Last weekend I was fortunate enough to meet lots of lovely people at YALC, the Young Adult Literature Convention at London Olympia, run by Book Trust (who also happen to employ me). To get their full value from me being there on the Saturday, and to stop me eating all the chocolate in the green room, I ran two writing workshops, both of which were great fun.
However, since lots of people were really fired up by the second one in particular – Writing with the Tarot – and because even though I had about 30 attendees, I think still more people were aiming to come but got caught up with Judy Blume (fair enough; you win, Judy), I thought I might follow up with a (apparently very long winded – GET TO THE POINT ANNA AAAAARRRRGGHHH) blog about how you can use the tarot to help you get new ideas and start writing.
So this is what I said to my group. This workshop is not about how to read the tarot. We can’t cover that in 45 minutes. And it’s not about using the “proper” meanings in your writing either – although please feel free to do that in YOUR writing, you reading this, should you want to. It’s about recognising that the tarot is a collection of incredibly rich imagery and symbolism that you can use as inspiration.
They are pretty pictures (sometimes not so pretty – arresting, perhaps) that also contain many of the elements of story – people, in the Court cards (Kings, Queens, Knights, Princes/Princesses/Pages) and elsewhere, there are lots of people doing all manner of things. Looking forlornly out to sea, building a nave, shaking hands whilst wearing one large oven glove. Places – volcanoes, mountains, at sea, deserts, towns, gardens, houses; and situations - arguments, meetings, sexy times, chaste holding of hands as a precursor to sexy times, bargains being made, hard work being done, not so hard work being done, journeys, possibly with sexy times when you get there, reconciliations. There are also emotions and motivations –the psychological stuff. That’s usually covered by the 22 Major Arcana cards that you may or may not be familiar with (I mean, if you know the tarot, skip this whole section really, I don’t mind, I’ll never know) but it’s ones like The Lovers, Death (that doesn’t really mean death blah blah), The Hanged Man, all the ones you tend to see on TV when people are doing the tarot because they look dramatic, like Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die (see above).
The more domestic and everyday stuff is covered by the 56 Minor Arcana cards – the lesser wisdom. Though of course the whole system is a lifetime’s worth of study representing the crisscrossing connections of a web of human existence.
But as I said, you don’t need to know that. The point is, tarot is packed full of handy story elements just waiting to be combined. AND tarot is very hot in YA right now, what with The Raven Boys and Maggie Stiefvater's own artworked tarot set out soon, The Accident Season, The Mortal Instruments and (cough) Crow Moon using it in a variety of ways – more too, loads of books probably I can’t think of.
Here are some fun things you can do to help your writing.
(NOTE – I am assuming you have access to a tarot pack. If not, get one if you fancy, they’re not expensive, around £10-20, or more for something fancy – I have my eye on The Wild Unknown set. The classic pack is the Rider Waite; depending on your preferences you can get tarot themed with anything – vampires, animals, steampunk, whatever. I personally like the RWs, the Thoth tarot (great for this exercise as very visual), the DruidCraft Tarot, the Tarot of the Hidden Realm. )
1. Deep description
Take one card at random from the pack. Spend five minutes writing as deeply descriptively as you can about it without stopping. Notice everything can you can and be as specific as you can with your vocabulary – it’s not just pink, it’s cerise/magenta/fuschia/baby pink etc. Note everything down as gorgeously detailed as you can. Really go into the card.
2. Free association
Now, put that card back in the pack. Pick another card at random. You have five to ten minutes on this one, and your task is not to describe so much as to let it take you off on a flight of fancy. Free associate your brain off with this – again, free writing, so writing anything that comes into your head, without stopping. Enter into the flow, see where it takes you, no matter how bonkers. Doesn’t matter – no-one else is ever going to see this. What does the card or an element of it remind you of? If you were in the card, what could you hear/small/taste/touch? Is it like a dream? Go into the dream. Feel the feelings, make odd connections, see where it takes you.
Put that one back in the pack now and pull three new ones at random and put them all face up in front of you. Now, your task is to make connections between whatever you’ve pulled out and use all the elements somehow in maybe the start of a story, a scene, a descriptive passage, maybe a dialogue. See what suggests itself. This task is about doing what you did both times before – describe and free associate, and make links between apparently unconnected things. Because this is the essence of creativity, no? Seeing the links no-one else sees. In the workshop about 20 minutes worked for this but you could of course go longer, and it might even start you off on a tangent that takes you into a whole book and… you can buy me a drink if that happens.
Or a new tarot set.
There are some interesting books out there that do different, non-traditional storytelling with the tarot you can also check out – Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, Rachel Pollack’s Tarot Tales and (cough, again) my Taropoetics, which is an avant-garde tarot writing project based on chance procedures. Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle uses the I Ching within a story about what would have happened if the Nazis won WW2 – in a way not dissimilar to Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie, which I am very much enjoying.
Lastly, if you want to start reading the tarot and want a how-to book recommendation, you can’t go far wrong with Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom. There are lots more great ones - and not so great reads - on the market. Just the act of learning the cards in itself will fire you up creatively because of all the interesting concepts it contains.
So. Go forth, my friends, and rev up your writing, get inspired, get creative. Or, you know, sit in your bedroom reading tarot for yourself obsessively. Whichever.