Play Your Cards Right

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by fortune telling. I love the idea that someone can call on an oracle to reveal things about my past, present and future. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the art of fortune telling is profoundly entwined with the act of storytelling. A reader will draw on their oracle to serve up some randomly generated images or symbols. They will then work to weave those symbols into a meaningful story about the sitter’s life.

I’ve also read that Urszula Le Guin and P K Dick occasionally consulted the I Ching to guide their stories and both Stephen King and Grant Morrison have turned to the tarot for inspiration.

So here’s my challenge to you: write your next story or poem in collaboration with an oracle. Perhaps you have a tarot deck that you like? Or maybe you’re already using the I-Ching for insight?

And if you don’t have an oracle, I’m going to give you a crash course in the art of reading playing cards below. 

Okay – so the good news is you don’t have to learn 52 meanings in order to read playing cards. Not in the system I was taught at least. You need to know the meanings of the four suits and the 13 values, and then you need to understand how to bounce those elements off each other to create meaning.

Clubs: Work, study, aspirations

Hearts: Relationships, friendships, emotions

Spades: Problems, solutions, logic

Diamonds: Money, material things, practicality

Ace: Beginnings, independence

Two: Sharing, communication

Three: Change, creativity

Four: Home, stability

Five: Planning, doing

Six: Journeys, adventure

Seven: Wisdom, contemplation

Eight: Health, the body

Nine: Dreams, ambitions

Ten: Cycles, endings

Jack: A young person, a message

Queen: A woman, honesty

King: A man, deceit

(NB: Other systems of playing card reading exist. This is just the one I learned.)

So, how does this work in storytelling terms? Well, one approach could be to draw three cards and allow those to shape the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

I don’t have cards to hand right now, but here’s a handy picture of three cards I found on the internet:

So our starting point is Nine of Hearts – something to do with Relationships/Friendships/Emotions and Dreams/Ambitions. Let’s collide those concepts and see what sparks they produce.
Perhaps we’ve got someone dreaming of love – unrequited perhaps. Or maybe it’s a group of friends and one of them is especially ambitious or driven. Or perhaps there’s a character who can only be honest about their emotions in dreams, leading a double life of some kind.

In the middle we have Three of Clubs – so that’s Work/Study/Aspirations and Change/Creativity.

So that could suggest our unrequited lover is working in a creative industry – a photographer, yearning for the model she’s working with. Or perhaps the group of friends is going through a period of change in the workplace, restructuring maybe. Maybe the person living a double life is a student, perhaps they study psychology?

Our endpoint is going to be Five of Diamonds – Money/Material things/Practicality and Planning/Doing.

Maybe our yearning photographer has bought an expensive gift for the object of her affections, but she can’t bring herself to give it and the two part ways, with everything left unsaid. Or maybe the ambitious one from the group steps on the others in the restructure, destroys the friendship group for their own personal gain. Perhaps our psychological dreamer is offered the chance to take part in a sleep study, where they unlock the potential of his dreams.

So that’s the process in action. I feel like we’ve got two potentially quite strong stories there. The photographer’s bitter-sweet failure to act and the selfish friend’s willingness to destroy the group for personal gain. The third one with the dreamer didn’t really come together, but that’s okay – you can’t win them all. And maybe that scrap of an idea will become useful another day.

Now all we have to do is pick one and write it up.

You could, of course, adapt the process. Maybe three cards is too much. You might get plenty of inspiration from two, or even just one. Perhaps you prefer the tarot, or tea leaves. 

Don’t have a pack of playing cards handy? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

Whatever your process – write something, send it to Voidspace, and include a few notes on what cards/symbols your oracle threw at you.

By Mathew Gostelow