Author: Sarah Elizabeth Schantz
This Tarot-focused creative writing exercise is based on an exercise I learned from author Selah Saterstrom, a writer who grew up in the Southern Hoodoo tradition (though I have modified and expanded this exercise considerably).
This exercise is useful if you feel stuck creatively, and are searching for a writing prompt to reconnect with your voice and reignite your writing practice.
The beauty of this writing exercise is you don’t have to know anything about the Tarot, nor do you need to look anything up. The process still reaches into your subconscious just as the Tarot does, and will consequentially deepen your personal relationship with the card you end up working with.
1. Choose the Card for the Writing Prompt
Begin by shuffling your Tarot cards. There are different thoughts on the ritual of shuffling, but I believe everyone eventually develops their own.
I’ve taken to using the smaller decks that come in tins, because I can actually shuffle the cards like I would a regular deck of playing cards.
This initial shuffle isn’t the divinatory shuffle, but one I use to shake off any residual energy still lingering on the cards from a prior reading. Then I slow the shuffle down, allowing the cards to sift and shift in my hands.
Next I fan them out and begin the search for the one card I will use for this entire multi-faceted exercise.
I close my eyes to focus inward to invite the Invisible in. With wandering fingers, I explore the cards until I feel the pull to draw one out.
But anytime a card shuffles itself out, I listen, and that’s the card I use.
For the sake of demonstrating this exercise, I did all the above and drew the major arcana card, The Chariot (as pictured below).
Once you’ve drawn your card, the next step is to quickly choose 3 very simple details you notice right away. Don’t overthink it — first thought, best thought!
Be as concrete as possible, avoiding abstract or vague ideas, and going for actual objects.
For instance, I chose “The Yellow Sky,” “Blue Wings,” and “Cement Booth” because the sky is yellow, the blue wings caught my eye, and while I know this is a chariot, I see a booth made from cement.
Take notice of how simple yet specific these 3 things are. Write these 3 things down so as not to forget them. I write each one at the top of a different sheet of paper.
These 3 choices will now become 3 individual prompts to write from. But first let me introduce you (or re-familiarize you), to the concept of “timed writing.”
2. Set a Timer for 5-8 Minutes
I’m a big believer in the creative pressure cooker of timed writing. The idea is to set a time limit before you start, and to write the entire time without stopping.
Even if you end up writing “I don’t know what to write about this stupid yellow sky”) because eventually, almost always (I promise), you will write something about that yellow sky (or the detail you chose from the card you drew.
Don’t stop to edit yourself — and for this reason, as well as the intimacy that occurs between the writer and the page — I also really, really, really encourage you to write by hand unless you have an injury or disability that makes this impossible.
This kind of writing is also known as “automatic writing,” a practice used in psychoanalysis and favored by the Dadaists and Surrealists because it taps into the subconscious just as the Tarot is already doing.
I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she discusses “free writing” and “focused writing” (the latter of which we are doing). Goldberg also provides other exercises and insights into the art of creative writing.
Write without stopping when you do this exercise. I recommend 5-8 minutes depending on your stamina.
Beginners should begin with 5 minutes, whereas a seasoned writer can go for 8 (that said, seasoned writers should not exceed 8 minutes for reasons I will discuss).
Choose your time now and honor that time limit by setting a timer.
3. Free Write
At the top of the page, write down the first detail from the card you noticed. In my case, “The Yellow Sky.”
Maybe you also drew The Chariot, but chose “The Golden Belt” instead, just as you maybe drew the Three of Swords and chose “Valentine’s Day.”
You can approach this prompt from a place of fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry depending on what you write, and what you’re inspired to write.
Using the first detail as your prompt, write toward the idea it evokes for the allotted time period, while also thinking of it as a kind of working title.
Don’t concern yourself with the actual meaning of the card, especially if you know it.
Once the timer sounds, stop as soon as possible. It’s okay to finish the sentence you started, just don’t keep writing for (reasons I will soon explain)!
Push yourself to use this detail as a “blueprint” to develop a particular place or as a “skeleton” to create a character or persona. For instance, this is what I wrote:
“The Yellow Sky”
The yellow sky meant another storm was rolling in, a storm like the storm that had come seven years ago when that drought, like this drought, gave way to the dust that came in clouds like the clouds now gathering. The clouds of dust that gave way to the grasshoppers, those insects that exploded from the tall grass like tiny landmines when she’d walk the now fallow fields. Those grasshoppers that ate everything from the crops to the linens she’d hung to dry from the clothesline in the yard.
While I wrote fiction above, I could have written about a time I remember the sky being yellow in my actual life.
4. Repeat the Process for the Other Details
Once the timer sounds for the amount of time you committed to, stop writing, then repeat the process 2 more times for the 2 other details.
In my case, I’d do “Blue Wings” then “Cement Booth.” Don’t attempt to make the 3 prompts connect. In fact, I urge you to make each process totally unrelated.
Again, I’ll explain why soon!
5. Look for Opportunity to Expand
Once you’ve finished all 3 exercise, you will have written for 15-24 minutes and will have 3 different pieces. It’s possible you’ll want to continue at least one of these and expand it into a bigger piece.
This is why it’s imperative to stop writing when the timer sounds during the initial prompt. That desire to keep going can now be channeled to continue writing (writer’s block be damned!).
It’s also possible you drafted a complete piece — perhaps a piece of flash fiction or a prose-poem — and now you can fiddle with it, working toward a revision. It’s even possible you wrote 3 of these!
It’s also likely you finally wrote that scene you’ve been trying to write forever for your current novel-in-progress or memoir. Now you can copy and paste your new piece into any larger work where it belongs.
If none of the above rings true (or because the challenge interests you and you want to write more), try find a way to make the 3 different pieces all connect.
Look for anything that repeats in all 3 pieces:
- Maybe they all share a common mood?
- Maybe a particular color or word reoccurs?
- Maybe you see a bigger picture that could tie them all together
As an example for the last bullet, the farm from my first prompt could be outside a small town where a character I created from the second prompt attends high school (a character who wears a jean jacket with “blue wings” embroidered on the back). Maybe the cement booth is where the scorekeeper sits at the football games where my character will lose their virginity one night in a scene I might now write.
For this to be a true challenge, it’s important to work hard at making each prompt initially go in totally different directions.
An alternative to this entire exercise is to push yourself to explore both your subconscious via the archetypes and the symbols the Tarot possess while deepening your personal relationship to the card.
You can follow all the steps above, but this time your specific constraint would be to meditate on why you saw the details you saw (kind of like unpacking a Rorschach inkblot).
Thus, you’d write from a place of memoir and self about each one. This might look like the creative nonfiction approach you may have done for first version of this exercise.
But it also could involve writing what you happen to know about the detail/s you noted) To exemplify what I mean, I’ll share what I wrote for “The Yellow Sky” for this version of the exercise:
“The Yellow Sky”
(the alternative version)
I’d been twenty-three years old for exactly two weeks and three days when I found myself stuck in the backseat of a car uncomfortably close to my lover of two months who now felt like my nemesis. We were driving through the Mojave Desert, toward L.A., and the sky above the lonesome highway looked yellow like a mirror reflecting the infinite sea of sand all around. Giant windmills turned in the wind and I contemplated the torturous execution instrument used during the Middle Ages known as the Catherine Wheel. According to legend, Saint Catherine was sentenced to die this way, only saved by an act of divine intervention when the wheel shattered upon her touch. Broken-hearted, I saw myself strapped to every windmill we passed, naked, vulnerable, and crucified, spinning sick.
For “Blue Wings,” I wrote about a tattoo on my neck of a collage I made using a clipping of the little girl from Picasso’s Child with Dove (picture below) in which I’d glued her to a canvas where she floated via the wings I’d gifted her.
For “Cement Booth,” I wrote about a cement booth for scorekeeping again. Only this one was where I sat in the shade it offered whenever I watched my youngest daughter play softball for her high school.
Then I applied a “connection” process similar to the one detailed above to try and connect all 3 pieces from the original version to write a bigger piece. But this time, you might not write anything about this bigger picture other than to maybe take note.
I noticed a crossroads theme emerging. For “The Yellow Sky,” the crossroads is represented by the four spokes of the windmill/Catherine Wheel-crucifixion, and the fact I was at a crossroads in life.
The question wasn’t should I stay or go (obviously I had to go), but which road to take?
As for the tattoo, I got it on my neck as a way to “rise above” the chronic pain I have from a bad car accident.
Finally, the memory of watching my daughter play softball is a crossroads too as the diamond where she played has four corners the way a crossroads generally offers four directions. She was a pitcher like I used to be, and the motion we used is literally called the “windmill.”
It should be known the direction I took away from that California desert led me to Tennessee where I fell in love with my daughter’s dad (and she was conceived the following year). The car is also a chariot, and I recognize the motion of all the windmills involved, but also the wings on my bird girl tattoo.
While The Hanged Man is the traditional “crossroads” card of the Major Arcana, for me the Chariot comes up to say it’s time to mobilize, to get into a vehicle (or become the vehicle), as was reflected in my writing with this card.
My personal relationship with The Chariot – what it means to me — signifies The Call to Open Roads that has saved me in the past, and is now beckoning me to Open Another Road.
It makes sense that is the card I’d receive right now. For 3 years, I’ve been grieving the death of my oldest daughter, which resulted in a writer’s block I’m only now breaking away from.
I’m offering this interpretation of my process with this exercise to model the process for you. The goal is that it will personalize your relationship to whatever card you drew.
Of course, we should also study the traditional meaning of each card. But I believe we must also know what each card means for us as individuals.
While you can apply this exercise to all 78 cards, it’s probably more realistic to do so with just the Major Arcana, or strictly let the cards choose themselves as being those that you need to become more intimate with.
You can choose different details from the same card to explore. You can do this to study the Tarot, or to develop a personal relationship with the arcana — just as you can use it in a more “writerly” way for everything from starting a new piece to revision.
Whatever you do, you’ll become more acquainted with the cards. In turn, I swear they will listen to the writing you do.
And by listening to you write about them, the Tarot cards will become infused by your essence, becoming your cards more and more.
About the Author
Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (she/her/hers) grew up in a bookstore and discovered the Occult when she was 9-years-old. She’s been a practicing witch ever since. Her novel Fig was selected as A Best Read of the Year by NPR and won a Colorado Book Award in 2016. Her next novel, Roadside Altars, has chapters based on the major arcana. Schantz employs the Tarot and other divinatory techniques to inform her writing process, and has been collaging her own Tarot deck since 2006. She is faculty at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and teaches her own writing series, (W)rites of Passage, and Tarot Tuesdays, a generative writing series that uses the Tarot. Her apothecary, The Witch Next Door, offers Tarot readings, customized rituals, and handcrafted spells.