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Tarot for total beginners: Wrap-up

Copy of Suck it up and (3)I’ve just written a whole series on tarot for total beginners and how you can write using tarot. I thought I’d link all the posts here in case you want to read through them, or pick the ones that will be helpful to you.

How I got started using tarot cards to write

How to choose a tarot deck that will work for you

How to get started using your tarot deck

How to plan a (writing) project using tarot cards

I also have a podcast with four fun writing and tarot-related prompts–here’s the episode + shownotes (and here are the archives of all my writing-related podcasts).

I would *love* to hear how you use tarot cards to write. Please tell me in the comments here–what’s your favorite way to use tarot cards? Do you use them to write? What spread or question is your go-to?

You can also follow me on Instagram or Twitter, and tag me! I’m @likesoatmeal and I love love love hearing from readers and writers.

Sign up here to get the Scratch Paper Newsletter — a real look at my writing life. As a bonus, I’ll send you Suck It Up and Revise, my down-to-earth guide to revision, for free. If you enjoyed the practical advice in this series, I think you’ll like it!


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Tarot for total beginners: Planning a (writing) project with the Major Arcana

Hello, faithful readers! This is the fourth in a series of posts about how to get started using tarot to read and write for yourself and others. I kicked it off with how I got started using tarot cards. Then, I shared how to pick a deck that will work for you. Next, I got into how you can use them to do simple readings and learn card meanings. Today, I’m sharing some specific ways to use tarot to plan a rough draft, especially for fiction. If you don’t already get these posts in your inbox, sign up here to follow along (plus get a free copy of Suck It Up and Revise, my writing guide allllll about revision). 

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The Major Arcana

I’ve mentioned before that when I bought my first deck of tarot cards, I planned to use them to write a novel. I’d read enough about tarot to know that the Major Arcana is a bit like the hero’s journey; it’s an archetypal trip through time. The Major Arcana begins with a card called the Fool, which is numbered zero. The Fool represents the beginning of a journey, which might be literal or metaphorical. The Fool progresses through phases, encountering or transforming into archetypes such as the Empress or the Lone/Hanged Man. The idea is that life is actually a continuous cycle; once The Fool passes through many phases of life, they achieve enlightenment (represented in The World card) and then the cycle begins all over again.

The Major Arcana represent many moments, experiences, and transformations. I often think of them as “big” cards; they depict the major turning points in a person’s life. This might mean significant choices you make, such as who you marry, where you move, what job you take, what career you train for. It might also include important events in your life, like the death of a loved one or the birth of a sibling or a child.

Interpreting the “big” cards

To give you an example, let’s go back to the Empress. I am particularly drawn to this card at this point in my life because I’m in, for lack of a better term, the baby-making years. I have a toddler and am expecting another child. When I look at the Empress, I see symbols of fertility. Illustrations vary from deck to deck, but there are often fruits or wheat included in this card, maternal or female symbols, a crown, and animals or children. My Empress holds a staff with a lotus on the top, nurses a baby, and is clearly pregnant. She sits on a throne and is surrounded by a lamb, a rabbit, and a butterfly. The setting is lush and green, with pine trees, birds, and deer in the background. Everything about it seems fruitful.

This type of meandering observation is exactly what I use to understand and glean meaning from the Major Arcana. I see the Empress as a symbol of me right now. I can see my surroundings as peaceful and verdant; I’m lucky to live in a safe home with a loving family. The Empress is a powerful person, even though she is pregnant. There are so many things that I can’t do while pregnant; it’s empowering for me to look at this card and remember what my body is doing.

These reflections show how positive about motherhood I’m feeling right now. At other times, I’ve looked at this card and thought: Well, that’s ridiculous. No way would a woman look that happy while pregnant AND nursing.

Motherhood is a complicated role to play, and this card captures many aspects of the role for me. To someone who isn’t a mother, it might represent something totally different: feminine power, dominion over the Earth and our bond to it, a person’s own mother and her role in their life. Though the symbolism is the same, the meaning changes for each person who looks at the card. I’m sure the meaning will change for me if I draw it again in a few years, or even a few months.

The Major Arcana as a journey

Because the Major Arcana represent phases or changes, significant moments and people, they can be used to structure a story. The journey depicted by the Major Arcana includes ups and downs, twists, retreats, and rebirths. For example, the Wheel of Fortune can be interpreted as a chaos card; it occurs midway through the fool’s journey and includes symbols related to birth and death, and a figure who bowing or surrendering to the cosmos. Strength, on the other hand, includes a figure on top of a lion, riding confidently. It might represent control. The Close represents death, while the Star represents a moment of triumph.

Brainstorm with the Major Arcana

One way to use the Major Arcana to plan a project is to lay out the cards in order, beginning with the Fool. Pick up each card in order and meditate on it. Ask yourself:

  • What jumps out at you?
  • What overall impression do you get?
  • How do the symbols relate to each other in the card?
  • What details do you notice?

Write down your thoughts. Brainstorm like this for each card, making notes as you go. If a story jumps out at you, great!

If not, try taking a break and returning to the project later. Free write for a set period of time—at least ten or twenty minutes—about the cards and what you noticed. Walk away and let the cards and their path percolate.

Ways to mix it up

You can do many variations on this. First, separate the Major Arcana from the rest of the cards and shuffle them.

  • Draw cards one at a time and lay them out in the order that they appear, reflecting and making notes on each one.
  • Choose a card, and begin your journey there, proceeding in number order. When you reach The World (card 21), begin again with the Fool.
  • If you already have a plot or character in mind, draw a card when you run out of ideas to spark new plot points, introduce new characters, or change the scene.

How I used the Major Arcana to plan a novel

When I wrote my tarot-inspired novel–my manuscript WAIT–I began with a general outline in mind. I knew there would be a psychic, and I knew she would become involved with an evangelical family. The main drama would surround the family’s foster daughter, who for some unknown reason had stopped talking. I also had a vague idea that the psychic would be in love with her roommate—but I didn’t know how that would turn out, or even if the roommate reciprocated.

I began writing using this outline and the Major Arcana. I named each chapter after each card in the Major Arcana, beginning with card zero. I studied each card before I wrote the outline. The symbols in the card helped me set the scene, incorporate minor characters, and even inspired some animal interactions (such as when a desert hare ran in front of the psychic’s car). I tried to soak up the vibe of the card and let it permeate the mood of the chapter; if it was a dark, heavy card, like the Close, I let the chapter’s mood be bleak and hopeless. The Wheel of Fortune chapter was a total upheaval of the plotline; I made everything I could explode.

Beyond helping me make decisions about each chapter, the Major Arcana determined the timing of the plot. When I wrote all I could about the Fool, it was time to move onto the Magician—and so on. I didn’t dictate the length of each chapter; I just wrote until I ran out of scenes to include or things to meditate on. Though the chapters varied wildly in length, I felt the story was cohesive. It had ups and downs, plot twists and moments of pause.

In the end, I removed the titles from each of the chapters and just numbered them, splitting them up roughly every ten pages, when there was a break in the action. Don’t be afraid to depart from your original outline or the tools that you use to set it up. Tarot cards were like scaffolding to my story; once the draft was done, it didn’t need them anymore—and in fact, they were in the way.

To sum up:

  • One way to use the Major Arcana is as an archetypal journey that a main character or story can take.
  • Try different ways of ordering and drawing the Major Arcana to brainstorm your story or structure an idea for a plot.
  • It’s OK to let go of this structure once you’ve outlined or written your draft—or at any point.

Cheers and hope you are enjoying this series. Pop back in next week (or sign up below) to follow along.

Want to get the next post in your inbox? Sign up here for my newsletter! As a thank you, I’ll send you my guide to revising, Suck It Up and Revise. It’s full of down-to-earth, useful advice and exercises to get you revising your draft today (no matter what shape it’s in).

Sign up here to get these posts in your inbox:

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Tarot for total beginners: Learn card meanings by doing your own readings

Hello, faithful readers! This is the third in a series of posts about how to get started using tarot to read and write for yourself and others. I kicked it off with how I got started using tarot cards. Then, I shared how to pick a deck that will work for you. Now, I’ll go into how you can use them to do simple readings and learn card meanings. I’ll finish up with some specific ways to use tarot to plan and write, particularly fiction. If you don’t already get these posts in your inbox, sign up here to follow along (plus get a free copy of Suck It Up and Revise, my writing guide allllll about revision). 

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How to use your tarot deck

Once you have a deck of tarot cards, the next step is to do some readings. There are dozens of online resources to show you “basic” readings, which in actuality range from truly easy to quite complex. I have never done a spread—another word for a reading—with more than three or four cards. Most of my spreads are either one or three cards.

When I was first learning about my own deck, I picked one card each day (or whenever I had a free moment) and simply looked at it. I didn’t ask any questions or try to get a specific meaning from it. I noted the symbols that jumped out at me and the “vibe” the card gave me: positive, negative, neutral? Ominous, hopeful? Something in between?

For a while, I also journaled about each card, just to see what kinds of reflections I came up with. Because I picked randomly, there was no order to what I wrote about—Major and Minor Arcana were mixed together.

This is a fun way to familiarize yourself with your own deck. It focuses on what I think is the most important aspect of tarot reading: your intuition. It’s not overwhelming; if you look at a card a day, you’ll have seen the whole deck in just over two months.

After looking and journaling about the cards (or maybe in between) I read the interpretation of the card given in the booklet that came with my deck. Sometimes I looked up card meanings online—even though most are for the Rider-Waite deck, the illustrations are similar in basic content across decks.

Don’t worry about memorizing

My approach feels like a novice’s approach. I didn’t memorize the meaning of each card, and I still haven’t. I didn’t buy a tarot reference book. Two years later, I still rely on the little booklet that came with my deck and my own observations.

There is a part of me that wonders if I am doing it wrong—this feels too easy. When I sit for readings, the tarot reader never reaches for her miniature booklet of meanings.

But my goal as a tarot card reader is to read for myself. I do it because I enjoy it; if I forced myself to memorize the meanings and interpretations of each of the tarot cards, tarot reading would lose some of its charm. I do wish I knew more about the suits, but that’s part of the beauty of tarot; you can always explore something new.

Just because a tool engages your intuition doesn’t mean it is any less valuable or important than one that requires months or years of study.

Some simple spreads to start with

A spread is a configuration of cards in a particular pattern. There are two basic spreads, plus two variations, that I use constantly. I acquired all of these from seeing readings done. There is no limit to the arrangement of cards that you pick, and if you don’t like these two, don’t use them! But they are a very easy place to start.

The first spread comes from the very first reading I had. Think of a question (more on this below). Shuffle the cards, then spread them out in a horizontal line (the way a magician does). Without thinking about it too much, pick a random card and flip it over.

The second is a variation of the first: after you ask a question, instead of spreading out the cards, simply pick the top card and flip it over.

The other spread I use most often is called Past-Present-Future. You will find this spread on online readers. Shuffle the cards and ask your question. Then, cut the deck into three piles. There are a few variations here: you can leave the cards cut in three piles and choose the top card from each. Or, you can restack the cut piles and pick the top three cards.

Either way, lay out the cards in a horizontal line. The left card is the past, the center card the present, and the right card the future.

A variation on this spread is Present-Path-Future. In this spread, the left card represents the present, the right card the future, and the center card is the path between them.

Branching out into new spreads

Even on these simple spreads, you can see that there is plenty of room for variation. You can pick the card or cards in a different order, or lay them out in a different order. You can ask your question before or after you shuffle. You can close your eyes when you choose a card.

You can also expand or change these spreads. Maybe you want to try doing a four-card spread: Past, Present, Path, and Future. Maybe instead of drawing one card to answer a question, you draw two. Or maybe you draw cards until you reach a Major Arcana.

Use your intuition and look around for new readings. You can read books on tarot, have a tarot reading done for you in a shop, or search online for different spreads. I’ve found new spreads by following fellow amateur readers on social media. It’s fun to see how other folks use the cards to answer questions and explore their own intuition.

Create your own rituals

Even though it’s a bit cart-before-the-horse, I start with these basic spreads because as I mentioned before, doing is the easiest way to learn for me. Though tarot is an intuitive or spiritual tool—or perhaps because it is—I don’t believe there’s a way to truly do it wrong. So, even though the guidelines that follow are about minute details, like how to shuffle your deck, the way you choose to do your own readings will be the right way for you. Don’t do anything that feels silly or unnecessary, and add in anything you like.

Shuffling the deck. If you like, you can develop a small ritual that you do before each reading. As M.J. Abadie points out in her excellent book Tarot for Teens, rituals center us, and it almost doesn’t matter what that ritual is, as long as you do the same thing each time.

Here are some sample rituals: shuffle three, nine, or some set number of times. Shuffle with the cards facing in one direction, then the other. Always shuffle with the cards facing the same direction. Instead of shuffling, turn the deck over in your hands and think of making it your own tool. Handle the deck carefully.

Asking a question. This is another spot that can hang you up. Do what feels right: ask your question out loud or in silence. Write it down, if you like. Ask your question before you pick up your deck, while you are shuffling or handling the deck, or after you shuffle. Or, ask at all three points.

Try different things and see what feels good to you. If you feel bored or are having trouble finding meaning in your readings, change up your ritual or adopt a totally new one. Try doing your tarot readings in a new place or at a different time of day. Try playing music or doing your readings in silence. Try journaling before or after.

This is your practice; make it unique and special to you!

Asking the “right” question

It is very tempting to ask “What will happen to me/my project/my family/my career/my passion?” or “Should I do X?”

Tarot cards are a tool, and I try to treat them as an extension of my intuition or my subconscious. I try not to think of them as a crystal ball. It can be difficult and frustrating to try to glean a black and white answer from an image of celestial beings, animals, and medieval characters. It might be more useful to you to ask an open-ended question.

Typical questions that I ask include:

  • What should I know going into this project?
  • What should I know about this project/trip/job/event?
  • What should I concentrate on in my work/family/life right now?
  • What should I focus on in my work/family/life today?
  • What do I need to pay attention to right now?
  • What do I need to know about my work/family/life?

That being said, ask what you like! I did one of my most exciting readings just before I started on my tarot-exploration novel. I had been mulling over two new book ideas, a nonfiction sequel to a manuscript I’d written years prior about my (ongoing) spiritual journey, and a novel about a psychic that would rely on the Major Arcana to structure the plot. I asked the cards which project I should focus on and drew one card: Illusion. The answer seemed obvious to me: write the fiction project! I started on that novel and never looked back (it became Wait, currently out on submission).

I don’t think the answer would have been as clear if my subconscious had been fuzzy on the better choice. Deep down, I think I already knew what I wanted to do—embark on a crazy tarot-related adventure, try something new, and take a break from “heavy” writing. The novel turned out to be just as heavy and dark as anything else I’ve written—but I couldn’t know that at the time. The tarot cards confirmed what I was feeling deep down.

To sum up:

  • Familiarize yourself with your deck by looking at a card each day. Try journaling about the cards.
  • Don’t worry about memorizing every card’s meaning. It’s perfectly fine to use a book or simply do readings using an online tarot reader.
  • Rely on your intuition when asking questions, shuffling or creating a pre-reading ritual, and drawing cards for spreads.
  • Start with simple spreads and tweak them until they become useful to you.
  • Try asking open-ended questions.
  • You can do all of these things with an online card reader! Instead of shuffling, close your eyes, or light a candle. Create your own rituals for whatever you need or want to do.

Cheers and hope you are enjoying this series. Pop back in next week (or sign up below) to follow along.

Want to get the next post in your inbox? Sign up here for my newsletter! As a thank you, I’ll send you my guide to revising, Suck It Up and Revise. It’s full of down-to-earth, useful advice and exercises to get you revising your draft today (no matter what shape it’s in).

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Tarot for total beginners: How to choose a tarot deck you will enjoy using

Hello, faithful readers! This is the second in a series of posts about how to get started using tarot to read and write for yourself and others. I kicked it off with how I got started using tarot cards. Next, I’ll go into how you can use them (everything from finding a deck to some simple readings you can do to start). I’ll finish up with some specific ways to use tarot to plan and write, particularly fiction. If you don’t already get these posts in your inbox, sign up here to follow along (plus get a free copy of Suck It Up and Revise, my writing guide allllll about revision). 

Copy of Suck it up and (3)Choosing a tarot deck to start with

There are dozens of tarot decks to choose from. Some are a few hundred years old, some are brand new—I walked past two women designing a tarot deck at a coffee shop the other day. You can make your own tarot deck; my friend Meg designed hers based on themes she found in poems.

It can be overwhelming for a beginner—a total beginner, like I was—to know where to begin. And unfortunately, tarot decks tend to be expensive; you probably don’t want to buy more than one to start.

But great news! There is an easy way to decide which deck is for you.

The basics

All tarot decks have 78 cards, including 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana cards. The Major Arcana follow the journey of the Fool through stages of life that include enlightenment, despair, love, death, and rebirth. The Minor Arcana include four suits that vary slightly from deck to deck: swords, wands or rods, coins or pentacles, and cups or cauldrons. You might find other variations based on the theme of your deck.

When you go shopping for a deck, it’s helpful if all of the cards have pictures on them. Some decks do not include illustrations for the Minor Arcana; they simply have the number and a repeated symbol for each of the suits (much like a regular deck of cards; the six of rods simply shows six rods).

This is really the only piece of information you need to know before you look for a deck.

That being said, if you are a history buff or like to begin at the beginning, the Rider-Waite (or Rider-Waite-Smith) deck is a bit like the Ur-deck for tarot. If you’ve seen images from tarot cards in popular culture, they probably came from this deck; they are bright orange and yellow and full of art from the Renaissance. Many tarot reference books use the Rider-Waite deck to explain the meanings of the cards. Other decks can be thought of as interpretations of this deck, to some extent.

Follow your intuition

There are many places to find tarot decks. You can look for a local New Age shop or a local or chain bookstore. You can also look online. Look for a deck that appeals to you, then check to see if the Minor Arcana are illustrated; I think it is easier to interpret these decks when you’re just starting out. But—go with your gut! If you find a deck that you love, give it a try.

I didn’t begin with the Rider-Waite deck—the brightness of the illustrations didn’t appeal to me, and I wanted a female-centric one. Although the Rider-Waite deck was illustrated by a woman—Patricia Smith—it reflected a male-ish (or at least mixed) sensibility to me. At the time that I bought my deck (and frankly, still now), I was on a serious feminine divine kick. Anything that reminded me of men in a spiritual setting didn’t interest me.

Maybe that’s not fair—but your idiosyncratic preferences are a great place to start. Tarot cards are a tool for your intuition. If they don’t appeal to you on a basic level—if you don’t like looking at them—it’s going to be difficult to look for messages that are meaningful to you.

One of my friends didn’t get started reading tarot in earnest until she bought an herbally-focused deck. This deck has no people in it at all, only flowers, herbs, and other plants. The deck speaks to her; it connects her more deeply to nature, which is an important part of her life and her personality. She lives in a tiny house and forages and sells dried herbs for a living.

The best advice I’ve read for buying a deck of your own comes from M.J. Abadie’s Tarot for Teens (which I highly recommend, even though I’m 31!). Abadie recommends you go to a store and pick up—literally, with your hands—the decks that appeal to you. You probably won’t be able to unwrap and look through the cards, but use the cards printed on the box as an indicator; if you don’t like them, you probably won’t like the style of this particular deck.

How I chose my tarot cards

When I decided to buy my own deck, I drove to a New Age shop in Seattle and asked to look at three or four decks. Without thinking about it too much, I settled on Tarot of the Old Path. I liked the naked ladies on the front and back, representing the High Priestess and the World, and I liked the symbols they incorporated—crescent moons, stars, deer and even a unicorn. I liked the blue-green of the box the cards came in.

This deck has served me well. I enjoy interpreting the illustrations, and I’ve found it fun and easy to use. Its only drawback is the homogeneity of the characters depicted. The Old Path is a very white-woman-oriented path.

If you aren’t ready or can’t buy a deck right now, that’s fine, too. Before I took the plunge with my own deck, I used a free (anonymous) online reader. An online reader will tell you to ask a question and choose the type of reading you want (for example, a one-card reading or a three-card reading). You click, and it gives you an answer. I found one on the Llewellyn publishing company website, but you can just search for “tarot reading” online. (I still sometimes use it when I’m feeling lazy or want to look at something new.)

To sum up

  • Tarot decks have 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana and 56 Minor Arcana.
  • Some decks do not include illustrations for each of the Minor Arcana; keep this in mind when looking for your own deck.
  • If possible, literally touch and look at a deck before you buy it. Try New Age shops and bookstores.
  • If you can’t, don’t fret! Start with the Rider-Waite deck. Order one online and get started.
  • Not ready or able to buy a deck? No problem. Use a free one online.

Cheers and hope you are enjoying this series. Pop back in next week (or sign up below) to follow along.

Want to get the next post in your inbox? Sign up here for my newsletter! As a thank you, I’ll send you my guide to revising, Suck It Up and Revise. It’s full of down-to-earth, useful advice and exercises to get you revising your draft today (no matter what shape it’s in).

Sign up here to get these posts in your inbox: