Magical Thinking: It's in the Cards
The following article is excerpted from Write Starts (New World Library 2010).
I’m a great believer in random selection as a creative tool. It’s a term that comes from statistics and science, referring to individual selections made entirely by chance from a larger group or set. The selections made are truly random when each individual within the group has exactly the same probability of being selected.
What’s so great about random selection? It gets you out of your own head, your own habits and routines. With the right tools, it’s a way of tricking yourself into thinking outside the box, that is, coming up with ideas, images, qualities, and actions that are more innovative or varied than you might otherwise dream you had in you. Used properly, it’s a great brainstorming tool, providing just the right amount of structure and openness to explore the unknown.
One of the most accessible random selection tools is the Tarot deck. It’s a deck of cards designed for divinatory use. Each card is illustrated, often with symbolic meanings, with its own characteristics and values. The most popular Tarot decks are the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck; the Motherpeace Cards; and the Medicine Cards. Another excellent system is The Book of Runes, based on the Viking Oracles, which instead of cards uses small tiles with simple symbols etched on them. These decks are intended as divinatory systems but, as you’ll see, that’s not how I use them here.
You can find these decks at most larger bookstores, online, or in shops specializing in spiritual books and supplies. Most come with a small book of instructions that describe the meaning of each card. There are also books that go into considerable detail about their interpretations. The way I use them for writers is, as far as I know, unique. There are three basic ways I use these systems:
1. Breaking through writer’s blocks
2. Developing characters for stories
3. Organizing chapter outlines for books
Note: The following instructions will be most helpful to you if you have one of these divination systems in your hands.
Breaking Through Writer’s Blocks: Root-Gain-Solution
For the serious writer, writer’s blocks can be very painful. No matter what you try, it seems you can’t get a single sentence down on paper. To break through, or at least explore what internal issues may be causing the block, do the following:
Step 1: Form a question or request that you wish to have answered by the cards. It’s important to form the question in a positive way. For example, “What do I need to know or do to free myself to write?” Not, “Why am I so screwed up that I can’t write?”
Step 2: Shuffle the deck while holding your question in your mind.
Step 3: Fan out the cards, facedown, on the table before you.
Step 4: Randomly select three cards, without looking at their faces. Place them on the table before you in this simple configuration:
Step 5: Turn over the first card and read it, or simply study the card itself and see what it suggests to you. The first card will tell you something about the root cause of the problem, in this case what has happened that has caused you to feel blocked. For example, I have just drawn the Five of Swords. The standard Rider-Waite card depicts a disdainful-looking man holding three swords, with three other swords lying at his feet and two dejected-looking figures retreating from him. The simplest reading for this card is loss, destruction, or degradation. I ask myself what exactly this means to me, given this position of the card as a root cause of the problem. What I come up with is that two days before I got a rejection slip from a publisher for a story I’d written. I certainly felt dejected when I received it, since I believed it was a well-written piece. Then it occurs to me that perhaps I am feeling, “What’s the use?” The rejection has caused me to feel defeated.
Step 6: Read the second card, Gain. This card asks us to reflect on something that we’re gaining by clinging to this feeling of defeat and rejection. The card I draw is the Four of Pentacles. It depicts a crowned young man with a gold pentacle over his head, one in his hand, and one under each foot. The divinatory meaning simplified has to do with clinging to treasures one already possesses. Reflecting on this, it feels to me that perhaps I am clinging to past successes instead of going forward to create something new. Has the rejection slip I received two days before triggered this reaction? This feels true to me. The message is that I need to come to peace with the rejection slip I’d received and stop holding on to my past successes to soothe my wounded pride. I go on to read the third card.
Step 7: The third card, Solution, will perhaps guide me to a way out of my present dilemma. The card I’ve drawn is Wheel of Fortune. Ah, this is great. The simplest reading of the card is success, luck, and abundance. What I take this to mean is that what I’m working on right now — or would be, if I didn’t have writer’s block — has the potential of turning out well. All I have to do is get over my reaction to the rejection slip and stop clinging to my previous accomplishments.
I go for a short walk to think over what I’ve come up with in the reading. By the time I return, I’m feeling more creative and dive right into my writing.
Now, you may ask, how do I know if my insights are true? Are they accurate readings of the cards? I have no way of knowing that, nor do I care. Whatever my reading of the cards, it is always my interpretations of their meanings that I work with. The random selection process afforded by the cards gets me out of my own way of thinking — to whatever degree that may be humanly possible. At the very least, I think about the problem I’m facing in a new way. For a moment I jump out of the box and maybe, just maybe, escape the limitations of my own thinking.
The second way I use the Tarot cards is to flesh out a character I’m working on in a story. For this I use a slightly more complex layout of the cards. This one looks like this:
Step 1: Shuffle the pack and draw five cards, always keeping them facedown, laying them out in the order shown. We’re going to be looking at a villainous guy named Lomax with the purpose of making him a richer, more three-dimensional character.
Step 2: The first card I select for Lomax is the Origins card, which turns out to be a Six of Pentacles. The simple reading for this is wealth and gifts. My interpretation is that my character comes from a privileged background, and that his parents were civic-minded and generous people.
Step 3: The middle card is Goals. I draw the Ace of Wands here. This card seems to substantiate that Lomax’s assets come from his family of origin — wealth passing from parents to son. He is inventive and entrepreneurial. He is beginning to look admirable, so far. Where exactly is this leading us? As the author I could decide this means that he embraces his creativity and makes good use of his inherited wealth. Or, I might decide that his inventiveness takes him in a very different direction, to cheat others in the family out of their inheritance. The card gets me thinking about all the ways that inventiveness might be used for either good or evil — or creating conflict between the two. In which direction will we go with our villain? Maybe the next card will provide a clue.
Step 4: I now draw the third card, the End card, forecasting how Lomax is going to end up. This is the Ten of Swords, a gruesome card, as it turns out. Pictured is a prone figure with ten swords piercing his body. The meaning of this card is clear: he ultimately ends up desolate and dead, maybe murdered? This is a fitting enough end for a villain.
Step 5: The fourth card is the one I call Above. It helps to define the higher purpose or ideals of the character, that is, what influences him or her from above. The card I draw is The World. This is ordinarily a very positive card, denoting assured success, a safe voyage, or change. Apparently, then, Lomax does pretty well for himself along the way.
Step 6: The fifth card, the Below card, is intended to help us define the lower, or darker, influences in the character’s life. The one I draw here is the Four of Wands. This card is the very picture of success and the country life, the security and peace of prosperity and old, well-established wealth.
So what am I to make of all this? Is there a mistake? Everything appears to be so positive and bountiful for Lomax — except for his gruesome ending, pierced by the swords. But here I have the makings of an interesting villainous character. Of course! He comes from a privileged background. He enjoys a successful and even pastoral life, at least on the surface. But what hidden influences, what darkness or evil is at work in this man’s life? Why and how does he misuse his gifts?
The cards have given me the foundation for a character who embraces many contradictory forces in his life. What we find in the cards presents the author with copious possibilities while still providing a framework for developing a villain who is perhaps all too human. He’s innovative and wealthy and lives a life that most of us can only dream of. He begins life with every advantage the world offers — great parents, wealth, security, and apparently a creative and resolute mind. What does he do with his gifts, what fateful choices does he make that bring him to his violent end?
All of this was revealed through the layout and readings from the cards. And, if I ever need further help exploring his character, all I have to do is draw more cards and ask what each one tells me about my villain with his seemingly incongruous traits.
Organizing Chapter Outlines
One of the more challenging tasks of writing a book is organizing it. That task is almost magically accomplished with the help of the cards. In dozens of workshops, and with hundreds of authors I’ve coached over the years, I’ve seen this process work over and over again, often to my own amazement. The first time was quite out of the blue. One of my students, Carla, was an intuitive counselor and very much at home working with Tarot cards. The class had been exploring character development and clearing writer’s block, and at the end of one of our brainstorming sessions Carla mentioned that she was going half-crazy trying to organize her manuscript. Her book was about two-thirds written, but some of the chapters weren’t quite coming together for her and she wasn’t happy with the sequencing of the information. On a whim, I said let’s try the cards.
We began by deciding, somewhat arbitrarily, how many chapters there would be. Carla said she wanted there to be eleven plus an introduction. She shuffled her Tarot cards, fanned them out facedown on the work table, and then picked out eleven chapter cards, plus one for the introduction. She now had a row of twelve cards, still facedown on the table before her. One by one, as the class watched, she began turning the cards over, starting with chapter 1. She first looked at each card and recited its meaning. Then she free-associated, naming how the material in the book related to each reading. She went through all eleven cards while one of her classmates recorded the session on her digital recorder. Amazingly, by the end not only did Carla have a plan for organizing the book, but she knew how she was going to reorganize three of the chapters and now knew what she needed to say in two of the chapters she hadn’t even begun to write.
It takes a while to get used to this way of working. When we’re stuck or we feel just plain wrung out and without a grain of creativity left, our brains long for order. We want a clear path to follow. But working with divination systems as I’ve described calls upon the right hemisphere of our brains, the ancient creative-intuitive capacities. Think of the Tarot deck as a bridge between the two hemispheres of your brain, assisting you in the passage from the linear to the intuitive. Above all, be playful with the process. Don’t try to force anything; it will lead you where you didn’t know you wanted to go, but you will be delighted when you arrive.
Copyright 2010 by Hal Zina Bennett. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
Teaser image by Wm Jas, courtesy of Creative Commons license.