Probably most well-known as the editor and founder of (the alas, soon to be former) Bookslut.com and of Spoliamag.com, Jessa Crispin also reads tarot cards for artists of all sorts. In this book, she provides a very useful history on the practice and goes through the deck in a way similar to most volumes on tarot, explaining the significance of the cards individually and offering suggestions for how to read them when put in play with others.
But she gears her reading of the cards specifically toward navigating the trials and tribulations that come with creative projects. Writer’s block, boredom, lack of focus, structural difficulty, finishing a project, going public with work, the list goes on. (Because there are infinite problems with creative projects…)
“Wait. Tarot?” you say. “But isn’t that a bunch of spooky weird psychic fortunetelling incense-candle-crystal type stuff? How does that apply to creative work?”
Well, okay, I see your point. Tarot readings do seem to be favored by the incense-candle-crystal set. That is a thing. But you know who should really favor tarot? Really? Literary theorists.
If you have ever done any kind of literary interpretation and thought “Gee, this is fun” then get yourself a deck of tarot cards. Really. It’s like hermeneutics poker.
This is why I think it’s perfect that someone who is so well known for her essays about books and her vast wealth of knowledge about the literary world (past, present and probably future) is a tarot reader. Here’s how Crispin herself explains it:
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.
You lay out the cards, and there on the table you have the outline. You have the who, what, where, and when. You then flesh out that skeleton with your own circumstances, you populate it with the people in your life, and, using the intuitive cues provided by the cards’ images, you fit your story onto the story in the cards.
It’s not necessarily about telling the future. It’s about retelling the present.
The cards provide a narrative. Lay out a set of cards at random and you can easily see the shape of a story that you have to interpret. At your hands you have a series of myths and archetypes and tropes that are deeply embedded in our culture. (Or, if you follow Jung, you could say that they are deeply embedded in our psyche. And if you are me, you kind of think that those are the same thing…)
For people who enjoy interpreting narrative, tarot is the most fun you will ever have. I promise. It’s a wonderful Surrealist exercise in which you have a queen, a knight, some cups, a few swords, maybe a coin or two, and from these elements – which are all endowed with the weight of tremendous significance – you have to make some kind of tale in which they all act upon each other in certain ways. All the symbols are already there being symbolic. You just have to come up with a plot that makes sense for them.
“Wait, so you’re telling me this is a surrealist game I can play with the actual story of my life?” Yes, that is exactly what I’m telling you. Is that the coolest thing you’ve ever heard? It’s the coolest.
Reading tarot cards is not a psychic predication and it isn’t a magical intervention. It’s a really good conversation you’re having with yourself. And this is the element that really shines throughout the book and throughout Crispin’s telling of what the tarot is and what it can do. There isn’t a lot of magic here, but there is a lot of concrete wisdom about working hard and working in the right direction to bring out your creative projects. In fact, she provides an almost overwhelming sample set of artists throughout history, and of their relationships with their works, in order to flesh out the meaning of the cards.
One great moment is her description of the Star card as a suggestion to break away from expectations and to try and find that elusive inner voice.
Think of it as the Ziggy Stardust card. David Bowie’s first recordings are completely normal. They sound like every other middle-of-the-road musician at the time: boring and safe. It took a lot of guts to go from that to “Yeah, no, actually I’m from Mars; I need to go buy some wigs.” There was no guarantee that risk was going to pay off, but it was absolutely in keeping with who David Bowie was and is.
I walked away from this book with a huge reading list. Intertextuality and inspiration are a huge part of the praxis she’s describing. And that is, in my mind, the other great thing Crispin does that separates this book from other books on reading tarot. It’s the recognition of the larger world, with its themes and tropes and infinite wealth of stories. The way stories act upon us, the way we act within stories. If there is something “magical” about reading tarot cards, it’s the way that they negotiate the gap (psychological and literal) between the individual person and the much larger world. They allow you to put a set of highly personal information into the context of timeless and universals.
As Crispin rightly points out, this is a really effective tool if you’re trying to work through something and you need a change in perspective. What we know about the world – and about our work – is the stories that we tell ourselves. Sometimes we need different stories.
The reason we [read the cards] is to interrupt the current narrative in your head. If you’ve reached a crisis point in your relationship or your job or your family life, it might be that the story you are telling yourself about your situation has stopped being helpful to you. Think about it: we construct stories about what happens to us all of the time. We come up with stories to tell other people about what is going on with us, and we tell ourselves those same stories. If those stories become too rooted in a negative image we have of ourselves, or just flat-out do not reflect reality, or clash with someone else’s version of events, then we can get stuck in that story. And it’s not serving us.
So the tarot reading tells us another story, and that story gives us insight into a different version of events…The question you came up with in the beginning is going to be the setup for the story. The cards fill in the plot points, the characters, and so on.
It’s not about divining hidden meaning, it’s about assigning meaning. The story that you tell is what gives the spread of cards meaning. The interpretation of tarot cards that you come up with is what makes them significant to you.
But at the end of the day, a lot of this book is not about reading tarot cards at all. A lot of it is encouragement and advice and inspiration and stories about other people’s struggles. And so one way to read it is not as someone who wants to learn about tarot cards but simply as someone who might be in the throes of a creative project and really needs to stop banging their head against the wall for a little while. It’s that kind of thing.
And to that effect, I end my notes with a quote that sort of sneaks up on the last page.
Remember to drink plenty of water. Remember to eat fruit, get enough sleep, feed yourself with things that are beautiful and helpful to you. Remember always to be learning, to humble yourself enough until you know that you can never really know enough, that you will always be a student. Remember to protect your work from the people who will attack you for doing it, just because they can.
Remember that you are courageous and that your heart is true. And that what you are doing now is important. Remember that we are on the planet to learn and grow and take care of one another, and making something beautiful is a way of taking care of others.
Doesn’t that feel nice? Doesn’t that just feel like you have a wise woman assuring you that it’ll all turn out? This quote is representative of the book itself, which is infused with the idea that creative work is still work, nothing magical about it. You can tackle the muses, but you still have to be a human who works. And because it isn’t magical, you still need really mundane things like water and encouragement.
For further reading, I highly recommend subscribing to Crispin’s tinyletter in which she answers a reader question with a short reading.