Tarot Stories: Death to Fearful Writing



The main character of the very first novel I wrote and published was a 30-something-year-old woman who fell in love with (and commenced a torrid affair with) a 17-year-old boy. She was a therapist… and she was married.


As the story came to me, I was both appalled and fascinated by it. The rebellious freedom of writing authentically, without regard for who might read the words was, well, liberating. I felt fearless! That is, until I was finished with the novel, and my staunch Baptist grandmother told me she couldn’t wait to read it.


I halted my publishing plan, set aside the novel, and floundered in terror. For several months I ruminated on whether I would even publish the book. All the excitement, adrenaline, and words (the thing had over 200 thousand of them) I had put into the story weren’t enough to rival the dread, the fear of being judged, criticized for publishing “filth,” as my grandmother had warned me not to write.


But, in the end, I did it anyway. I published the book and advised Gran not to read it. The Decembers, as the novel was originally titled, is out of print now—it needs another thorough editing and I mean to split it into a series—but for a while I made it available, and the majority of those who read it liked it, but there were several who rated it poorly. Nevertheless, after a year and a half of writing and worrying and then giving up on my first book, I ended up making the brave decision to publish it. I swallowed my fear, pushing forward with the process without regard for the opinions of others and despite probably being written out of my grandmother’s will (I wasn’t… She never read the book...), and I’m so glad I did.


Writing fearlessly demands both authenticity and courage. It requires storytellers to change the way we think— about ourselves, about the craft of storytelling, and about the expectations of others—a death of the writer’s ego, the sort of death necessary to initiate and endure a great transformation. When we write without regard for what others might think or say about our work, we make the difficult choice of relinquishing the control of others’ opinions, embracing change that might result, and surrendering to what may come. These encouragements are not, however, an excuse for writing without regard for factors such as grammar, punctuation, voice, style, genre, and sensitivity, no matter how fearless we find ourselves.


But what does all of this have to do with the Death card? Let’s examine its features and their meanings.



What's happening in the Death card?


Death rides into the low valley high on their white horse, fully armored and carrying a rose-embellished black flag. Death brings a warning, not necessarily of literal death but of the promise of change. How we perceive this change, however, is completely up to us.


In the card, we see four figures, and according to their posture and gesturing we can speculate how each chose to perceive Death’s message of change. First, a king lies flat on his back, his crown fallen off his head and toppled by the horse’s hoof. Because of his defeat, we can surmise that this king was not very welcoming to change, and so it killed him. I’m reminded of a comment Carson, the butler of Downton Abbey, made around King George V’s speech over the “wireless” radio. In Episode 2 of Season 5, he said, “Even kings must bow to pressure sometimes.”[1]


The second figure in this card is a child, on their knees, and presenting Death with a bouquet of flowers. The child is naïve, curious, yet they reach back for the hand of the girl behind them. Perhaps the child is a little afraid. The figure behind the child appears to be an adolescent girl or young woman. Like the child, she is also kneeling, only her closed eyes, turned face, and upward-turned palms indicate an acceptance of Death’s message with brave resolve. Or is she turned away in disgust?


Lastly, we see a bishop, most likely male, standing with praying hands. Beneath the horse’s raised hoof lies the bishop’s staff. Was the scepter knocked from the bishop’s hands? Or was it dropped by the minister himself in order to welcome Death’s message?


In the Death card’s background, we see a small sailboat coasting along calm waters. A cliff rises above the water, lined with trees, a cave carved into its side. At the top of the cliff, a stream—perhaps the source of the water that falls down the cliffside—flows from between a pair of pillars called “herms.” In Greek mythology, these structures were boundary markers named after Hermes, messenger to the gods and the conductor of death for his fellow god, Hades. Beyond the herms, a bright sun either rises or sets against a serene sky, the promise of new days to come. Pay attention to the two herms, because you will see them again in The Moon card. What’s on the other side of their gate? Well, what’s on the other side of change? And what’s on the other side of death? Until we know for sure, the answer is always the unknown.


Death: A Deep Dive


Death is a harbinger of change. In her robust text Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, author and Tarot expert Rachel Pollack suggests that Death invites one to “Give up your old masks and allow change to take place.”[2] Thus, Death reminds writers that sometimes we must lean into a complete transformation, even if that means making changes to the way we write. If the Death card lands on your desk, it might be time to shed your old mask and try something new—new voice, setting, or even a new genre.


Death might also inform a necessary change within what you’re writing. British writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch offered advice about self-editing to include “Murder your darlings.” The Death card invites writers to submit to our intuition, editing objectively and without attachment to our well-crafted lines, and even walking away from stories and characters that don’t resonate or belong. Why? Because in doing so means following one’s intuition. Even when your manuscript is polished and ready for submission to an agent, if you feel in your bones that you must scrap a paragraph, a page, a character, or even an entire chapter, you should probably do it.

Death Reversed: The Shadow

When the Death card turns on its head, it informs an involuntary death or change. This change is the type that has not been invoked and is quite difficult to face and/or manage. Death reversed is “a living death,” which Tarot instructor and psychotherapist Ellen Goldberg identifies as boredom and/or lethargy. In her teachings, she notes that the fear of death is worse than an actual, physical death. “There is a kind of stunting of life that [happens to] people who fear death so that they are afraid to live. To make friends with death is to live more fully.”[3]


Notable Symbols for the Death Card

Suit

Major Arcana

Element

Spirit / Water

Numerology

Thirteen—In numerology, the number 13 is reduced to the number 4. Four conveys steadiness, foundation, security, stability, structure, pause, planning, practicality, rigidity, focus, and preparation. In Death, however, these attributes occur after a significant change or transformation.


In folklore, superstition, and to everyone living with triskaidekaphobia, the number 13 is often synonymous with bad luck. Buildings don’t usually have a thirteenth floor, many warn about traveling, doing business, and/or getting married on the thirteenth, and there is, of course, the fear around Friday the thirteenth. The date was wildly popularized by the story of the Knights Templar, a medieval Christian organization that lost many members to torture and execution on Friday, October 13, 1307[4], as well as the 1980 movie by the same title. There were thirteen people at the Last Supper, thirteen steps to the gallows, and thirteen of anything in a baker’s dozen. Additionally, there are thirteen lunar cycles per year, and witch covens traditionally include thirteen members.

Other Symbols

Skeleton—A reminder of what we leave behind after death, our most enduring part and our very own hidden treasure.


Armor—A symbol of what is indestructible and cannot be changed. A reminder that we can always rise above the pain and discomfort of death and transformation, respectively.


Gray— austerity, mystery, neutrality, and uncertainty


Sun—The promise of a new day


Water—The stream will always be water, yet water is always changing.


Black flag—death and the absence of light


White rose— immortality, innocence, and purity


White horse—The white horse upon which Death rides represents spirit.



Death, Characterized


If Death shows up in a spread where the card represents your character, it could mean said character needs to undergo a significant transformation. Are you considering a plot twist for their storyline? Have you been toying with the idea of antagonist redemption? Does your character undergo a gradual transition spanning the length of your story? Is one of your minor characters a dark horse, riding along your plot line until they succeed suddenly and/or unexpectedly?


Other times, Death might represent you, dear writer. You are the one riding the horse and carrying the flag. And when this happens, consider giving yourself permission to explore what you really want to write—even if it’s altogether opposite of what you are accustomed to creating. Author Joe R. Lansdale is credited with advising writers to “Write as if everyone you know is dead.”[5] To me, this statement grants permission to write without regard for the opinions of others. Death to their expectations! Write for yourself. Write the book you want to read[6]. Apart from your own, no one else’s opinion of your work matters, not even the reader’s. If you love what you are writing, there will be a market for readers like you. Write authentically, carving your own storytelling path, as opposed to continuing reluctantly down an unfulfilling path everyone else expects of you.


Who can the figure in the card be?


The winds of change, the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death Shachath



Notable characters, people, or personas


The narrator of The Book Thief, Brad Pitt as Joe Black in Meet Joe Black, Frances Conroy as Shachath in American Horror Story: Asylum, the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged


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Sources:

  1. Fellowes, J. (2015, January 11). Downton Abbey (season 5, episode 2) [Television]. BBC.

  2. Pollack, R. (2019). Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness (A New Edition of the Tarot Classic) (Third Edition, Revised). Weiser Books.

  3. Howcast. (2018, October 15). How to Read the Death Card | Tarot Cards [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved October 15, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sa9ZlzczkI

  4. History.com Editors. (2022, August 23). Knights Templar. HISTORY. Retrieved October 13, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/the-knights-templar

  5. The Writers College. (2019, October 16). Best Writing Tip: Write as if Everyone You Know Is Dead. The Writers College Times. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://www.writerscollegeblog.com/best-writing-tip-write-as-if-everyone-you-know-is-dead/

  6. Davies, J. (2022b, April 22). Writing What You Need to Read: One Quote Shared by Countless Authors. BOOK RIOT. Retrieved October 11, 2022, from https://bookriot.com/who-said-writing-what-you-need-to-read/



Next on the blog, the spotlight shines on indie author V. J. Astrid! Don't miss this interview.



In her more than thirty years as a storyteller and visual designer, Amanda “Mandy” Hughes has written and designed over a dozen works of upmarket, literary, 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. Although she earned a Bachelor and Master of Science in Psychology, she has yet to figure out her family, much less herself. And that's a good thing!


When she’s not writing, Mandy loves going to the movies, theater, traveling, nature walks, birdwatching, margarita-making, and binge-watching The Office. She is a tarot enthusiast who uses the cards to promote wellness and enhance creativity. She lives in Georgia with her husband and four boys, two of whom are furrier than the others (but not by much). Visit her website at haintbluecreative.com and follow her on Instagram @haintbluecreative.





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