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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.

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