Tarot, NaNoWriMo and You

We’re nearly a week into National Novel Writing Month, and I’m taking a break from writing The Fantastical Adventures of the Working Title to share a little bit about my process.

Until a few weeks ago, when it came to fiction writing, I didn’t have one. That’s one of the reasons I avoided participating in NaNoWriMo (as all the cool kids call it) until this year. Okay, that’s not quite true. I flirted with the possibility last year, secretly working on a nonfiction book manuscript — which ended up being a lot more difficult to stick with, and a lot less fun than working on a steampunk fantasy where I get to spend time “researching” by watching Downton Abbey and old Jane Austen films (and yes, I know they’re from very different time periods… I’m averaging them).

My training and background in creative writing is in poetry. I’ve had poetry published in honest-to-goodness magazines (for which I’ve been paid honest-to-goodness money, if you can believe it), and I’ve even had a short chapbook of poems published several years ago. At some point, I decided there was no real money in poetry, and in any case, I ended up happily married recently, which means I won’t be making it big on the American poetry scene again until I am either jilted by love through the process of a bitter divorce, or end up an old white person reflecting with ironic distance on the follies of youth and how everyone I’ve loved is dead now, except this old dog who barks now and then as the hours pass. In the meantime, I turned to blogging and essays, which I like very much. But I don’t have very much discipline.

In case you haven’t noticed, poems are short. Blog posts are, apparently, ideally between 650 – 800 words, so they’re fairly short, too. I had absolutely no process in place for sustaining a long-term writing project of any kind.

Enter: the Tarot.

Jeff recently procured for himself the new Steampunk Tarot deck by Barbara Moore and artist Aly Fell. I hated it. I loved the idea of a steampunk tarot, but I thought the illustrations were dark, dirty and unattractive. Jeff liked it, but his relationship with the deck was complicated, so it ended up sitting on the shelf unused most of the time.

Since I was working on a steampunk novel, I asked him if I could borrow the deck to use for visual inspiration. He asked the deck its opinion, and got the go ahead. And a beautiful friendship was born. There are aspects of this deck I hadn’t appreciated until I began working with it regularly. (And Moore’s insights in the accompanying book are fantastic in their own right.) Now, I’ve settled into a simple routine that has simplified my writing sessions and loosened up my creative writing muscles (and I’m already quickly closing in on 15,000 words — that’s almost a third of the way done before the end of the first week!).

Here’s how it goes:

(1) Draw a three card spread. (2) Sit in meditation for ten minutes. (3) Write for forty minutes.

The whole process takes about an hour, and I repeat it whenever my writing begins to slow down to a snail’s pace and I find myself taking twenty minutes to describe the minute details of the brocade pillows on the chaise lounge where the heroine has been reclining awkwardly waiting for her narrator to realize nobody gives a shit about brocade pillows.

I have a few favorite three-card spreads that I use to shake me out of those moments of lethargy and myopia, but my favorite one by far is the Character in Tension spread. It looks like this:

Card 1: The character. This card represents the viewpoint or main character of the scene, and the external circumstances that she will be facing as the narrative progresses.

Cards 2 and 3: These two cards represent tensions that pull the character in opposite directions as she tries to navigate the external circumstances. They might represent other characters in the scene, or internal psychological turmoil. There is absolutely no guarantee that these tensions will be resolved by the time the scene is over but, in true steampunk fashion, they are the fire and water elements that combine to create pressure that drive the narrative forward (and serve to temper the character as she evolves through the story).

This spread has been incredibly useful in helping me to connect with the inner essence of my characters as I write, as well as the larger social patterns and ideas that they’re playing out through the story. For instance, I recently sat down to write a scene in which the main character, Dara (an automaton), must deal with sexual harassment at a high society party. How would Dara respond? I drew three cards. On the left, the Knight of Cups burst in on the scene, all romance and energy and melodrama. On the right, the King of Swords stood in his library, quiet and calculating, all fatherly authority and intellect. And in the middle, the Two of Swords, a girl blindfolded and holding two heavy swords out to either side, trying to balance on her tiptoes on an electrified gear in the middle of a rushing stream. Not the best place to be. Moore describes the card in the book as one of: Lalala I can’t hear you, everything is fine, I’m just going to keep on investing all my energy into pretending things are cool even when I’m suspended in an abyss of water and air. This was exactly Dara’s position, pulled between the tensions of her intellectual side and her emotional side in a society that gave her credit for possessing neither. The three-card drawing allowed me to ground in a strong sense of Dara’s inner world before moving on to write the action of the scene.

What I’ve found to be the most important part of this writing process, though, is the ten minute meditation between the tarot reading and the forty minutes of actual writing. During this meditation, I do not attempt to explore the images of the cards or analyze how exactly they will fit into the scene. Instead, the cards become a visual koan. I hold the images loosely, allowing them to settle while I clear my mind of any interfering thoughts. I let one-liners and turns of phrase float to the surface of my mind and then sink again, not trying to grasp any too firmly. When I find one that seems to still have some buoyancy after the ten minutes of meditation are up, I start there and begin to write.

If I were you, I’d be skeptical of this approach. I always thought using a tarot deck to write would surely result in a kind of mishmash Alice in Wonderland kind of story, where random things happened for no obvious reason. But believe it or not, if used in the right way (and alongside a healthy dose of revision to refine later drafts), it works surprisingly well.

There are a few other spreads that I’ve used, and a few more I want to experiment with throughout the rest of the month. I’d love to hear if anyone else has tried this technique, and what spreads they’ve found most helpful during the process!

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

3 Comments

  1. Angelique
    Nov 8, 2013

    I am also writing Nano for the first time, I am using tarot cards and the Fool’s Path as well as a basis for the magic in the world, each suit with their element, but I will now determinately try your approach as well.

  2. Angelique
    Nov 8, 2013

    Sorry I missed that this was a year ago.

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