Before Death: Twelve Notes on Writing and the Tarot / by Teresa Carmody

[1/2, notes 1-6, or part 1 of a 2 part series on writing and the tarot] 


There are certain statements about writing that I return to over and again. One is by Toni Morrison, who in an interview in the Paris Review, says that her writing “becomes a question I don’t have any answers to.” When asked if writing helps her to clarify how she feels about the subject in question, Morrison replies:

“No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not ‘this is what I believe,’ because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is ‘this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?’ Or, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.’” –Morrison, The Paris Review

Note that Morrison describes writing not to capture how she feels, but to wonder beyond those feelings, into the space of “may be” or “might.” Note that the idea, in Morrison’s description, is an energy to wrestle with. That the idea creates a space for uncertainty and shifting perspectives, where other people, their ideas and meanings, also carry weight, bear significance. A writing practice of vulnerability, to note Morrison’s term, not of the ego, but of the idea. Note that in the OED, vulnerability holds multiple definitions: there is the more contemporary meaning—“that may be wounded; susceptible of receiving wounds or physical injury”—and an older, more obscure definition—“having power to wound; wounding” (“vulnerable,” def 1, 2a). The “vulnerability of an idea” refers to that which may concurrently cut and be cut into, injure and be injured, hurt and be hurt. A site for multiple wounds/woundings, it is that which is deeply paradoxical, double-sided like the swords in the tarot, which Rachel Pollack tells us are the most difficult suit. Swords are a weapon. They bring pain, anger, destruction, but also the ability to cut through illusion. To demarcate boundaries and grounding truth.


Here is one way to use the tarot in your writing: imagine the person or situation you want to write about. Draw a card. Let that card inform the structure of your story in its obvious materiality. For example, if you drew the 8 of cups, let there be 8 paragraphs with 8 sentences in each paragraph. If your card was the 4 of pentacles, let there be 4 hinges to the text, 4 relationships that your protagonist (we’ll call him Frederick) thinks he sees clearly even as he’s sits in the card’s guarded, fearful stance.


In 2013, I sat down to write a story and decided to pull a tarot card as a way to begin. At that point, I didn’t know much about the tarot, though I had long been interested, had gone years earlier to a new age shop in West Hollywood where my then-lover and I purchased a deck to share. Yes, some people say your first deck should be “gifted,” but really: there are many ways to make and receive a gift. Plus, I hadn’t heard this superstition, so it wasn’t a barrier to work around. I was interested in the tarot in a playful yet skeptical way, like how I enjoyed reading Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology horoscope or pulling cards as a fun parlor game for the new year, hoping they’d show something good on the horizon, something I was nearly too afraid to have. When I first began using the tarot in my writing, I hadn’t seriously studied the deck or its medicine; I was just beginning to claim my own intuitive gifts, and really my own ambition. The tarot, by the way, will always lead toward death, which isn’t the end of life but a point midway through. In the middle of the journey / of our life / I came to myself / In a dark forest / The straightforward way / Misplaced (Schwerner, 2000, “Via,” Bergvall). In 2018, I wrote the final story in what had, by that point, become a collection. My relationship with the cards, and with my own writing, had shifted significantly, as I had fully apprenticed myself to both practices. When I wrote the first story, I felt guilty and worried about upsetting people, my friends mostly. I didn’t want the stories to be exploitative, and didn’t know how to metabolize my often-contradictory feelings about myself and others. I worried I was bad. By the time I wrote the last story, I understood that I’d written a series of offerings while sitting at the altar of lost friendships. Invitations, really, into energetic constellations that encompass and exceed those wearying binaries of good-bad, friend-foe, yours-mine, inner-outer. I’ve come to view the tarot as a series of invitations as well. The cards don’t foretell the future as much as they point to the energies gathering around and within the querent, in regards to whatever her question may be. I’ve come to picture this like the spaghetti models used for hurricane forecasting. A series of lines, or invitations, that the querent may or may not experience/explore. For there is always free will, like in Rob Brezsny’s horoscopes.


Here is a way to draw upon the tarot in your writing: think about your character and their relationships with others. Formulate their question, which may be about the heart of the matter, the ache that needs to be articulated, the ascendant message ready to come through. Their question may be a prayer, such as what the fuck is going on or why god please show me. As the reading-writer, be willing and ready to perceive. Draw a card on behalf of your character and study its image. Look up its meanings if you must, in the book that came with your deck or in Rachael Pollack’s Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, but don’t accept the meanings as truth. Know instead that there is a certain accumulated wisdom around any one card, and this is why we turn to books, the internet, podcasts, and more. Let your understanding of a card come through your experience of the card in conversation with this accumulated wisdom. Let the same be true for your character, who may be searching for an embodiment of that card’s image in their world. Oh, I’ve made this rather too complicated… Here is another way to draw upon the tarot while writing fiction: think about your character; draw a card; this is exactly what your character needs.


Much of my writing is autobiographical, though I hesitate to write that because writing by women is so often assumed to be autobiographical, and then people want to talk about the life and not the writing, i.e., the art (by a woman) is (once again) minimized or ignored. Another weary binary. So I will say this instead: I make art by drawing on my life, and if you were there, at that event or in that relationship, you’ll know that I’m writing very close to the affective situation or dynamic as it played out, subjectively, in the eyes of my alter ego, Marie, or in another’s perspective as I empathetically imagine their view. And my writing is also fiction, or more precisely my own take on autofiction, because my focus is on language and the way I will make things up, turn several acquaintances into a composite character who keeps going to his car to eat and check his twitter followers and teeth. When you write a story from life, yours or another’s, you risk dishonoring the complexity of that story, the person who lived it, the situation as lived. After all, the story as written will necessarily be other than what it was. A story does not need an epiphany, but there will be movement in and through a textual space where you may meet a mirror, a punishing parent, a lost friend, limiting belief. You may, within some moment of writing, shift or release dense or traumatic energies held within your body. You may, within some moment of writing, find a new way to be.


Here is a scene from a story in the collection: At the bottom of the canyon, Marie and Lila will find a rock large enough to hold them; they will sit together, their feet not touching the ground. Lila will point toward a mesa on the other side of the valley, noting its colors and layers of sediment, saying there is nothing this earth doesn’t know. Nothing it can’t hide. Let us listen, now, for the giving. Marie will hear her own breath and then a bird’s trill, like the sound of falling or a spinning top slowly winding still. She will hope to glimpse the bird’s body, but there will only be the strange trees and canyon shrubs, their pointed mute-green leaves and small purple flowers. We need to be careful, she will say to Lila, and Lila will tilt her head in wonder, for she, too, noticed Marie’s uncommon pronunciation. A mimicking, perhaps, of Lila, whose voice will slightly quiver as she asks Marie to please repeat what she said. When Marie doesn’t answer, Lila will ask what she’s avoiding. Marie will laugh, then nervously apologizing, she’ll say: I don’t know what I’m talking about. She’ll wish she could explain about the mirror neurons. She’ll feel her throat sinking into her chest, and Lila’s shifting body. Pulling away.