The Tarot, in the school of thought that I’m currently studying, is a tool for asking questions and receiving insights from one’s own intuition, from a higher consciousness, from the psychological emanations of other people, and/or from spiritual beings. This is also how I write fiction. So naturally, in working with Tarot, I haven’t confined myself to asking questions about my own life. I’m even more interested in Tarot readings for my characters.
More so than craft-based writing prompts, a randomly (?) drawn card has a Zen quality of surprise and mystery that confounds my intellect and jolts me out of the well-worn groove of my plans for the story. In addition, combining my writing exercise with a spiritual practice reminds me to stay open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. After a year of final revisions on the Endless Novel, which were challenging but predictable, I am entering the wide-open space of the Endless Sequel, where everything is up for grabs except the main character dynamics. Tarot helps me enjoy that freedom of unknowing, while making some concrete progress in filling in the space.
Not every card produces a fruitful or understandable clue. The confusing cards nonetheless serve a purpose. They encourage me to explore plot twists that I hadn’t considered, though I may ultimately reject them as dead ends. (This is an advantage of Tarot over my Christian Writer phase: no guilt or fear about disagreeing with, or misunderstanding, the Message From Above.) The hard work of interpretation flexes my creative muscles. Sometimes, weeks later, in the light of other readings, I’ll finally understand why that card was in that position.
For instance, in my first Tarot reading about the Endless Sequel, I asked “Who is the narrator?” and was flummoxed by the answer, the 8 of Wands reversed. Traditional meanings include blockage, confusion, too many choices. In the standard Rider-Waite deck, it’s one of the few cards with no human figures on it at all!
I knew that my main character had a dis-integrated personality because of trauma and that a major plot thread would involve him reconnecting and healing those parts. But a narrator with fragmented consciousness generates a confusing, overwhelming experience for reader and writer alike. I never could get through those kinds of experimental novels in school, and I didn’t want to write one.
Perhaps the card represented my own failure to make a decision, offloading too much responsibility onto the cards or the character? I was afraid I didn’t have the skill to coax this secretive, self-deprecating character to talk about his feelings in a way that sounded authentic to us both. It would also be a challenge to differentiate his voice from the narrator of the Endless Novel (his boyfriend), whose campy, chatty style was almost too easy for me to slip into. Below these intellectual concerns was a non-literary one, the primal fear that I would lose myself in his “parts”. The first few years of the Endless Novel were written deep in PTSD territory, so my gut memory associated first drafts with losing my pony in the Swamps of Sadness.
Meanwhile, to refresh my writing skills while I haggled with myself over plot, I started working on a completely unrelated short story, and remembered why I loved that form. I can deal with unknowing for 30 pages, better than 400. It’s publishable now, not 10 years from now. I can see all the way around the structure: it’s a statue, not the Parthenon.
“Oh!” I said in the middle of the night. “The Endless Sequel is a novel in stories.”
Thanks to this working hypothesis, all the questions that had stopped me from writing lost their importance: Where should I begin in the story? Who is the narrator? If there’s only one narrator, how can I depict things that happen to each of the main characters when the other is not present? Just start anywhere! It’s possible that one of the stories will take on such momentum that it becomes a single book-length narrative, with material from the others as flashbacks or interludes between chapters. Or it could become a multi-vocal, multi-genre work. Whatever happens, I won’t be wasting my time by experimenting with different points of view. And I don’t think this solution would have hit me with such clarity, if part of my mind hadn’t continued to work on the enigma of the 8 of Wands reversed.
Want to try this for yourself? Here are links to some useful layouts I found by Googling “Tarot spreads for novel plotting”. Barbara Moore’s Tarot Spreads shows you how to adapt or design your own spreads. For meanings, I rely on Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom and Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Reversals.
(From my new favorite deck, So Below Deck: Book of Shadows, Vol. 2. The contemporary settings make it helpful for plotting a realist novel. Multi-ethnic characters and a few who could be interpreted as lesbian. Interpretations of traditionally sad or violent cards, like the 10 of Swords, are more upbeat than in Rider-Waite. In general I find that modern decks prettify the no-nonsense medieval toughness of the RWS images, so it’s good to keep the old standby around for balance.)