This tradition extends beyond the historical. Alongside her own writing projects, Crispin reads tarot cards for a range of contemporary creatives, from poets to singers to painters to photographers. Often, she told me, her clients come to her feeling blocked. She recalled a particular reading for a young adult novelist, where the Devil card turned up—“Not as an indicator that something was wrong with the writer,” she said, “but that her project lacked that depth and darkness, and that she had to re-calibrate it.” It helped; Crispin still sees that client regularly.
“Almost every time, the solution is listening to and honoring your intuitive sense of not what you think you need but what your project needs to come to fruition,” Crispin muses in the book’s introduction. “Maybe that is the greatest thing the cards can do for us: quiet down our worried thoughts and our expectations for how it’s ‘supposed’ to go and help us get back in touch with our imagination.”
James C. Kaufman, a psychologist whose research focuses on creativity, hypothesizes that the power of tarot cards to jumpstart creativity lies in their ability to stimulate “associational thinking.” That’s what happens when the brain tries to synthesize multiple distinct inputs, forming associations between ideas that, at first, seem unrelated. (For example: How can you link together the words “Swiss,” “cottage,” and “cake”? The answer: Each word can be paired with a fourth one, “cheese,” to take on new meaning.)
“The tarot cards—between the fact that they have images, they have names, and they have concepts behind them—they’re not terribly dissimilar from a book of writing prompts that says: ‘Okay, well, you have a king and a soldier and the idea of love, go,’” said Kaufman, who is also a professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “Except [with] a deck of tarot cards, they’re different every time.”