Benebell Wen is the author of the recently released tome, Holistic Tarot: An Integrative Approach to Using Tarot for Personal Growth from North Atlantic Books. After plowing through all 800-odd pages as fast as I possibly could, I reached out to her to discuss the writing process, creativity, and Tarot.
Ian McKeachie: I just finished reading Holistic Tarot, and I wanted to write you to let you know how beautiful I thought your book was. I have no doubt I’ll be rereading it many times in the coming years, because there’s a hell of a lot of information in there and I really adore your voice as an author. More than anything, this book is a tremendous creative achievement. I can’t imagine the effort it would take to produce something that’s literally larger than the family Bible my grandmother keeps on her bookshelf, and to have every part of it contribute something necessary to the overall whole.
Can you talk a little about what the creative process was like for you? What kinds of difficulties did you encounter along the way (or are you one of those unicorns of the writing world that never have difficulty finding ideas and expressing them)?
Benebell Wen: I am far from being a unicorn and more workhorse than anything else. The two greatest difficulties were (1) organizing the content in a way that would be coherent and (2) adjudicating what to include and what to leave out.
At first blush these sound like left-brained choices, but they turned out to be right-brained, because ultimately I relied more on intuition. Not only that, but the creative process is remarkably similar to deciding how to organize a novel or short story, whether you will be telling your narrative in a linear or nonlinear form, and where the foci will be. Most writers will tell you that these decisions they make seem to come from creativity, or creative-intuition, and not so much analytical or strategic choices.
Writing a nonfiction reference book turned out to be a lot like writing fiction. Even a reference book needs to tell a story. I understand that you write fiction, Ian. Plus you’re a tarot practitioner. To me, tarot reading is storytelling. Would you agree or disagree with that and what has your study of tarot taught you about creativity and intuition?
Ian McKeachie: I do write fiction, although I have a penchant for melodrama that’s turned me toward ghost stories in recent years rather than actual literature. And I definitely agree with you; for me, the process of performing a Tarot reading is almost identical with drafting fiction. I have a central person or persons, and I’m trying to examine how they function in their environment. What are the influences that surround them? How are they affected by choices they’ve made in the past? Knowing what I know about their dispositions, how can I expect them to act moving forward, and how is that going to affect the tension in their lives?
Even in genre fiction, understanding characters and their motivations is inescapable, or at least it is if I want my work to be any good. Reading Tarot—having to construct a complete narrative about someone else’s life just from looking at tiny pieces of paper with pictures on them—has been instrumental in allowing me to step outside of myself and understand the motivations and choices of people who think and act differently than I do, in the real world and in writing.
Benebell Wen: Here’s the strange synchronicity that happens in tarot though: you look down at those tiny bits of paper with pictures on them, as you say, construct a complete narrative, and then when you look up at the seeker, or the person who is getting the tarot reading from you, you realize that he or she is near tears because you just told that person’s life story. I don’t need to ask whether that’s happened to you as a tarot reader. I know it has.
Synchronicities are cool, yes, but is there any relevance? I talk a bit about synchronicities and tarot in my book, but to you, what is the probative value of that kind of observed synchronicity? Maybe it has something to do with understanding characters and motivations just like in fiction, I don’t know. I’m mostly thinking out loud now. Your thoughts? I know that no two tarot practitioners are going to have the same answer for this question.
Ian McKeachie: Ah, but now we’re getting into what is perhaps the most ferocious debate among Tarot practitioners—if, how, and why Tarot “works.”
On my end, I like to explain it with an anecdote. When I was a kid, we had a family friend—let’s call her Ashleigh—who was thoroughly and willfully miserable with her life to the point that it got kind of annoying. A year after we met her, we happened to go to see a new Woody Allen movie that had just been released (and, as I’m sure you’re aware, every Woody Allen movie has at least one hopelessly miserable character who can be approximated to Ashleigh). As soon as we got out of the theater, my mother burst out, “But that movie was totally about her! Now do you see why I’m so frustrated with her?”
Obviously, Woody Allen did not make a movie about this woman he’d never met. But his work addresses fundamental themes of human life, and provides a symbolic framework within which members of his audience can interpret their own lives. That’s more or less how I see Tarot. Are the cards that come up during a reading somehow magically “about” a seeker’s question? Probably not. But like a Woody Allen movie, they tell a story with near-universal themes that the seeker can relate to her life, and hopefully that will provide food for thought on her part.
But just about every Tarot practitioner has their own answer to this question, and I’ve never found two answers that looked even remotely alike. What about you? You talk a lot about different theories surrounding the Tarot in your book, but what is your personal stance on the significance of, as you called them, the synchronicities of Tarot reading?
Benebell Wen: I love the Woody Allen analogy, though my view of tarot does diverge a bit from yours. Working with your analogy, we can all agree that Woody Allen didn’t make that movie for Ashleigh personally or directly and there is no relationship at all in the physical plane between Allen and your mother or you. However, as it is in tarot, I would contend that the specific cards drawn are personally and directly related to the seeker in question. The specific story being told by the cards drawn at that exact moment of the reading—and timing is critical as well—are intended for the seeker and what’s more, intended for that seeker to see at that precise moment. If you, while thinking about Ashleigh, had requested Woody Allen to make a movie and he, not knowing anything about Ashleigh, made that movie that he did, and then the precise synchronistic timing of your viewing of that movie gave you a remarkable opportunity to affect the course of your or Ashleigh’s life path, then that’s closer to my theories of tarot.
Maybe my view makes me more woo-woo than you. Your approach is a lot more rational.
Your Woody Allen story segues well into another area of interest of mine: tarot and creativity.
In creative writing, a story changes significantly depending on whether it’s told in first person, second, or third person. Likewise in tarot, the shift that takes place from the seeker’s current internalized perceptions of the inquiry to the tarot’s signs and symbols and the now externalized narration of that inquiry is where a transcendent experience takes place (I talk about that in Holistic Tarot, the transcendent experience and creative-intuition).
Tarot works because it can help trigger that needed transcendent experience in the seeker, that “a-ha” moment sourced from both creativity and intuition. So if anyone can benefit from working with tarot, I’d say it’d be writers. Reading tarot for writing projects has been by far one of the coolest ways I’ve used tarot. As a writer, do you ever use tarot to read about your writing? Let’s talk about tarot and creativity.
Ian McKeachie: Your theory makes as much sense as mine. As you said, no two people think the same way about the “how” and “why” of Tarot. As for creative writing, there’s no doubt that Tarot is one of the most useful pieces of cannon-fodder in my artillery.
For me, a story often starts out with an image, a phrase, or a character—but then I’m left with that dreadful question, “What comes next?” A single sentence does not a story make, I’m afraid. So I’ll draw a few cards to explore new characters and their relationships to my protagonist, or to look at the kinds of tension that can be expected to emerge in those characters’ lives. It’s very similar to reading for real people, and I think you expressed it perfectly when you said it triggers the transcendent intuitive and creative experience.
Reading Tarot takes me outside the limited scope of what little inspiration I already have, and it allows me to see the larger potential for what a story can become. What about you? I know you do some creative writing. How do you use Tarot to help that process? What about with a nonfiction work like Holistic Tarot?
Benebell Wen: For creative writing, I use tarot in similar ways as you– drawing cards to explore character motivations, their relationships with each other, and to better understand the progression of the themes I’ve set in motion. The ways I used tarot to write Holistic is less interesting– doing readings for a variety of seekers for the case studies and letting real life teach me about tarot practice (whereas in personal spiritual development, it is usually the tarot teaching us about real life).
I was hoping we could end by addressing one thing I’ve noticed in our discourse. You capitalize Tarot with a capital T. I do not, and keep the whole word lowercase. My reasoning for all lowercase is simply because it’s a noun. What’s your reasoning for the capital T?
Ian McKeachie: Nothing too exciting. I think of Tarot as a proper noun (and sometimes I’ll even stick an extra-pretentious “the” on the front) because there’s only one of it. It’s got its own unique personality, so I dub it with a capital letter. I do the same thing with other self-contained divinatory systems like the I Ching and Ogham, as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, and congratulations again on a masterpiece of a book!