I’ve been limiting my exposure to social media, particularly Facebook, this year, but whatever force of the universe compelled me to sign on a few days before October 28th, I thank you. My friend and former writing instructor Laura Lam posted a link to a retreat taking place in Edinburgh, two words of which grabbed me and wouldn’t let go till I reserved my space: Writing and Tarot.

Literally two of my favorite things. I had to attend. I emailed Noelle and Becky at Aurora Writers’ Retreats right away, and on the day was lucky enough to sit in a circle with five other women writers, all there to learn how to enrich our writing practice using the Tarot. I think this was a particularly auspicious retreat to attend at Samhuinn, that time of the year when the boundary between our world and the Otherworld is more fluid, more easily crossed. A time of magical happenings, magical thinking, when we are, perhaps, more intuitive, more receptive to magical and spiritual messages.

In other words, the perfect time for Tarot.

Brittany Muscarella Tarot 03

Let me just clarify for anyone who’s reading this and thinking I’ve been channeling some dark entity through the cards to write my stories for me. While that would definitely give me some much-needed extra sleep and time to pluck my eyebrows, that’s not what Tarot is for. Tarot speaks a universal language of symbols that can release deeper meaning in your life, career, health, spirituality, your writing; everything, really, because the cards draw on (one might argue, are empowered by) your intuition. As Noelle put it at the retreat, Tarot is a blueprint for the subconscious. I think this, then, maps nicely onto the art of writing—because what is storytelling if not making conscious and tangible the stories and concepts and ideals that dwell in our individual and collective subconscious?

Okay, rant over.

The Samhuinn Retreat began with a brief discussion of our favorite aspects of Samhuinn and the fall season (as well as some awesome home-baked goodies from Noelle), before Becky led us in an autumn-themed meditation and freewriting exercise. Hard as I try, I’m not too great at meditating, but Becky’s guidance really helped me get out of my head, and I feel that the benefit I got from this retreat was thanks in large part to the clarity and inner quiet with which I entered the Tarot-based exercises after this practice. My mind was open and receptive, my intuition was fired up, leading to some truly revealing and perspective-changing insights into my story and my writing practice.

I won’t go into every detail of the retreat—I think Aurora are planning to do another one, so if writing is your thing, and you have any inclination towards or interest in Tarot or are even just in need of a different way to approach your writing practice, you need to attend! But I will give you an idea of how this retreat helped me develop and deepen my practice.

Tarot is a useful way to generate new story ideas, and the retreat offered loads of exercises and examples of ways you can incorporate the cards into developing a concept, world, plot, structure, and characters. But writers with works in progress, listen up. I went into this retreat with a project I’ve been working on for two years. Three drafts later, I’ve hammered out nearly every kink and flaw, rewritten my chapter breakdown five times, gotten to know my characters better than I know my own friends and family, but still this retreat made me look at my story, and my writing practice in general, in a new light. I was totally shocked at what my subconscious mind told me about my book through the cards.

For example, the first exercise asked us to shuffle the cards and draw one without looking (subconscious choice), then look at the cards and pick one that grabbed our attention (conscious choice). We used these cards to think more deeply about our stories, new or old, and my choices were so revealing. Something about my story had been gnawing at the back of my mind for a couple months before the retreat, but I didn’t know what it was, let alone how to fix it. Just that there was a problem. Well, the 7 of Swords, my subconscious choice, brought a revelation.

Brittany Muscarella Tarot 01Betrayal. A theft of words or the power to speak.

Seeing this card next to my conscious choice, the Queen of Pentacles, my protagonist, was like being hit with a ton of bricks. I knew exactly what the problem was: I hadn’t really considered the multiple betrayals my protagonist faces, the multiple attempts to take away her voice, not just by other characters in the story, but also by the institution of literature itself. Encouraged by the Queen of Pentacles, I knew how to fix the issue. What’s more, considering these two cards together brought me back to the purpose of my story: to challenge literary traditions that take voices away, that dispossess and marginalize, for the sake of a patriarchal worldview, and to celebrate women in the cycle of the birth and dying and rebirth of worlds.

Another activity focused on developing the story’s antagonist using a subconsciously chosen Tarot card. At first, I didn’t understand the implications The Lovers had for my story, even though the focal point of my story is the characters’ relationships. So I used a technique Noelle suggested, focusing on a specific aspect of the card’s imagery. When I analyzed the positions of the Lovers’ faces more closely, I saw that they are looking away—from each other, from the angel, from the garden in which they stand. Delving into that one small detail highlighted the tension that exists between and among characters, and between characters and their world. The tension is especially poignant for my protagonist, and as I explored this further, I realized that my antagonist isn’t the character I’d thought it was—it’s a social structure.

Brittany Muscarella Tarot 04I could go on about the new perceptions I took away from the retreat, but suffice it to say that I was able to rework my chapter breakdown (again) that very night, as well as do some critical self-reflection and rethinking of my purpose. For the first time in two years, I feel the way forward to story’s end is clear, and I can simply enjoy writing it.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this quotation from Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies:

“From this arid sphere every discourse and every poem sets forth; and every journey through forests, battles, treasures, banquets, bedchambers, brings us back here, to the center of an empty horizon.”

To learn more about Aurora Writers’ upcoming retreats, check out their website here.

Thank you to Joseph, my husband and proprietor of Pale Purple Sheep, for the lovely photos of my cards!