tarot cards and storytelling

This is a piece I wrote for Plenty Magazine a while back on the relationship between reading tarot cards and storytelling. You can read the original essay here.


Wonders and curiosities. I adore Plenty’s theme for this month, because wonder and curiosity are the primary drivers for my work as a fiction writer. In my experience, “What if..?” is the question behind all storytelling.

My curiosity leads me into musty archives and libraries. It tempts me to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations and copy them into my notebook. It prompts me to ask people questions for which I don’t need the answers—I just want to know more, to hear the details, to hear their voices as they talk and to figure out how they feel about the topic. And it’s my sense of wonder that keeps me writing, once I’ve begun a new novel: I want to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery of the story until I discover its secret magic.

Wonder is also what led me to my first deck of tarot cards. I was 14 years old, and I’d already exhausted the “Occult” section in the local library, mostly because my Christian school teachers had warned us that it was dangerous to dabble in such things. I’d already learned how to read my friends’ palms, horoscopes and tea leaves, and I’d memorized whole sections of the Dictionary of Dreams (I knew, for example, that if you dreamed your teeth were falling out, it meant you were worried about money).

The tarot for me was a major step up from all these other methods of divination. There are 78 cards in a tarot deck. There are multiple options for laying them out and ordering them. And each card has dozens of different readings, depending on which tarot tradition you prefer.


I bought my first Rider-Waite tarot deck in a vintage clothing store in my hometown of London, Ontario. Right from the start I loved how each brightly inked illustration was so distinct from the others, how each image seemed to belong to a different story, even if I wasn’t sure what that story was.

I studied lots of tarot books back then but never really tried to read anyone’s cards—I was shy about the stigma of tarot seeming flaky, when what I really wanted was to seem smart. After a few months I tucked the cards into my bookshelf and forgot about them.

Recently, though, I’ve fallen in love with the tarot all over again. I dug out my old deck of cards. I read some more books, and made notes on each card in my own tarot notebook. I took a couple of tarot workshops. And I’m no longer shy about doing readings for anyone who’ll let me.

As a grownup, as a professor of English literature, as a fan of folklore and myth, and most of all as a writer, what delights me now about the tarot is its beauty and power as a storytelling tool. The tarot deck is a great method for telling stories to ourselves about ourselves, stories about our lives and the way our lives are interconnected. Tarot makes connections between ideas–even ideas that seem at first completely unrelated–and this allows us to think about things in new and surprising ways.

Here is a card I’ve been drawing a lot lately in my readings when I’m thinking about the novel that I’m currently revising: The Fool.


The Fool represents the young hero leaving home for the first time, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. According to Sally Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot, the Fool represents the trickster archetype across cultures, a playful, deregulating force that produces wisdom in surprising, non-rational ways.

So what might this mean for me, for the next phase of work on my novel? Maybe it suggests I should cultivate a beginner’s mind and not be too married to my preconceived ideas about the story I’m crafting. Maybe it means I can approach it playfully and allow myself to experiment without worrying that I’ll make a terrible mess of it.

Do I believe in tarot? Like, believe believe? People ask me this question sometimes. Well, I believe that a tarot reading allows us to contemplate alternative ways of seeing our problems. I believe it offers clarity when our emotions and thoughts are cloudy.  I believe it creates a conversation between two people (even strangers) that cuts through small talk and dives deep into storytelling, the exploration and interpretation of tales. And I believe its insights have unique staying power–we remember them–thanks to the visual reinforcement of its symbols and illustrations.

I believe in the tarot the same way I believe in great novels. Reading tarot cards and reading a great novel both have the power to shift our thinking and make us see things in a new light. They can renew our sense of curiosity about the world. They can fill even the most ordinary situations with wonder. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

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