Write Less

The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life BY Jessa Crispin. Touchstone. Paperback, 352 pages. $22.

The protagonist of Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 conjures the material for two hours of plot by getting her cards read in anticipation of a call from her doctor. “I can’t see you yet,” the tarot reader says to the distraught, beautiful woman. “The cards speak better if you appear.” Madame Irma reshuffles the deck after laying out a series of foreboding cards, claiming they are “difficult to read.” Fearful and impatient, having purchased enough portents for one afternoon—“The illness is upon you”; “I see evil forces. A doctor”—Cléo aborts the reading and soon bursts into tears. At a café afterward, her maid asks if the old woman “rid you of your fear.” (The answer is no.)

In her reference–cum–self-help book, The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life (Touchstone, $22), Jessa Crispin proselytizes for the healing powers of tarot for those ailing creatively. Unlike Madame Irma, Crispin sees her clients, or readers, all too clearly, projecting onto “you” a narrative that I hope, for your sake, will have nothing to do with your actual life. “All you have today is fifty-eight cents, an orange, and some pencils,” she writes brightly. Thirty-six pages later, you’re “just walking around, on your way to the market to buy some eggs, and all of a sudden, wham! You know exactly what you want to do, and the feeling is so intense it is like someone set you on fire.” I know what I’d do: Eat that orange, donate the fifty-eight cents to a panhandler with my free hand, and scrawl a suicide note in pencil. Death by whimsy.

Crispin makes two assumptions about anyone who picks up her book: He has a “project,” and no one cares about it. The creative life, Crispin notes—not all pencils, oranges, and surprise visits from the Muse—can be full of “betrayal, abandonment, cruelty, and pain.” She speaks of “wounds,” manuscripts consigned to the bottom drawer, rejections that cause a “tailspin of depression.” Crispin and her tarot deck are here to help the poor battered souls work through “different creative problems: wanting to start writing or painting or working on your medium of choice, but unsure how to begin; restarting a project that has become blocked.” One theme emerges in much of her advice for the art-lorn: There is no need for your magnum opus to involve much in the way of hard work. “We have this myth of the creator as a superhuman beast,” she writes, “that in order to be a real writer or artist, you must push past your limits, you must drive everyone around you crazy. . . . It’s nonsense. No one has to work like that.” If you draw the Fool, she clucks encouragingly, “just put words on a page.” With the Magician, Crispin writes of your writing, “the less control you have over it, the better.” “William Shakespeare was an incredibly fast writer,” she continues. I cannot read that sentence without imagining Crispin typing frantically, swept along by the swift current of wishful thinking that allows us all to write faster in the name of the Bard. Let’s hope we don’t drown.

By now you will have gathered that The Creative Tarot, though it contains some perfectly serviceable interpretations of the cards, is not intended for anyone wanting to learn about tarot. (For that, you might as well turn to the works of Rachel Pollack, to take just one example from the “Religion” section of my own bookshelves, or to one of many iPhone apps.) Instead, tarot is here enlisted to succor “you,” the artist manqué, the self-diagnosed prodigy, and shore you up against adulthood. As Crispin writes, “We like to think of ourselves as autonomous creative geniuses; that our ideas will obviously be the best.”

Crispin’s aversion to elitist notions of genius, and her calm conviction about her readers’ talents, might be called egalitarianism, but you could also call it marketing—spiritual entrepreneurialism. Each chapter begins with a simple description of a card and how it relates to your creative process. The Three of Cups, for example, “is specifically about female friendship,” though not, she emphasizes, the kind that involves “having someone edit or review your work to tell you whether or not you are on the right track.” What she has in mind is more a version of the friendship between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, which she renders thus: “Sometimes . . . they just talked about boys. Even if you are one of the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century, you need to talk about boys now and then! That doesn’t make you any less of a genius, it simply means you are human.” (If we must degrade their memory so, I feel we should at least give these two credit for talking about men.)

Visiting a tarot reader is like buying a certain kind of novel: You go seeking an omniscient narrator, someone you can trust to give you, the protagonist in your own life, a story to move through. Crispin argues that you should “concentrate on what is within your control” because fate is “immune to our will.” When Cléo visits Madame Irma, she is effectively preempting her diagnosis (science) with a prognosis (fortune-telling): The reader can keep the narrative, if nothing else, under control. Writers have always experimented with techniques that temporarily loosen the grip of the conscious mind, and tarot, with its mix of order and whimsy, its whiff of myth and cheap fiction, could in theory be as good a tool as any. But Crispin’s tale of the misunderstood everygenius seems too banal to be helpful. Real writers (unlike Crispin, I happen to believe that they exist and are rare) experience blocks, of course, but they would probably find Crispin’s cheery prescription to relax and accept yourself—and let that masterpiece slide right on out of you!—as alien as I do. As for the rest of “you,” consider whether some of those ideas trapped inside you might be better off staying right where they are.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in New York.