Why Are Writers Particularly
Drawn to Tarot?

Alexander Chee, Laurie Filipelli and More on the Ways We Talk About the Future

For several years, tarot has drawn attention at the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s annual conference: the poet Hoa Nguyen, a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist and author of the forthcoming Ask About Language As If it Forgets, has held tarot readings and consultations there. In 2019, writers Leslie Marie Aguilar, author of Mesquite Manual; Laurie Filipelli, author of Elseplace and Girl Paper Stone; Cecily Sailer, founder of the Austin-based Typewriter Tarot, a collective of female writers and Tarot readers; and F.T. Kola, who was short-listed for the Caine Prize, held a well-attended panel on tarot that tarot reader  and writer Leah Mueller described in Quail Magazine as “packed,” with the room “too small for the number of bodies.”)

In an era of fast, less expensive technologies—our smartphones have more power than the computers behind the Apollo—maybe we’re hungrier than ever to explore, to make new discoveries about the self. And it’s possible tarot provides a light-hearted avenue for thinking about our fears and desires, subjects writers can’t avoid. Several presses have recently brought attention to the relationship between tarot and writing with new books, including Sylvias Press’s The Poet Tarot and Guidebook (2014); Two Minor Arcana’s Arcana: The Tarot Poetry Anthology (2015); Althea Press’s Tarot for Beginners (2018); and Saddle Road Press’s forthcoming Hearts Compass: Tarot and Writing. Last month, the online literary journal, Pretty Owl Poetry introduced a tarot-centered prompt series called POPcraft: Tarot for Poets, while How to Write an Autobiographical Novel author Alexander Chee’s essay about grief, wonder, and self-knowledge,  The Querent, has been taught in college classes.

Maritess Zurbano, described in Geek Girl Con as  “the world’s only Filipina-American professional stage hypnotist in the world,” calls tarot a “trend in the Pacific Northwest poetry scene.” Professional tarot reader and intuitive coach Alia Curtis, author of Sigmund’s Shadow and Healthy Mind/Body Hacks for Busy People, has been conducting tarot readings for more than 20 years. And Meg Hayertz, founder of Creative Momentum, which offers tarot readings, workshops, and coaching for creative professionals, calls tarot a means to “hush the inner critic and evoke the creative zone.” This freedom to explore, without judgment, may be tarot’s gift.

“Tarot shares a fundamental aspiration with writing—to articulate the complexity of human experience.”

I asked writers Alexander Chee, Alia Curtis, Laurie Filipelli, Meg Hayertz, Cecily Sailer, Rachel Wright, and Maritess Zurbano how tarot influences their lives and writing practices. Some writers view tarot as beautiful and liberating, a way to relax and explore the unconscious, and cite specific ways tarot has helped to offset writers’ block. But they also shared some criticism of an industry where unprofessional readers could take financial advantage of clients or that may ignore people of color’s contributions to magic—Zurbano argues professional magician societies and organizations are not diverse, even though “the first demonstration of magic was first recorded on papyrus in Egypt” and the “first magic came from Mother Africa, Indigenous lands, and colonized people of color.”

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Do you see more people turning to tarot to relax, develop their creativity, or free themselves from writer’s block?

Meg Hayertz: I think tarot is becoming more common as a tool for reflection. Many people have a practice of pulling a card every morning to help them feel centered and to engage more deeply with whatever happens that day. I know a lot of writers who pull cards for their characters, or for direction when they feel stuck in their writing.

Cecily Sailer: Absolutely. I notice more people using Tarot for all these reasons, and then some. People seem hungry for spiritual practices they can personalize, and more people are realizing that Tarot is a form of therapy—one you can use entirely on your own, without needing another human to mediate the process. I was drawn to Tarot because it shares with writing a fundamental aspiration—to articulate the complexity of human experience. Writers must journey into the murky realms of the subconscious and return with material the conscious mind can digest. Tarot can enter this process as a collaborator and compliment: It shares a writer’s desire to interrogate while providing a different language and angle for doing so. I’m noticing more writers embracing Tarot as a tool for navigating that subconscious space. When we feel stuck, we can turn to Tarot for insights or alternatives, then language can flow into that space.

“The environment was magical, and it reminded me of the rich history of writers and mysticism.”

Alia Curtis: People are looking for answers, the confirmation or an affirmation that they’re going in the right direction. There is a notable increase in entrepreneurs and other business professionals who are seeking Tarot consultations that combine intuitive—personal development—coaching. The combined session helps diminish the impact of personal problems that interfere with their focus in the workplace. In that situation the Tarot clarifies perspective and relieves stress.

MH: In Alexander Chee’s beloved essay, “The Querent,” he discusses the difference between reading the future, and reading the now. When I read the cards, I always ask the querent about their area of expertise— Is it writing, parenting, permaculture, rock climbing? From there, I help them apply the cards’ message through the lens of their craft, so that the cards’ guidance feels workable. This is important in helping the querent stay present. It often means the difference between a person leaving a reading downtrodden and distanced from themselves, or excited and full of curiosity.

AC: A Tarot reading has a profound effect on one’s life. It influences direction, decision making, and emotional balance. For those reasons, it is vital that a person chooses an authentic, trained reader. Unfortunately Tarot has become the new “go to” commerce with a reader on every corner and only profit in mind. Therefore, it is worth taking the time and effort to find a professional whose mission is to serve humanity and interest is in your spiritual and emotional balance.

Maritess Zurbano: I work with mainstream press and work corporate events. I’m a master psychic and trained in mentalism. I’m a skeptic but also a closet hippie. I’ve experienced some wacko shit. I do recognize magic and coincidence . . . And I’ve learned not to contradict someone’s belief, whether it’s Jesus or selling Amway. If they believe it’s true and it works for them, then good for them . . . But I do think it’s problematic when amateurs get into tarot and take giant sums of money. That’s not nice. These are real people, with real feelings.

Laurie Filipelli: For years, I’d assumed I was part of a small and secret tarot cohort. My first inkling of the wider appeal was in 2015 at a Yaddo residency. While I had applied to write historically-based poems about my upstate New York heritage, I was quietly writing tarot-inspired poems, too. As things like this go, it so happened that my former thesis advisor, Cathy Bowman, was there as well, and had been teaching graduate level courses in writing and tarot at Indiana University. We reconnected right away, and there were some late-night reading sessions with other writers and artists. The environment was magical, and it reminded me of the rich history of writers and mysticism. A few years later, my friend Cecily Sailor in Austin unveiled her tarot habit when she started Typewriter Tarot, and we soon found ourselves collaborating on an AWP panel proposal (which we fully expected would be rejected.). Not only was it accepted, but our room was overflowing. By a show of hands, attendees weren’t simply curious about tarot, they were actively using it in their daily writing practice.

“My goal is to take back magic, de-colonize magic.”

MZ: It’s really a fantastic moment in time. I see people trying to stop inequity by pointing out the problems in the system . . . Tarot can be a fun pastime, but there’s still stereotyping, racism, bias—do you know how hard it is to find tarot cards featuring people of color? I’m doing a reading for a beautiful chocolate-skinned man and there’s a pale-skinned white woman as the image—I see people of color with higher platforms talking about fortune-telling runes and devices, things we heard about in school. And they’re doing it all the time because they want to know. My goal is to take back magic, de-colonize magic.

Alexander Chee: I still find that the majority of readings I do for friends involve love and money, but I tend to deal with people who are not as experienced with the cards and who don’t know what’s possible. They trust me more than the Tarot. If I know they are a writer I ask them if they’d like a process spread like the kind you can find for the William Blake Deck, a deck that uses his poetry and paintings to make the cards and whose creator did a lot for the art by not only creating process spreads for artists, he gave the cards specific interpreted meanings related to the process. I’ve used it for over a decade now. I do see people using it to process political anxiety in the age of Trump, which is interesting. I never saw that before.

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How does or did tarot influence your own writing
practice?

MH: In many ways, my writing practice influences my tarot practice. When I first began playing around with tarot cards, I discovered that I had already been trained in intuition through the craft of writing. As writers, we read everything: books, cards, every detail of the immediate world around us. “Reading” is easy because meaning is so resonant and interconnected that as soon as we begin reading the poem of the world around us, everything connects. I’ve spent my life as a writer honing my skills of connecting the concrete details of an individual’s life to abstract themes, pursuits, and archetypes, to create a meaningful narrative. I think many writers delight in this connection between writing and tarot.

Tarot, in turn, has certainly influenced my writing practice. Tarot cards have the power to push past my self-doubt and reveal the gorgeous archetype of human experience that I am going though. This assurance that life is meaningful has been one of the biggest gifts Tarot has offered me as a writer.

LF: I agree with Meg. I’ve been a poet since I was a kid, which basically means I read the world as a set of images. I think writers and artists can often access the cards more easily than those who don’t use imagery as a means of creation. Right now I am engaged with a slow and in-depth tarot practice, the Lightning Spiral, using Pamela Eakins Tarot of the Spirit deck. Meditating on one card per week, I’m learning more about tarot’s kabbalistic roots, and my own personal potential. This in turn helps me to trust the work I’m engaged in, and opens up my intuitive path. I’d love to say more, but the process is a bit hard to put into words. I also think it’s good to allow for some mystery while we’re in the depths of process.

“I’ve spent my life as a writer connecting the concrete details of an individual’s life to abstract themes, pursuits, and archetypes.”

CS: It’s become a centerpiece of my writing lately. Through our Tarot collective, Typewriter Tarot, we offer written messages (created on my 1960s Smith Corona typewriter!) that accompany Tarot readings for our clients. The initial goal was to give clients a record of their reading so they could remain present during the experience, knowing a keepsake would be produced later. This has evolved somewhat, and now we’re also creating interpretations of single cards and card combinations. We do this weekly with a reading for the collective on our social media channels. This has pulled me into a new experimental space: creating short pieces, more like poems, that attempt to creatively articulate and distill a message shown in the cards. Creating these exclusively on a typewriter has also shifted my writing process. I’m forced to acknowledge the constraint of space on a page, and I’m pushed to continue writing, rather than stalling in the middle to refine and polish.

Rachel Wright: I mostly write poetry—occasionally a short story. Tarot influenced my poetry (I’ve been working for the past year and a half on a book of poetry) and allowed me to jump start into a short story piece and a longer narrative piece.

AC: I don’t use the Tarot for writing or self-analysis. I use it as a tool for both coaching and counseling. Based on the interpretation of the dream symbols, colors and the proximity of the cards as well as applying intuitive skills, I provide a client with the clarity and direction they need to make necessary life changes . . . I’m focused on this new dimension in tarot reading: working from a coaching aspect. The Tarot brings an understanding of self that exposes the underlying reason for artistic blocks and from that discovery it helps create breakthroughs.

A. Chee: In my first novel, Edinburgh, there is a tarot reading and I drew the cards for the reading, asking the question, What should be the reading for this scene in the novel? It was intensely accurate. Since then, guided by some techniques I learned from Rachel Pollack, I’ve used the positions of the Celtic Cross spread as a character design/world building exercise, where each position of the reading becomes a question for the writer to answer about the main character. I did that for my second novel, The Queen of the Night. It develops a formidably dense amount of information about characters, but it also lends you distance from them, lets you see them in ways they won’t, and you need that. Also, it is useful for teaching students. I will give the Celtic Cross exercise in class and sometimes not explain the link to the Tarot until afterwards as not everyone finds the Tarot credible, even as a structural element with no cards. I find it helps them to start seeing the deck apart from the overly mystical way, by teaching them how to use the elements of the deck’s tradition to tap into their imagination—and power—before they meet the deck itself and assign it some authority it just doesn’t have.

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Have you used tarot to help other writers?

MZ: I’ve worked with other writers and they’re more focused on tarot than other modes of fortune-telling. People are attracted to tarot because it provides a visual aid. It’s a supernatural place. Writers experience a flood of voices, ideas, and to make sense of it, they look for some framework to explain it. I like receiving my ideas raw, whether I like the messages they are sending me, or not. I also like to remind people that all of us, are not omnipotent or perfect. So please take every tarot reading that you receive or give, with a grain of salt.

LF: Tarot for me is still a very private practice. I’ve used it to help friends examine their lives and emotions, but I haven’t helped writers with their craft. Perhaps when I come out at the other end of my slow journey through the Minor Arcana, I’ll feel ready to share something I’ve learned. Right now, I’m just swimming the depths.

A. Chee: Absolutely. What’s funny to me though is that writers will tell me years later how the readings I gave them worked out or “came true” and I have no memory of it—the reading flees my head after I give it. I always try to underline that the power is theirs, not mine. That the cards are more for seeing what is already true than what will come true. And making decisions based on that.

One of my students even makes a living with readings, reading for people in bars. I didn’t teach her that but I’m part of her interest in it. She makes good money. So I’m proud all the same.

Rochelle Spencer
Rochelle Spencer
Rochelle Spencer is author of Guardian Angels (Nomadic Press 2019) and AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press 2014). A VONA alum and founder of the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop, Rochelle recently defended the first dissertation on AfroSurrealism.





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