June 09

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HOW TO USE TAROT CREATIVELY by Caroline O’Donoghue

There’s no wrong way to read tarot. It’s been around since the 15th century, and mostly as a card game, so it’s silly and ultimately not very rewarding to think of the cards and their meanings as fixed entities. They change, over the course of hundreds of years, but also over the course of the reader’s life: there are some cards that I didn’t understand at all when I started reading, but have started taking on new resonance now that I’m in my thirties. There are lots of different ways to interpret the cards but there are also lots of different ways to use them. It doesn’t have to be for fortune-telling: it can be for creativity, self-care, or even just stick em in a frame to brighten up your living room. The thing I’m going to talk to you about is creativity.


Anyone who has written a story of any length – whether it’s a novel, a poem, or an essay for school – you’ll know the familiar feeling of getting stuck. The slick machinery that’s been reliably churning out words starts to grind and wheeze, and you’ll start flipping between tabs on your laptop, or dawdle too long on a description of a dress just to prevent yourself from getting to the next plot point. This is usually the part where most aspiring writers give up.

This is also the part where tarot can help you.

Let’s pretend that we’re planning out a novel from scratch, and we’re using the cards to help us. Here’s a spread I’ve sketched out. Across the middle we have the beginning, middle and end, and up top we have some conflict. Down below I’ve put a “hidden gift,” because frankly, this is a blog I’m writing to advertising my book and what’s a blog without a little product placement.

We good? Good. Let’s flip it over!

Alright, so let’s have a look across the middle first. We have the two of pentacles, the Knight of Cups, and the King of Rods. You don’t need to know the tarot well to see, on first impression, we’re looking at three characters who become increasingly more powerful throughout their journey. We start with a humble juggler (with a weirdly huge hat!!!), fall into knight territory, and end in a place of kingly self-possession. This is actually kind of perfect, because in a lot of novels (particularly in Young Adult fiction), we begin the story with someone who has a lot on their plate, juggling the many roles and expectations of their life, and then one extra thing comes along to knock them off their high-wire perch. In All Our Hidden Gifts, Maeve is just about keeping things together, despite being pretty unhappy about her lack of friends, and then a chance encounter with a tarot card blows the whole thing to bits.

But that’s my book. Today we’re making up a brand new one. Alright, so our juggler. Obviously in the tarot it’s about figurative juggling, but for fun, let’s just say our character is a literal juggler. Not just a juggler, but a circus performer, who can walk a perfect tight rope while keeping their balls in the air. They live an itinerant lifestyle, always on the road with their family-run circus, and they’re starting to wonder if there might be more to life than being suspended in the air for adoring crowds. Circus life is a thing you’re often born into, after all. Is this what they want? Is this it?

In comes the Knight of Cups. Knights always have a fiery, reckless energy to them – they are often the people who will pledge endless devotion to someone or something, and then move on once they’ve mastered it. Or grown bored of it. That’s fine if it’s completing a video game. Less good if it’s… well, you. Cups represent the emotional realm, so when the Knight of Cups shows up, we’re in a heartbreaker scenario. You know those huge, beautiful dogs that jump on you whenever they see you, even though when they’re on their hind legs their paws are on your shoulders? “He’s friendly!” their owner says. “Don’t worry he just gets excited!” So you adjust to the dog’s excitement and you learn to be glad that he’s paying attention to you. And then he pisses off to whoever else has bacon in their pocket.


So we’ve got our juggler, our high-wire act who is sick of circus life, and she meets the Knight of Cups. Cups represent water, so let’s say he’s a sailor. Scratch that, a pirate. He’s on land for a few nights, catches a glimpse of our juggler, and they have one hot night together. It’s love. It’s fireworks. It’s her first real orgasm. She’s never felt like this. Surely she has to follow him?

She follows him. She stows away onto his boat (wearing a hat, I’m guessing, maybe she’s hiding her hair under there – maybe this is a time when girls can’t be pirates) and discovers… oh, god, oh no, it was a one night thing, she read the signs all wrong, and he has no interest in having a woman on his ship. But now she’s on his ship, and they are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With no signs of docking. For weeks.

Feels like time for some conflict doesn’t it? Look up, and we see the Ace of Swords. Swords are the suit of the mind, and often represent the mental anguish we inflict on ourselves. But because this is a story, they can also represent… swords. Our juggler is trapped on this boat, hating herself and her choices, when an enemy crew storms the ship. Robbery, murder, some great walking of planks. Our juggler, however, has a very unique set of skills: she can shimmy up the masts, she can walk the ropes that connect the sails, she can swing, she can shoot. She saves the day, and learns that her skills learned through circus performing have a real and invigorating use. Forget the Knight of Cups, he was just the thing that got her here – now she has purpose.

Purpose is what the King of Wands is all about. Wands represent fire, purpose, and drive. Now our juggler is ready to transform. Maybe she’s ready to take over the ship. Maybe she’s like Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen, the “director of thieves and murderers at sea”. But with more of a circus energy, and a throbbing sexual desire for her first mate. I don’t know. In any case, she’s the King of Wands now. Which brings us to our Hidden Gift, down at the bottom: The World. Frankly, what better gift for a pirate queen than the World? She wants it all, she wants it now, and we end the book knowing that while she will grow, she’ll never be quite satiated. Maybe she’s driven to possess everything, and it will drive her slowly mad. You can save that for the sequel.

So there you go. A whole book, planned using prompts from the tarot. Now you have no excuse not to buy a deck yourself.

Caroline O’Donoghue is an Irish author, journalist, and host of the acclaimed podcast Sentimental Garbage. She has contributed to Grazia, the Irish Times, the Irish Examiner, BuzzFeed, Vice, and The Times (London). She lives in London.