On the Bookshelf: The Creative Tarot by Jessa Crispin

by Marianne in


It's been a while since we've had a book review around these parts, but I think Jessa Crispin's The Creative Tarot deserves a mention because of its unique approach to the cards, and because, unlike many a tarot book, it kept me reading from cover to cover. Supporting creativity is a big part of the work I do with clients (you can even order a reading specifically for your creative projects!), and something I'm almost constantly thinking about in my own life. Naturally, I would be gripped by a book that promised to fuse these two fields in a new way.

Crispin's new tarot book first came to my attention when one my un-tarot-y friends (is it wrong to refer to them as my muggle friends, I wonder?) sent me a link to its write-up in the New Yorker. It might be unusual for a tarot book to be reviewed in The New Yorker, but it isn't a surprise to see an author with such literary chops as Crispin's snagging real estate in what is probably the world's most beloved literary magazine. A long-time critic, writer, and creator of the lit culture website, Bookslut, Crispin is having her moment to come out of the broom closet and say yes, smart people with many degrees and prestigious careers respect and use tarot. 

Of course, around here we knew that already, and I do admit to issuing a blinding eye-roll when I read The New Yorker's chosen headline, "Making Tarot Literary Again." Remind me, when wasn't it? After relishing my moment of snark, though, I thought, ok, I better find out what this is all about.

As you'd expect from the title, The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to the Inspired Life examines the tarot in terms of its application to creative practice. This has always been a subject of great interest to me, both as a maker of things and as a tarot reader, so once I regained my post-eye-roll vision, I got a little excited. Most readers know how powerful the cards can be to shake up stale ideas and offer support in moments of creative crisis, but this book goes above and beyond in championing that as a practice.

The book offers a moderately good introduction to the art of tarot, as Crispin tries (successfully, I think) to engage both total newcomers and more experienced readers. Crispin kicks off by sharing a little bit of tarot history and her own tarot origin story. To settle in the cautious beginners (ie, all those sceptical New Yorker readers), there's a Q&A about what deck to use, whether you can read for yourself, and what to do if you're an atheist (spoiler alert - don't panic!). The author reassures that no crystals and incense are necessary to reap the benefits of self-reflection with the cards (note that the only reason a piece of clear quartz appears in the above photograph is because that's what actual mystics have on hand to hold an uncooperative book cover closed).

Crispin then strikes out into the meatiest section of the book, her card-by-card index of meanings, associations, applications. The Rider-Waite-Smith is her chosen deck for this book, and the meanings are based on the traditional lexicon of that deck. Crispin does stress, though, that her suggested interpretations needn't be applied only to work with the RWS, and in her image descriptions, she gives some leeway for non-traditional card depictions. For each card, we get a general description of the card image (as well as a picture taken from the RWS), some ideas about the story each card tells, and then that story's application to an aspect or aspects of the creative process.

Then, the best part - that application is illustrated with an example from an artist's biography, a nugget of popular culture, or a myth or fairytale. For example, Crispin uses Nikolay Gogol's burning of half of his opus, Dead Souls, to illustrate the destructive fear and anxiety of the Nine of Swords. Temperance's blending of opposites to create a new path is exemplified by David Bowie's genre- and gender-bending period in the 70's. St. Teresa of Avila's fevered holy visions demonstrate the lightning bolt inspiration of the Ace of Wands.

For me, this was the juiciest bit of the book, and I surprised myself by reading this part of it from start to finish. These days, it's unheard of for me to read a book of card meanings from cover to cover, but I was seduced by Crispin's storytelling and eager to see how her unique vision would interpret the next card. Not to mention, I'm a total studio voyeur - I can't get enough of stories about the work practices of creative people (FYI, if that's your kind of thang, see Daily Rituals by Mason Currey). 

Having said that, I didn't agree with all of her interpretations and correspondences (e.g., she associates Cups with spirituality, which has always been a fiery Wands trait in my book), but I came to appreciate that as one of the book's strengths. The interpretations offered may not always be traditional, they may not always resonate with my approach, but they're so obviously born out of many years of direct work with the cards in the context of creative practice. Crispin has a clear and unique voice that shines through in her approach to each card and the deck as a whole. There's plenty here to spark consideration and debate for seasoned readers. 

Wait - did I say the stories of creatives was the best part? I think I was wrong. The best-best part has got to be the recommended materials that Crispin offers for each card. An inspired idea! For the Eight of Coins, we're dispatched to view Chuck Close's Self-Portrait, for the Page of Cups, to read Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. The Queen of Swords can be found in the works of Diane Arbus, and The Hierophant in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg. Films, photographs, paintings, and books are presented as a means to deepen our understanding of each archetype. It's a tactic I've employed myself, and more than anything, I think its value lies in teaching us students of the tarot to pay attention, always. Mythologies and their attendant lessons lurk around every corner!

After working her way through the deck, Crispin offers a series of thoughtful spreads to address quandaries and questions that might arise at different points in the creative process. Each spread comes with a sample reading, so you can see her interpretations in action. She also keeps those anxious atheists on board by offering some advice for how to start doing your own readings (look for patterns, look for the story, be calm and trust yourself when you're starting out). To wrap up, there are some tips on how to choose a deck, keeping a journal of your readings, and how to read for someone else. 

The Creative Tarot strikes a good balance between being a gentle introduction for beginners and offering new ideas and substantial-enough content for readers who have been around the block a few times. While I wouldn't recommend it as the sole resource for a total tarot noob (bitch please, that's always going to be Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack - accept no substitutes!), there's more than enough here to get you started. Certainly, if you're a tarot reader looking to expand your creative practice (or that of your clients), this will be an invaluable resource. 

In the weeks since I picked up the book, I've seen it pop up all over the tarot instagram-o-sphere, and also in some unexpected places - for example, artist and creativity guru Austin Kleon has posted about it. There's no doubt that the popularity of tarot is on the rise, and if more people come to use the cards to enhance their earthly experience, all the better. The inimitable Brene Brown cautions that "unused creativity is not benign", and if that is the case, then it would behove both readers of the tarot and readers of The New Yorker to put it to good use! To that end, Jessa Crispin is a great cheerleader to have in your corner, and The Creative Tarot a great resource for your bookshelf. 

Are there any readers of The Creative Tarot in the crowd? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this book, and on supporting creativity with tarot in general! Drop me a line in the comments.

Book a Tarot Reading | Shop Tarot Decks