Writing with Tarot: The Answer is Inside You by J.N. Powell

Being born with a heart for the fantastic, I have always been drawn to the mystic and the mysterious, the spiritual and the superstitious, but I dared not partake. What did I know of runes and rituals? It was something I admired from afar, quietly curious, and nothing more.

When I was studying my Masters in Creative Writing, one of my graduate advisors asked if we’d be interested in using tarot cards to help direct our writing.  The overwhelming answer from the class was, Yes!  She told us the tarot reveals something we already know, something we have forgotten, or something we have been afraid to admit.

I was at a crossroads with my novel.  I needed to have a complete draft done in a few weeks, but I didn’t know how to end it. So that was the question I held in my mind as I drew the card.  How does Remnant end?

My advisor used Rachel Pollack’s The Shining Tribe deck, and I drew the Speaker of Rivers, which corresponds to the King of Cups.  It depicts a large fish swimming in a stream, followed by numerous smaller fish, and on the large one’s tail is written:  Along the way, I told a tale of such power. It means there is a message, a story, and this story has the power to inspire people to listen and to follow.

This was something I’d already known but was afraid to admit—in more ways than one—and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that exact moment in time.  It’s what got me through to the end of my degree, completed creative thesis in hand.  Later, I learned that the card’s quote came from Rabbi Nachman, and the full quote is this: Along the way, I told a story of such power that everyone who heard had thoughts of repentance. 

I own several tarot decks now.  Stephanie Pui-Min Law’s Shadowscapes is my favorite to use for my writing.  When I’m lost on where the story should go or if I’m lacking in inspiration, I turn to Shadowscapes, and I am renewed.  Somehow, the message is always true and what I need to hear.  So is the tarot providing genuine divination from a higher power, a cosmic force?  I cannot say.  If I do a reading for someone, I always tell them I am not a psychic.  I am not clairvoyant.  I am a writer.

In my short story found in Transcendent, “Emry, the One Who Remembered,” divination is achieved through much more gruesome means than reading tarot cards.  Emry is a chosen vessel to become an oracle, but she can only become so by merging herself quite literally to other chosen individuals.  Neve gives Emry her own heart.  Wren gives Emry her hands.  Chandra, her feet, and Vance, her voice.  As Emry joins with each one, she loses more and more of her identity in the process. It is the only way to reach out to the gods and see the future.

There must be sacrifice.

What, then, do we sacrifice when we look to the tarot for answers?

I remember what my advisor, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, told us that day in class.  The tarot reveals something we already know, something we have forgotten, or something we have been afraid to admit.  All of these things require a letting-go and a letting-in. We have to relinquish our walls and lower our defenses in order to accept the message we are being given. It’s no small thing to become vulnerable.  We must admit we don’t have all the answers, be willing to listen to something we may not want to hear, and know that we’ll never attain absolute understanding.

In short, we must sacrifice our ego.

Today, I sat with my Shadowscapes deck in my bedroom and shuffled absently, thinking of the question I wanted to ask.  I’ve been feeling especially discouraged lately.  I’m a published writer, yes, but I want to reach the rank of “professional,” to advance to the next level, to get a high score, and put my name on the leaderboard.  I know I have a long way to go, years and years, but what if it never happens? What if I spend my whole life chasing this dream for nothing?  What if I’m wasting my time?

I drew the Ten of Wands, the symbol of burden.  Great, I’m destined to carry this burden of doubt and to continue working and working without much promise of return.  Though it is definitely not what I want to hear, it applies perfectly to my question and my situation.  I am simply supposed to carry on.

What I love about Shadowscapes, though, is how Law turns it around and offers a message of hope.  The watercolor image depicts a woman bearing a city upon her bent back, head raised upwards.  Arms thrown back, outstretched.  The description reads: She pushes and strains upwards, reaches towards the sun for that fire that can help to sustain through dark times.  The fires of the wands are burning low, and it may seem there are only embers left from the great roaring furnace that was.  And yet…the burden is taken on willingly, and she knows she has the strength within to bear it and flourish.

I am not a psychic.  I am not clairvoyant.  I am a writer.

And so the tarot tells me: go write.


Transcendent - Amazon Kindle

J.N. Powell lives in Texas, where she is an English and Creative Writing instructor by day and Fiction Editor for Ad Astraand Clockhousemagazines by night.  She is an alum of the Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop at the University of Kansas and recently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in Typehouse,The Future Fire,Space Squid, and The Overcast, among others.


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