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Tarot As A Tool For Writing

How archetypal images can help with story-telling

Death Tarot card

The tarot is most commonly regarded as a tool for divination. Many associate it with crystal balls, fortune tellers and fairgrounds. Some are wary of the cards, some view them as superstitious nonsense. Monotheistic religious traditions regard their esoteric images as profane. I suggest that tarot might also be viewed as an encyclopaedia of archetypes that can serve as a comprehensive tool for telling stories, helping to develop character and connecting mythical, classical and modern modes, to deepen and expand the scope of writing.

I first encountered tarot in horror films and stories, where the appearance of the Death card with its scythe-wielding skeleton usually heralds the demise of at least one character. I was curious to see what a reading might be like, and at the same time nervous about what the cards might reveal. What if I couldn’t cope with a tragic prediction? What if I was messing with forces beyond my control? Instead, with a skilful reader as guide, the experience turned out to be illuminating in ways I hadn’t expected. The Death card, I learned, is about so much more than literal death — it’s about endings, psychological shift, transformation. Each card contained within its vivid image a plethora of symbols which triggered questions that took me into myself and beyond myself at the same time.

Here, I realised, was a universal language for the imagination, personal and collective. As a writer of fiction, I felt like a traveler who has found a compass and set of charts for sailing into unknown oceans. What tarot offers me is at once a medium for the release and focus of creative exploration as well as providing building blocks for storytelling. The wariness about working with these images is wise; they are potent. So, I emphasise the need for handling them in a careful and contemplative way.

Tarot is believed to have acquired its name from the fifteenth-century set of cards, Tarocchi. This consisted of four suits of fourteen cards, along with a fifth suit of twenty-two, that came to be known as trumps, making a total of seventy-eight cards. Painted by artist Bonifacio Bembo, the pictures portrayed types from contemporary society, including some unconventional images, e.g. a female pope. The Renaissance also saw alchemical studies thrive. As the cards proliferated, developing into the diamonds/clubs/spades/hearts decks used for gaming and gambling, mystical and religious imagery increasingly mingled with social and political elements. Today there are hundreds of different decks available, each with its own distinctive visual language from Greek mythology to the futuristic Steampunk deck.

Whatever the deck, each one begins with some interpretation of The Fool, numbered 0. There are four minor ‘suits’ or ‘arcana’, and one major comprising 22 cards. This offers a blueprint for the essential mythical journey or story shape. The Fool is the naïf, carefree and full of childlike curiosity, at the start of a journey, often depicted at the edge of a cliff, stepping forward. So not only is this a central character – like Cinderella, Jack, or Red Riding Hood – taking the uninformed reader off on an adventure, but this Fool also symbolises the artist at the beginning of a project, with no idea how it is going to turn out.

Each day, as part of my daily practice, I write without stopping to music. Often, I might pull out a card and reflect in writing on what it reveals today: feelings, images, current events, whatever. I also practice free-form story-shaping by selecting a number of cards at random and taking a character I am developing for a piece on the random journey they suggest. For example, how does s/he experience travelling from the comfortable, family home (suggested by Ten of Pentacles) to an encounter with the Emperor, a father figure, that leads to the disappointment symbolised by the Five of Cups with its spilt vessels? Without exception, I learn something unexpected and revealing about a character by taking them on a test journey through whatever symbolic moments emerge.

In 2005, I served for just over a year as Pearson Creative Research Fellow at the British Library. The brief was to research a subject of personal fascination by exploring the collection, gathering material to make a piece of work. My subject was Magic. As the year evolved, I found myself making connections between the practice of writing and the art of magic-making: both prestidigitation (‘fake’ magic for entertainment) and shamanism (‘real’ magic for healing). The tarot card of the Magician, creative artist, is the first archetype in the deck that the Fool encounters on the journey from innocence to experience.

The Magician in the Rider Waite deck, drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, is a male figure beside a golden pentacle, goblet (cup), wooden staff (wand) and sword. These also represent the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. The Magician’s right hand holds a wand pointing heavenward, the left hand points down to the ground — here is a living conductor through which earth and celestial dimensions meet. In other decks, female or non-gender figures embodying this alchemical artist energy are depicted. These elements, these cards, are the creative resources.

In the course of my research, I encountered Coleridge’s musings on imagination and creativity; William Blake’s mystical texts and images; discovered that Charles Dickens was a wonderful conjuror who would entertain family and friends for hours with his sleight of hand. I was fortunate enough to have access to Arthur Conan-Doyle’s mind-blowing and hand-written transcripts of his transcendental meditations (recently acquired and still be included in the catalogue). I also burrowed into the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I was reminded that tarot features in T.S Eliot’s classic poem The Waste Land which includes a reading given by Madame Sosostris, ‘the wisest woman in Europe’.

The result was a booklet, A Writer’s Magic Notebook, in which I invited the reader into the workings of the mysterious yet methodical process by which the writer as Magician creates original pieces of work from the ether and the elements.

After the Magician, the Fool encounters the High Priestess, a mysterious, feminine figure, intuitive, and silent, who reminds us to trust our inner wisdom. Then the Empress, fertile life giver and mother figure; the Emperor, a father figure; the Hierophant (Priest), representing orthodoxy; the Lovers, sexual relationship; the Chariot, progress and ambition; and so on. Other significant cards in the tarot include the Hermit, symbolising inner self-knowledge; the Wheel of Fortune; the Hanged Man, meaning sacrifice; and Death, which relates to endings. Match any work to this template and it can highlight that a piece of writing in development is or isn’t working.

Most recently, I have been writing the libretto for an oratorio with spoken word, inspired by the biblical text in Genesis that refers briefly to the only daughter of patriarch Jacob (lesser-known, half-sister of Joseph of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame). In Song of Dina, I wanted to give this marginalised daughter her own voice. The biblical story does not end well, is brutal and tragic and excludes her perspective. So how to imagine what on earth it might be? I turned to tarot to enable me to probe more deeply. Drawing on cards such as the Eight of Swords, with its blindfolded figure surrounded by swords, I was able to explore my character’s sense of powerlessness in relation to her family, and chart the process by which she was able to find a way through loss and destruction.

In the times in which we live, seismic events are occurring. We need to look as much inward into the mysteries as we do outward to the everyday world in all its anarchic unfolding and make connections between the two. How are we as artists to process and shape the stories and different kinds of work that address the different levels of realty that are coalescing so potently? For me, writing is a form of daily existential enquiry, a way of facing what I might prefer to avoid and harnessing all of these mystical and literal elements. The language of tarot feeds in to the aspect of a writing life that is a meditative practice, serving as a bridge between the most intimate and personal, and collective worldly affairs.

Diane Samuels’ work includes the award-winning play Kindertransport and a book about the play, Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport, as well as  The True-Life Fiction of Mata Hari and Poppy+George. Diane has also written widely for BBC radio, including the Woman’s Hour serial Tiger Wings.

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