THE FIGURE IN RED is doling out alms, and he’s doing it judiciously, measuring out equal amounts to each of the recipients. He’s also holding enough aside for his own needs. His scales help him keep his giving in balance.
As writers, we could do with a pair of scales. Not for measuring the cash we’re handing out, but for noticing how much of our precious time we dedicate to others and how much we conserve for our own use.
You see, writing takes time—and not just time that’s packed in around the corners of other obligations. Writing requires time that’s set aside as preciously as if the hours were so many gold coins.
Today, the Six of Pentacles, asks you to take charge of your time. It suggests you weigh out your minutes, hours, and days and allocate them consciously. Give generously, of course. But at the end of the day, make sure you haven’t broken the bank and left your writing to go begging at someone else’s feet.
I’M WRITING A BOOK that includes tarot writing prompts (out next year—stay tuned!). In the process, I’ve roped twenty-one writer friends into guinea-pigging some of the prompts. Which led me to BFF Jill’s kitchen table last night, where we each took a running leap at the Ace of Pentacles.
While I won’t spill the actual prompt, I am going to share my response. (Jill’s beautiful piece and the prompt that elicited it will both be in the book.) As you read what I wrote, though, see if you can reverse engineer it and find a prompt to play with yourself.
He told me this story 25 years ago, and maybe he’s past it now. But maybe not. Anyway, this is how I heard it …
He’d gone out for the evening, leaving his recovering-cocaine-addict ex-wife babysitting their eight-year-old son. When he returned, the kid was asleep and his ex was on the couch watching a movie.
He plopped down to join her. Suddenly, as the camera pulled in close on the lead actress, he found himself flushed, the sweat of attraction prickling. He was hooked, he said, the same way he’d been when he first met his ex—and the coke-head girlfriend before her.
When the credits finally rolled, his ex-wife gestured at the screen. “That woman,” she said, “had a raging coke habit when she made that movie.” Then she shrugged the whatcha gonna do? shrug of a former addict, gave him a hug, and let herself out the door.
That’s when he got it: No matter what, no matter how many meetings he attended, no matter how many hours he spent talking to his therapist, no matter how many years of sobriety he himself had, if there was an active cocaine user in any room, the beacon of her addiction would blind him to every other woman there. He would stumble towards her as if he were hypnotized. And there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.
Except this: From that moment on, he could remind himself that if he was suddenly and heart-poundingly desperate to accept what a woman was holding out to him, for sure, that offer would eventually prove too good to be true.
Tarot writing prompt
So, that was my response to the prompt Jill and I tackled. And it surprised me. The memory of being told that story was buried deep. But it surfaced as I began to write.
As you probably know, timed writing to a prompt—committing ten, twenty, even thirty minutes to just letting our pen or fingers fly, not stopping to censor or reread—allows us access to parts of our mind we may not usually get to when we write more deliberately.
It can produce raw, rough, open-ended results. But that’s sort of the point. Either we just enjoy the process and appreciate the unpredictable product, or maybe we take what we’ve created and use it as a starting point for something else—fodder for a fresh direction we might not have accessed otherwise.
For me, sitting at Jill’s table, rain beating down, cats sacked out nearby, the prompt I’d created for the Ace of Pentacles triggered a long-held memory. I was happy just to get it out of my brain and onto the page.
Is it deathless prose? Not at all! It’s not even an entire story (although I could make the case that it has a character arc). Still, I wrote. And sometimes that is more than half the battle.
While you’ll have to wait until the book comes out to see the exact prompt we used Saturday night, here are two clues: The main thrust of it is contained somewhere in the final sentence—and it’s metaphorically illustrated by a major element of the accompanying tarot card.
But whether you want to play detective and puzzle out that prompt, or you want to read the story I wrote and let that—or the image of the Ace, or the idea of a rainy Saturday night spent sitting at a kitchen table with a friend—trigger a memory or story of your own, have at it! Let your flying pen or fingers provide a chute for your imagination to slip through onto the page.
SOME PEOPLE SEE THE QUEEN OF CUPS as a nurturer. Me? I see her as dialed into psychic radio A1R24/7. Just look at how she’s staring at that cup! I bet she could spill some uncanny stories if she wanted to. But since we’re not likely to get them out of her, I’ll have to hand the fortune-telling chores over to you.
Tarot writing prompts
1) Has your life ever been significantly impacted by either a psychic reading or a sudden bolt of intuition? If so, get your story down on the page (exaggerating as much as necessary to convey the full drama of the situation!).
2) Write about someone who receives a mystical message from a medium, and either acts on the message or ignores it. Be sure to include high-stakes consequences either way.
3) Develop a character who inadvertently starts channeling telepathic information. What is it about? Politics? Health? Is her information accurate? Who does she tell? Does she consider it a curse or a gift? And which do you think it is?
4) There’s a slumber party: six girls and a Ouija board. What could possibly go wrong?
LIKE MOST OF US AT SOME TIME, the figure in the Ten of Wands bears a burden. She may have taken on the weight of a family conflict or, perhaps, she is staggering under a load of debt. Or maybe she’s carrying a multiplicity of stresses—long work hours, a child’s ill health, car troubles—which have added up to overwhelm.
When we feel likewise burdened, a good list-making session can help us separate out the various elements that comprise our current load. Once they’re untangled, we might find we can prioritize, deciding which big sticks to break into kindling before the camel’s back is broken.
On the other hand, our burdens might seem too amorphous, undefined, too slippery to be corralled into a list. We may only know we are teetering at the edge of our ability to cope. If that’s the case, the following exercise might help us get a peek at our more nebulous—yet still weighty—burdens.
Let’s dig in.
Tarot writing prompt
If you, like the figure in the Ten of Wands, are feeling weighed down, but, unlike her, can’t point to the precise nature of the burden that has you bent in half, give this (admittedly weird) exercise a try.
Grab a journal and describe your burden as if it were an object: Include things like the weight of it, its size, its color, its shape. Where do you carry it? How does it smell? Is it new or old? What does it sound like? Taste like? What texture does it have? Is it flexible? Or is it rigid? How many moving parts does it have? Does it need a power source? (You might find your list is the basis for a poem!)
Once you’ve spent sufficient ink to give yourself a concrete (albeit metaphoric) idea of your burden, do the following: Write a scene in which your burden (now a living beast in your imagination) plays a role. You might turn it into a character or let it act as the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s your burden! Make it work for you—at least on the page.
And who knows? Maybe asserting your authority over a fictive version of your burden will have a ripple effect. Perhaps, after doing so, you’ll find your relationship to your real-life burden shifting, even if only by a single straw.
Some writing inspiration
The classic THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, by Tim O’Brien, is a novel of lists. Heartbreaking lists. Lists of things soldiers carry as they trek through their deployment in Vietnam.
Reading poems from Dorianne Laux‘s collection WHAT WE CARRY can make us feel less alone with our burdens. (Laux is also the co-author of THE POET’S COMPANION, a wonderfully inspiring and informative book, which will enrich writing of any kind, not just poetry.)
THE QUEEN OF SWORDS IS A STRAIGHT-UP TRUTH TELLER. And she’s not worried about offending people, either. But, while this may very well make her the patron saint of memoir writers, she knows it’s not necessarily easy—nor safe—to follow her lead. Memoirists may be wary of putting their truth on the page. They may be concerned others will judge them. Or, they may feel guilt about revealing the harmful (or deceitful, immoral, or criminal) behaviors of someone close to them. They may even fear retribution from such a person.
Writing the truth can be a serious—and, sometimes, risky—business. That’s why the Queen of Swords recommended I include this in my Terms and Conditions: Writing is deep work that comes with its own risks and discoveries. While I will endeavor to support you in your writing, I am neither a therapist nor an attorney. However, as you continue on your writing path, you may find the services of one or both offer you valuable guidance.
So, yeah. Serious business.
If you find yourself stymied when wanting to tell your story while avoiding upsetting someone else, the Queen of Swords may be able to help you slice through. Hers is the sword of discrimination. It separates the hard, nutritious kernels of truth from the chaff of words written to please others. And she brooks no nonsense from family, friends, or coworkers when she’s doing her honorable work.
At least, not in her first draft.
You see, we travel a long road between our first, exploratory draft—in which we record as much of the truth as we can remember and feel and understand—and our final draft, polished and ready to send out for publication. And there are many rest stops in the miles between those drafts. Those rest stops are perfect places for us to pause and consider whether to hit delete on passages that feel too hot, too pointed, too dangerous, or to keep them intact—until our next revision, at any rate.
Tarot writing prompt
With the clear-eyed Queen of Swords as an uncompromising example, try this: Pull out a memory that stings. Perhaps it’s of a secret you were told to keep. Or maybe it’s a memory of a trusted person hurting you or someone else. Or of something you did, something about which you carry shame. Or fear. Or both.
Whatever you’re ready to uncover, write about it as fully as you can—just for yourself, for the moment. You might need to do this in increments. Start with ten minutes. Then return for another ten-minute session … and another and another, until you have all the parts of the story and the accompanying feelings on the page.
Take as long as you need. Days. Weeks. Months. Years.
While you’re in the process, you might want to hide your notebook or camouflage the file you’re creating. Do so, if it will make you feel safer. And when you review what you’ve written, if it’s too much, too hot, you might decide to delete or shred the story in its entirety. You might also, as suggested above, consult with a therapist or counselor as you journey along this path. Do whatever you need to make you feel safer, protected, supported.
With these caveats in mind, then, if you have a wound in your writer’s heart, consider lancing it with the sword of truth. It’s your life. Write it down.
I’ll go first, okay?
This is a story I’ve feared sharing, both because I might be judged harshly for my behavior and because in it I point at my father’s difficult behaviors. It’s a double-memoir-whammy-bind!
What happened is this: A long-lost relative contacted my family (damn you, Ancestory.com!). This relative had a particular interest in meeting my father. But they were my long-lost relative, too. And I got there first. Then, I opened my mouth and toads and snakes fell out as I described my early life with my father, who, good points/bad points, could be violent, and unpredictably so.
Soon after, my father died. Without this person ever contacting him.
For the next several years, I ran a losing race with guilt. But one night, as I was circling the track yet again, a friend sliced to the heart of the matter. “Did you tell that long-lost relative the truth about your father?” she asked. “Your own truth? As honestly as you could”
Well, yes. I did.
“Then,” my friend said, “it is what it is. People make their own choices.”
She’s right. My father chose to act the way he did. I chose to disclose. The relative chose not to connect.
It is what it is.
So, while this story isn’t actually about writing down the truth (although, I have now written it down), it is about the risks we take when we decide to share our truth, and about the possible consequences of doing so.
The fear of such potential consequences keeps many would-be memoirists from writing their stories in the first place. Embarking on a memoir can raise a lot of questions, like: Whom will this hurt? How will I be perceived? Will I ruin relationships—either my own or those of the people about whom I write? Even if I’m telling the truth?
When I speak with a writer who faces questions like these, I never suggest they cast aside these considerations and just publish their raw truth—consequences and concerns and family be damned. But, first draft? The one only you will read? There, you can look your truth square in the eye and let “the vorpal blade [go] snicker-snack.” Then, in a cooler light, see whether or how or if it serves you to release that truth into the world.
AS CHESS PLAYERS KNOW, figuring out a strategy takes time. You need to contemplate all your options—and anticipate, as best you can, what will happen as a result of each.
In this way, the Two of Wands is a bit of a chess player. A successful merchant, he is sitting pretty in his villa by the sea, examining the opportunities available to him and evaluating their risks. Since he’s so comfortable, any move he makes must offer enough potential return to make gambling what he’s got worthwhile.
Will he? Make the move? Take the risk?
He doesn’t have to. After examining his alternatives, the Two of Wands could happily turn his back on the possibilities and just retire to his pleasant villa, where, no doubt, a wonderful breakfast has been spread for his enjoyment.
Which is why he’s not actually a chess player. An actual chess player doesn’t have a choice. She has to make her first move, and then another, and another—until checkmate (or stalemate) occurs. In professional chess, there’s even a timer to push the players along. But there’s no timer for the Two of Wands. No real urgency to make a move. Because of this, he’s only banked embers, only stored potential—unless he acts.
So, what will that delicious breakfast cost him? If he turns his back on his opportunities, he may simply never know.
Tarot writing prompt
Put your character in a hard-earned sweet spot. Her life is just right. Describe it. Have her revel in it. Then (because if we’re not growing we’re dying), offer her an option, one that’s almost irresistible, but would require her to move out of her comfort zone. Let her equivocate. Evaluate. Then dial up the pressure. Ratchet up the stakes.
Write about two alternative outcomes:
1) She holds. (What does she lose by not taking the risk? And what cascade of events occur predicated on that loss?)
2) She leaps. (What pushed her to take a chance? And what happens—next and next and next—because she did?)
For further ideas on why a character might hesitate to act, check out this blog post on reluctant heroes.
And, even more to the Two-of-Wands point, there’s a fabulous scene in the film STRANGER THAN FICTION, in which the Will Ferrell character locks himself in his apartment trying to avoid his story—a story that finds him, nonetheless.
“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail, “There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail. See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance! They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
“You can really have no notion how delightful it will be When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!” But the snail replied “Too far, too far!” and gave a look askance — Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance. Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.
“What matters it how far we go?” his scaly friend replied. “There is another shore, you know, upon the other side. The further off from England the nearer is to France — Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance. Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance? Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
TAROT ACES ARE CONCENTRATED UNITS OF PSYCHIC ROCKET FUEL! The Ace of Wands, for instance, blazes with a fire that impels action. The Ace of Cups drips with the sweet honey of love. The Ace of Swords slices swiftly to the truth, and the Ace of Pentacles fills our bags with the gold of family, health, and financial well being.
And then there’s flash fiction. This super-concentrated form of story-telling could easily be called the “Ace of Drama.” Typically between fifty and a thousand words (depending on your definition), flash fiction propels readers through dramatic situations at warp speed. To do so, it challenges its writers to create characters, setting, conflict, and some sort of resolution all within its super-tight framework.
Want to give this literary form of nitroglycerin a try? Check out the prompt below, inspired by my flash-fiction-writing tarot pal Bonnie Cehovet!
Tarot writing prompt
Pick a card, any card
First, choose your Ace.
If you chose the Ace of Wands, write a hundred-word action/adventure story.
If you chose the Ace of Cups, write a hundred-word romance.
If you chose the Ace of Swords, write a hundred-word story of double-dealing or deceit.
If you chose the Ace of Pentacles, write a hundred-word family drama (add an inheritance to the mix for extra credit!).
I’ll go first. I picked the Ace of Swords.
Thomas watched his brother’s fiancée from the perimeter of a dozen parties. Her gleaming hair. Her ridiculously long neck. The maw of her mouth issuing dark laughter. Whenever he got close enough, he wondered, was she laughing at him? He’d redden, unsure. Then his brother’s brakes failed. And his airbag. (Tragic, right?) When the fiancée was released, Thomas swooped in. Who better? She’d recover. They’d circle those same parties. They’d laugh. And, later, they would wrestle in sweaty pleasure, reviling their evening’s casualties. He woke from dreams of it, dark laughter in his mouth. If only she would stop crying.
My Swords-y idea was that Thomas tampered with his brother’s car. Is that clear? I dunno. Anyway, it’s a hundred words. So there’s that.
Flash fiction inspiration
Need more information or inspiration? Click on the links below for further guidelines and places to “flash” your short-short work.
FLASH FICTION ONLINE offers a ton of resources, from excellent examples, to how-to tips, to submission guidelines. Once you’ve tried this exercise, you might consider submitting the results to them!
SOMETIMES, I JUST WANT to give a tarot archetype a good shake! The Knight of Pentacles, for example. Sure, he’s got plenty of good qualities: He’s hard working, loyal, and reliable. You can trust him with your last dollar, which he’ll prudently invest for you.
But he’s so freakin’ cautious! Before taking any action, he’ll weigh every possible pro and con—leading you to ask, “How much research is really necessary before you just go to Best Buy and replace the microwave that blew up TWO MONTHS AGO?” (Did I mention I was married to this guy?)
His caution extends to writing, too. Under his influence, we might believe we should know exactly what we’re going to say before we commit so much as a word to the page. Which, for sure, will stop us dead in our writing tracks. For this reason, the Knight of Pentacles might well be the Patron Saint of Writer’s Block.
Tarot writing prompt
Making a list, checking it twice: Simple as it sounds, list-making is a stealth move that will help you slip beyond this knight’s too-careful sway. Put aside ten minutes and pick a topic. You might decide to create a shopping list for yourself or a character, or a list of your favorite girls’ names, or of a frenemy’s worst traits. How about a list of places you’ve lived? Or places you’d like to visit? Cats in your life? Street names in your subdivision? Super heroes? Planets (actual or fictional) most likely to support life?
Whatever you choose, the trick to truly inspired list-making is to push your brain past the obvious (hello, Mr. Knight?), which is what it will dole out at first. Do this by committing to a larger-than-reasonable number of items. So, once you’ve picked a topic, number your page from 1-50 and go! Then, when you’ve got your fifty, choose the most intriguing item from your list. Set a timer for five minutes and take off from that idea, writing as fast as you can. When the timer dings, pick another item and begin again.
Believe me, when you look up from this exercise, that stodgy Knight of Pentacles will be nowhere in sight. (Who knows? Maybe he’ll have finally ambled off to Best Buy!)
The Poetry Foundation has a great little article by Michael McGriffon using list-making to rev your writing engine. It includes a two-part writing exercise that can help you dig deep while you’re moving fast!
IT WAS SO FREAKIN’ COLD that day in the tiny Central Florida town of Oviedo that the anachronistic Oviedo chickens had huddled under the frost-bitten azaleas bordering the Ace Hardware parking lot and hunched in feathery clumps between oak tree roots.
A week before, I’d run a creativity workshop based on Julia Cameron’s ideas. Inspired by my own facilitation, I took myself on a combination Weekly Walk and Artist Date—to do just what I’d asked my workshop participants to do: walk, then jot down what I saw.
So, first there were the chickens.
After leaving them behind, I turned up Central Ave. and crossed a small bit of bridge (an asphalt hump, really, covering a concrete pipe through which a thread of brown water passed). There, I shared cold-weather pleasantries with a young black man on a bicycle, who paused—gloved, parka-ed, and balaclava-ed—to watch the trickle of rusty water lap against the rocks lining its narrow bed.
Bidding the young man goodbye, I wandered across North Central and through the sparse grove of oaks that separates Central from Geneva Drive. There, I came upon the white block Fountainhead Missionary Church with its thick panes of stained glass. How would the light inside the sanctuary appear after traveling through those windows? I wondered. Would it be purple, like sacramental wine? Bottle green, like old hope? Deep sapphire, like a promise placed on a loved one’s hand?
Since there was no one around to let me in to see, I crossed Broadway to Blue Moon Antiques and Consignments. There, I overheard a nicely-suited, middle-aged guy telling the owner that his nineteen-year-old son, newly released from prison, had stolen, then hocked or sold, three boxes of his prized 1960s-1970s record albums, and that he was now touring Oviedo-area pawn shops, antique malls, and thrift stores trying to recover them. But, the store owner told him, shaking her head, none had made their way to the Blue Moon.
I stepped out of the shop just as the man eased his Taurus wagon slowly down the Blue Moon driveway and headed east for Chuluota.
From the wooden stoop, I waved at his rear-view … just in case he looked back.
Tarot writing prompts
The Eight of Cups is a wanderer. Seeking emotional fulfillment, she leave her past behind. She is guided on her quest by her imagination, by the possibilities that beckon from around the next curve in the road. And if she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, there? Welp, she’ll just keep on walking.
Here are three writing prompts inspired by the Eight of Cups.
PROMPT ONE: Write a series of three scenes about a character who sets off seeking something to fill an emotional gap in her life.
Scene 1: Demonstrate your character’s dissatisfaction with a specific situation—then show her walking out the (perhaps metaphorical) door in pursuit of something better.
Scene 2: Make sure to let the reader see what guides your character’s feet along her path. How does she decide where to go?
Scene 3: She’s discovered something! What is it? How did she stumble upon it? And does it really fulfill her unmet needs?
PROMPT TWO: If, on the other hand, like the “record salesman’s” father, your character is missing something specific—due to theft or carelessness—write a scene in which she traverses her neighborhood, trying to find what she’s lost.
PROMPT THREE: Or, perhaps, like me that day, she’s just wandering hoping something interesting will turn up. If so, what does turn up? And how does it change her life?
AS WRITERS, WE MAY FIND we want to access our inner depths. Perhaps we need to discover what it is we truly want to say. Or maybe we find our work sounding stale, predictable, even clichéd. At such times, if tarot’s Moon were your writing coach, she’d counsel quiet and self-reflection. She’d suggest you allow your dreams to arise—as she does—in both the sky of your mind and in the quiet pond of your imagination. She’d ask you to contemplate your dreams and your writing by candlelight … or by her own white moth light.
While the Moon knows our inward travels may be fraught with misdirection and mystery, she trusts us to find our way through the dark, face what we discover there, and interpret our nighttime experiences in ways that will illuminate our waking lives and bring deeper wisdom to our creative work. If we explore our depths, rather than fretting about how to monetize our writing dreams too soon, she believes that what we bring forth under her gentle glow will emerge a-shimmer with the magic of our own inner light.
Tarot writing prompts
Taking a page from the Moon’s pillow book, try any of these exercises to dive deep into a character’s dreams … our your own.
1) Keep a dream journal for a month, a “moon.” (Take a look at this PSYCHOLOGY TODAY article for suggestions on how to do so.) At the end of the month, review your journal and see if any silvery, moonlit story ideas emerge.
2) Delve into a character’s psyche by keeping a dream journal for her! Let her reveal her hidden self to you through her dreams.
3) Moon-mapping: Write about an incident, fictional or otherwise, according to the phases of the moon.
New moon: the incident’s inception, its seed, how it starts
First quarter: how the incident gains traction, its early developments
Full moon: how the incident fulfills its initial promise (or threat)
Last quarter: how the incident and its effects wane
Dark of the moon: like the tide pulling back the ocean to reveal an altered shore, write about what’s left after it’s all over.
4) Write a scene that takes place in broad daylight. Rewrite the scene so it takes place by the barest gleam of the new crescent moon. What’s different?
5) Write a scene in which your character dreams about a situation from her waking life. Of course, dream-fashion, her sleeping self distorts the situation—but in a way that reveals a truth she hasn’t permitted herself to see till now. She wakes, journals about her dream—or tells it to someone—and then acts on the realization her dream has delivered to her. You, writer, take it from there.