Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Meditations on the Tarot

A meditation on the tarot

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A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which it results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

The Strand dollar bin and more news from New York

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Over the past week, New York City has seen three exceedingly rare events: an earthquake, a tropical storm, and a visit by me. And while my recent trip, thankfully, wasn’t something that happens once in a generation, it’s still less frequent than I would like. I lived in New York for seven years, moving there right out of college despite never having spent more than a few days in the city, simply because I figured, as a writer, that it was the only place in the world to be. Perhaps inevitably, it was only after I left two years ago, moving to Chicago to be with my wife, that my writing life finally began to resemble the one I wanted. But I still miss New York and the time I spent there, so it’s always a pleasure to go back.

If there was a center to my New York life, it was the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore. My own suspicion, confirmed by long experience, is that every book in the world, no matter how unusual or rare, turns up there sooner or later—usually just after you’ve bought it somewhere else. For years, then, on a weekly basis, I would take the train to Union Square and browse in the Strand dollar bin for an hour or so, nearly always emerging with some unexpected find. And although inflation has increased the price of certain hardcovers to $2, my visit last week was as productive as usual: in half an hour, I found a copy of Nancy Arrowsmith’s classic Field Guide to the Little People, a book I remember fondly from my childhood, and, even more remarkably, the anonymous Mediations on the Tarot, a book I’d been hoping to pick up for years.

And while a visit to the Strand alone would have more than justified the trip, it wasn’t the only reason I went to New York. One of my closest friends, the poet and memoirist Katy Lederer, is getting married at the end of the year, and her engagement party seemed like a good excuse to fly out for the weekend. At the party, in addition to Katy and her fiancé Ben, my wife and I got to hang out with Katy’s dad, the legendary Richard Lederer, author of Crazy English, Anguished English and many other classic works on language and wordplay. I devoured his books growing up, and I’m pleased to report that, in person, he’s exactly what you’d hope him to be: funny, garrulous, a fount of jokes, trivia, and sharp observation. I’m looking forward to seeing him again at Katy’s wedding.

On the business side, I also had the chance to catch up with my agent, who had some updates on The Icon Thief and its sequel. Now that the cover art and copy have been finalized, the next step is to go out to readers for potential blurbs, which we’ll be doing in two stages over the next few months. My publisher will also be printing advance readers’ copies soon, which is very exciting. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of pushing forward on House of Passages, the final draft of which is due on September 30, and laying the groundwork for a possible third novel, a tentative synopsis of which I’m hoping to finish shortly. All in all, the next few weeks promise to be exceptionally interesting, with a move to Oak Park, a novelette, and possibly a couple of surprises. Check back soon for more!

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2011 at 9:43 am

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