Updated: Jun 27
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a fellow writer, and I’m willing to bet my coffee that you’re a writer of fiction.
Am I right? Shall I share my coffee now?
As you well know, writers seek storytelling inspiration everywhere and in everything. While planning and drafting my own novels, I find that I’m most inspired by being in nature, travelling, reading, watching movies, people-watching, and working with the tarot.
If you’ve never used tarot cards, it’s likely that you’ve seen them in pop culture. And, if that’s the case, you might have also heard the opinions or teachings of those who perpetuate misperceptions about what the tarot is and why the cards are used. Today, I will endeavor to manage the most common tarot misperceptions so that you can decide for yourself whether to add the cards to your list of inspirational influences. To start, I’ll first answer the question: What is the tarot?
To answer this question, I would like for you to consider the magic of curiosity, learning, and the appreciation of diverse opinions. Synchronously, I ask that you also consider a few practical and quantifiable facts about the tarot. In the following list, I will share factual points about tarot cards, and I also debunk misaligned, preconceived notions and misconceptions about this inspiring tool.
What the tarot IS...
1. The tarot is a set of 78 paper cards that, when arranged together, form a book. This book contains two sections: the Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana.
2. Each tarot card displays illustrations, which were/are typically designed with common, religious, numerological, and astrological symbolism. Although illustrations vary from deck to deck, when I write, I prefer to work with the traditional imagery designed by artist and author Pamela Colman Smith (Pixie). The Smith-Waite Tarot, for example, was illustrated by Pixie in 1909, according to ideas written by mystic and poet A. E. Waite.
3. The tarot contains two distinct sections—the Major Arcana (grand secrets), which consists of 22 big picture themes, and the Minor Arcana (lesser secrets), which involves 56 day-to-day situations found in everyday life stories. Major Arcana cards are often referred to as “key cards,” and as a collection, these keys are known as “The Fool’s journey.” The Minor Arcana cards include 16 Court cards (Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings) as well as numbered cards Ace through 10, or “the pips.” You’ll recognize a similar structure in traditional playing cards.
4. The tarot has many uses. The cards can be used for self-exploration, journaling, wellness, creative inspiration, storytelling, games, divination, cartomancy, manifestation work, and other practices. Because tarot cards are inanimate, paper cards, the intent with which they are used is most important. For example, my intention when using tarot cards is to learn more about myself and to work through common writerly concerns such as plot hole-filling and writer’s block.
5. The tarot is a comprehensive representation of universal archetypes. According to psychologist Carl Jung, an archetype is a collectively inherited subconscious idea, pattern of thought, or image universally spanning the collective consciousness. If you are a fiction writer, then you most likely know many an archetype: the hero or heroine, the warrior, the trickster, the queen, the mother, the father, the teacher, the lover, and so on. The tarot is full of archetypes, especially in the Major Arcana and the Court cards.
What the tarot is NOT...
The tarot is not evil, “of the devil,” and the tarot is not blasphemous. People can be those things and set those intentions, not paper cards.
In paraphrasing an analogy that Theresa Reed, The Tarot Lady, uses to explain this concept, a person can use a hammer to hang a picture on the wall or to bludgeon someone to death. Similarly, the tarot can be used for good intentions or for darker means. To be clear, I ONLY use the cards for good practices—to inspire art and writing, healing and wellness—and in my teachings you will only find positive, constructive practices.
As you might imagine, given popularized (albeit problematic) light versus dark metaphors, combined with a highly religious upbringing, my initial intrigue with the tarot frightened me. I was hesitant to tell anyone I was “dabbling” with the cards. For about six years, I kept my thoughts and use of the cards a secret. In the summer of 2020, when I contemplated sharing my first weekly reading on Instagram, my bones shook with fear. I hesitated to stand in my truth, to remain as authentic a person as I had always strived to show up as—in everything I do.
The bulk of my hesitance surrounded the metaphorical “tarot closet,” a construct installed as a result of negative stigma, assumptions, and misperceptions, particularly by religious institutions. Because I was raised a Christian (Assembly of God, to be exact) in the Deep South, I felt easing out of the tarot closet was necessary. Initially, I was concerned with traumatizing family members and being shunned. That had already happened to me more than 25 years ago when I revealed that I was in love with a boy outside of my race. A few close and influential family members threatened to “disown” me. A couple actually did.
Fast forward a quarter century and Teen Mandy—who still loiters around inside me, terrified of rejection and thirsty for acceptance and love—wondered how those same people were going to respond to me using tarot cards. You know what I did? How I told them? I didn’t do anything. I said nothing. I shuffled my deck, I took pictures of the cards, and I posted a fun reading to Instagram. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission. I didn’t need to.
There is nothing wrong with using a hammer to hang a painting, and there is nothing to be ashamed of with using tarot card illustrations to ignite the smoldering desire of storytelling. If you’ve never used the cards and are curious about how they might aid your own writer experience, check back next week as I elaborate on all the ways storytellers can use the tarot.
1. Jung, C. G., & Hull, R. (1981, August 1). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1) (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 48) (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press.
In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of literary, Southern Gothic, and women’s fiction under pen names A. Lee Hughes and Mandy Lee.
Mandy is the founder of Haint Blue Creative®, a space for readers and storytellers to explore, learn, and create. She holds a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, and she has worked as an instructional designer for nearly twenty years.
When she’s not writing fiction, Mandy enjoys the movies, theater, music, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, and binging The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to enhance creativity and foster wellness. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four sons, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at haintbluecreative.com and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.