March 21, 2016KR BlogWriting

Utter Shame: Literary Tarot Readings Gone Wrong

I found Miss Cleo’s Tarot Power set in a vintage toy store. The package contained a collectors’ edition tarot deck, an instructional video, and a bonus copy of Miss Cleo’s book, Keepin’ It Real: A Practical Guide for Spiritual Living. I know a gem when I see one, so I immediately bought the tarot set as a gag gift for a friend.

That friend later summoned the psychic powers of Miss Cleo (minus all those pesky legal troubles) to read my literary future. Specifically, I requested a reading that focused on my novel in progress, which was in an early draft at the time. My friend used a basic three-card spread and followed Miss Cleo’s tarot guide to reveal my literary fortune—or lack thereof.

The cards were not kind. According to Miss Cleo’s wisdom, the Four of Coins drawn first indicated that my expectations were too high. The next card, the Hanged Man, suggested I was in need of dedication. The final card, the Five of Swords, might not have been so bad if drawn right-side up. But the fact that appeared upside-down offered a clear and succinct prediction for my novel’s future, or at least as outlined by Miss Cleo: utter shame.

Utter shame. Can a writer possibly get a worse reading for her project? Maybe it depends on your perspective, because in the moment, I found it hilarious. This wasn’t the first novel I’d attempted to write, so I wasn’t naïve about the process. The remains of my previous novels languished in dusty boxes in the attic or in folders on my computer I haven’t opened in years. I understood the challenges of writing a compelling manuscript that could fulfill my literary vision and also satisfy the publishing industry. To me, “utter shame” simply called out an unavoidable reality of the writing life. So while my friend grew flustered on my behalf and tried to find a way to take back the prediction, I only laughed. It would take a lot more than kitschy tarot deck to discourage my literary ambition.

Clearly, I don’t place much faith in Miss Cleo’s guidance. (I guarantee that any writer who picks up Keepin’ It Real is likely to feel the same.) But that doesn’t mean I’m inherently wary of the tarot. In fact, I was recently gifted with The Wildwood Tarot, a beautiful deck that I sometimes flip through purely to get lost in the images. Take a look:


Learning the intricacies of these cards takes time, and the few readings I’ve attempted so far were hesitant and clumsy. But I can sense what lies at the heart of the tarot, and why I might have been drawn to it in the first place: it’s another way of telling a story.

“It is not necessarily about telling the future,” writes Jessa Crispin, author of the recently published The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life. “It is about retelling the present.”

A New Yorker article about The Creative Tarot points out that writers and artists like William Butler Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Salvador Dali made use of the tarot, and that Crispin’s new book “is a manual intended to show that the tarot deck, primarily regarded as belonging to the domain of the esoteric, can be useful for anyone engaged in creative pursuits.” Indeed, Crispin sets out to show writers how they can draw on the cards for their own creatives processes:

Each reading is, essentially, a story. It begins here, at the center. One card represents you and tells you who you are as the protagonist; others say what’s happening to you, what did happen to you, what will happen. Other cards show up as people wandering into your story; others create plot and action.

Similarly, Corrine Kenner, author of Tarot for Writers, claims that tarot “can help you break through writer’s block, serve as a source of creative inspiration, and give you insights into your characters’ past, present, and future. Tarot cards can help you generate new material or breathe new life into a project you’ve already started.”

While I don’t actively use the tarot to feed my creative work, the cards speak to me as a writer nonetheless. I recently brought my deck to the fiction workshop I lead to see if others might feel the same. I asked each writer to choose a card and then interpret that card in relation to writing or creativity at large.

Some of the cards my students selected included the Nine of Arrows (dedication), the Four of Bows (celebration), the Three of Stones (creativity), and the Seven of Arrows (insecurity). In nearly every case, my students’ interpretations of these cards offered some surprising insights into their own writing processes. It was a reminder that we approach creativity in different ways, constructing our own links and patterns based on the raw material we’re provided.


A few of my students seemed curious about what the cards might mean in terms of psychic ability and foretelling the future. I told them that, in my inexpert opinion, perhaps tarot readings aren’t about the future at all. Maybe they’re more about making connections and finding a story. The guide that accompanies my Wildwood Tarot deck confirms this. In the introduction, Mark Ryan writes: “The Tarot cannot predict the future. The future is a splintered hologram of possibilities and probabilities that we decide to accept or change every second of our conscious and sometimes unconscious lives.”

His description of the future sounds something like the writing process, doesn’t it? In Tarot for Writers, Kenner points out that “all writers are fortunetellers.” She explains: “Writers have the mysterious ability to envision a possible future—as well as the power to describe it so clearly that it flickers into existence. Writers see the shadow of an alternate reality, and then bring it to light with the power of their words.”

That vision of the tarot and its connection to writing makes sense to me in a way costly psychic hotlines never will. Still, if you need a laugh, I suggest you revisit Miss Cleo’s commercials from the ’90s. In this one, after the tarot provides Miss Cleo with some awfully specific information about a child’s paternity, she concludes the commercial with a promise: “The cards can reveal things that you will never see by yourself.”

True, Miss Cleo was never the real deal (though this Vice interview from 2014, wherein Miss Cleo clarifies, “I never went to jail; I didn’t own the company,” offers a different perspective on her downfall). And yes, my friend’s reading suggested my novel would amount to “utter shame.” That reading, however, was never meant to be serious. It was a lark from the moment I saw Miss Cleo’s smiling face on the tarot package in the store. But maybe the cards really can reveal things we might miss on our own. As a tarot enthusiast once told me, “The tarot can bring to the surface what your subconscious already knows.”

I recently offered a tarot reading to a fellow writer. She drew The Moon on Water, a card depicting an eerie, moonlit landscape that’s barren save for a large egg sunk into the swamp. According to my Wildwood guide, this egg contains creative power and energy, and the card in general “signifies the first steps beyond earthly awareness across the primal emotional void of creation.”

But when I looked at that card, I could only see my friend’s fiction. She writes about natural disasters, wasted landscapes, and our primal link with the natural world. This card was her writing. It wasn’t positive or negative. It didn’t foretell the commercial viability of her work or assign it either shame or success. Instead, it was a mirror reflecting back what she might already know on some deeper level. It presented a story only she could tell.