Consulting Tarot Cards

Erika Hoffman details her experience in a writing workshop that challenged participants to use tarot cards to generate story ideas through a series of writing exercises.
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I recently attended a workshop because its title intrigued me: “Tarot Writing.”

In the 70s, I purchased a deck of tarot cards. Back then, they were ubiquitous in stores, along with backgammon boards. Fads come and go. I’ve not heard much about tarot cards since that era. I lost my never-used pack.

I don’t know much about fortune telling besides the vague notion that psychics employ the cards in some capacity during soothsaying. I hoped the workshop would offer some form of enlightenment. Maybe a great story idea would arise after observing the cards and divining their meanings?

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Each attendee was handed a tarot card interpretation sheet with the cards’ descriptions and the idea each one represented. The cards a person draws are a means by which that person can interpret and analyze his life. For instance, one might pick a card from the pack and turn it over to discover it’s an Ace of Swords. If so, the corresponding abstract idea is "clarity." Let’s say you turn over the Seven of Wands; that stands for "perseverance."

The assignment was to choose five cards from the stack, then locate on the interpretive sheet the corresponding abstract idea, and next come up with three concrete words for each idea. For example, one of my cards was the Ten of Wands, which symbolizes “burden.” I wrote: wheelchair, wedding ring, timeshare. Next, I turned over the Queen of Pentacles, representing "maternity." I wrote: breast pump, C-section scar, Desitin.

One attendee called out that she was stumped by her card’s abstract idea.

“What is it?” inquired the instructor.


I laughed aloud. That is a head scratcher.

I found myself surprised at how many of the writers wrote down other nebulous ideas to clarify an abstract idea, or some wrote long winding paragraphs instead of three concrete nouns.

The purpose of this exercise wasn’t for us to become clairvoyants, but instead to generate ideas for writing in general; however, the instructor didn’t emphasize the main point enough, which should have been that a writer needs to appeal to a reader’s senses.

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If something is tactile, we grasp the idea behind it. One of the many famous sentences in The Great Gatsby is this: “So we beat on, boats against the current borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Whoever has paddled a rowboat against the wind and tide understands the struggle to keep progressing and not be pushed back to where one came from. And by this metaphor, we understand how difficult it is to strive to get ahead only to fall back repeatedly into past unhealthy habits, addictions or wrong-headed thinking.

One woman in the class said her abstract idea was “bereavement,” and she thought of “black crepe” for her concrete noun. She elaborated by saying in the Jewish faith, black crepe is placed on doors to mark someone’s passing.

Her comment evoked a memory of a poem I recollected reading in childhood about black cloth on beehives, symbolizing the death of a young beekeeper, Mary. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that ballad, “Telling the Bees.” In it, he depicts a situation by relying on sensory details. A young man is going to visit his sweetheart whom he’s not seen in a while. He happily muses on sights along the path to her farmhouse until he reaches the beehives, draped in black crepe. Immediately, we understand his astonishment and pain.

The second exercise assigned was vaguer. Again, we chose six cards. The first card represented "what holds you back," the second "what can’t be changed," the third "what to let go of, the fourth "what to protect," the fifth "what to learn," and the sixth "what to hope for."

She emphasized that these writing exercises crossed genres. Our six picture cards evoked widely different thoughts in the three of us women who were seated at the same table sharing a deck. The first allegorical illustration of a dog and the moon made me think of the fear of finding out you’re not who you think you are. The second card of a colorfully dressed man made me imagine a young girl wishing this fellow to become her sweetheart, but all's in vain because he’s not attracted to her gender; the third card of a goblet with a heart in it made me think of temptation, of a snaky addiction. And so, it went.

What I’d initially deemed hokey writing prompts stirred up memories and my imagination. Just by pairing a picture with an abstract idea created storylines in my mind’s eye, and not necessarily an occult tale.

As I departed the workshop, I thought, at first, I’d not learned anything much. I figured I’d wasted my evening. Yet, here today I’m still mulling over the assignments, the pairings, and returning to what I scribbled last night to learn if my stoked mind created a thread of a story from the visions evoked by a set of picture cards. The exercises conveyed the importance of creating a visual in your writing—an image that evokes an emotion or idea. Sometimes, in hindsight, we learn we, in fact, did acquire another tool for our writing kit and sometimes from an unlikely source, like magic.

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