resonate differently with each of us. This book helps readers hone their intuitive skills, so it's a perfect way for adventurous beginners to dive right in. Since I picked up this book after I learned to read cards, I bought a new deck (Paulina Cassidy's Joie de Vivre deck, which has an uplifting yet surreal Alice in Wonderland feel to it that I find perfect for writing practice) with different, less obvious imagery so I could still benefit from the lessons on intuition. I'm still working my way through the book and loving it so far.
• Aeclectic Tarot: This massive website features tons of helpful information including pictures and deep interpretations of the cards, reviews of specific decks and tarot books, tarot spreads, and community message boards covering every tarot topic imaginable. The site can be intimidating at first glance, but they have a helpful section called "Are you brand new to tarot? Start here!" I use this site whenever I'm looking for a new spread or a new perspective on card meanings.
• Llewellyn Worldwide: Llewellyn publishes metaphysical books and resources, including many of the most popular tarot decks. (For YA fans, they're also the parent company for the Flux imprint). The Tarot & Divination section of their website includes tarot blog posts and articles, deck reviews, and accessories (good for when you start getting addicted and find yourself suddenly and quite desperately needing things like spread cloths and incense and candles and tarot bags!)
• Tarot Tribe - Beyond Worlds: This tarot podcast, hosted by Donnaleigh de LaRose, is geared toward intermediate readers who are ready to go a bit deeper. But, I discovered it as a semi-beginner and I've already learned a ton from each episode! Donnaleigh has regular contributors as well as guests who discuss various decks, methods, resources, and uses for tarot (and that is a highly condensed version of what this in-depth podcast covers!).
• Local metaphysical or spiritual stores: Shop indie! Your community may have a store that sells tarot decks, books, accessories, and other resources. Mine does, and I love hanging out there. Snoop around and find out, especially since you can go check out decks and books in person and see what resonates with you.
Just For Fun: Tarot in YA
Since I'm such a tarot fangirl, I love reading YA novels that feature tarot. So far, I've come across them in the following novels:
• The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. Martina knows my undying love-slash-obsession for this book, and I'm counting down the days until The Dream Thieves (book 2) hits the shelves this September. In The Raven Boys, main character Blue Sargent comes from a family with all sorts of psychic gifts. Reading tarot is just one of their otherworldly skills (along with seeing the dead and precognition and other fun stuff), and Blue's family associates her with the Page of Cups, who I've always viewed as an artist and a dreamer and a really positive, hopeful card. Coincidentally, Page of Cups makes an appearance in…
• Fixing Delilah, by Sarah Ockler. Did you like that smooth transition? ;-) In this story, main character Delilah's aunt Rachel uses the cards to reflect on their family struggles as Delilah, her mother, and Rachel come to terms with the recent death of Delilah's grandmother and an older family tragedy involving the youngest Hannaford sister. Lots of family secrets here, and the cards know all! Plus, when the Page of Cups appears in Delilah's spread, Rachel totally predicts the whole "falling in love with the artistic dreamer boy next door" thing.
• Poison Princess, by Kresley Cole. I really loved this unique take on tarot, because in Cole's novel, the cards are the characters! Rather, each character is a manifestation of one of the major arcana cards come to life, fighting an ancient battle in the wake of an apocalyptic event. Poison Princess has a bleak "The Road" kind of feel to it, woven through with swoon-worthy sexual tension and life-or-death stakes. While I didn't agree with all of Cole's interpretations of the cards (particularly The Hermit and Death, which get a bad rap! Hey, Hermits unite, man!), I loved this unique and fast-paced story, and I'll definitely pick up the next in the series this October.
• Andromeda Klein, by Frank Portman. I haven't read this one yet, but when I saw the Three of Swords card on the cover and this line in the summary -- "Andromeda's tarot readings are beginning to predict events with bizarrely literal accuracy" -- I immediately added it to my TBR list. Plus, I really liked the humor in Portman's King Dork, so I've got high hopes for this one.
• The Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices books by Cassandra Clare. These books gets an honorable mention not because tarot is featured in the stories (it's been awhile since I've read them and I don't remember specifically), but because Clare is having a tarot deck created based on the characters in the series'! I've been watching her blog and Twitter updates about the deck with much anticipation. I can't wait to see the finished set… and then promptly snap them up and incorporate them into my writing practice! Tarot cards based on YA characters? That's like, double mojo!
I keep thinking there has to be more YA novels that feature tarot, so if you've read any that I missed here, please leave your suggestions in the comments!
A Tarot-Tastic Giveaway!
WINNER: MARGAY ROBERGE
To celebrate my love of tarot and encourage you to give it a try in your writing practice, I'm giving away a Tarot for Writers goodie box with the following books:
• Tarot for Writers by Corrine Kenner
• Poison Princess by Kresley Cole
• An autographed copy of Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler
• An autographed copy of Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler, which admittedly has nothing to do with tarot, but it does have a lot to do with cupcakes, an equally important item in any writer's toolkit!
To enter, just fill out the form at the bottom of the post. You can earn an extra entry by leaving a comment about your experience with tarot, how you'd like to use tarot in your writing process, or a book you read that contained Tarot. Please note this giveaway is US only.
Thanks so much for hosting me, Adventures in YA Publishing! Happy writing, dreaming, and creating to all!
-Sarah Ockler, bestselling author of The Book of Broken Hearts and other YA novels
About the Author
Sarah Ockler is the bestselling author of critically acclaimed young adult novels Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and Bittersweet. Her books have been translated into several languages and have received numerous accolades, including ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads, IndieNext list picks, and more. Her short fiction and essays will be featured in two upcoming young adult anthologies: Defy the Dark and Dear Teen Me.
Sarah teaches advanced young adult fiction writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She’s a champion cupcake eater, coffee drinker, night person, and bookworm. When she’s not writing or reading, Sarah enjoys taking pictures, hugging trees, and road-tripping through the country with her husband, Alex.
Check out Sarah’s website
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