This last month has left me reeling. My father passed away suddenly, and what spins into that (as we raced across the country to say goodbye), and out of that (in the long process of settling and celebrating his life) is a lot to do and feel. Add to that that my novel, more than a decade in the making, needs a final edit on its way into the world (it will be published next May), and I have a 17-page editorial letter, a ton of great ideas that require some finesse and feeling, and only two weeks to get them done. The same two weeks that I have to plan my father’s memorial. So it may not be surprising that my burning question for the Tarot has a very personal impetus:
What to do when there is too much to do?
In this Tarot feature, I pull a single card* to find my answers. I use the card for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The Seven of Birds.
The Card: In this deck, the Birds is the suit of the Air. It signifies the mind and the spirit, as well as prophecy and information. It is the suit of art, and also – in its correspondence to the Swords in a traditional tarot deck – it offers us ways to transcend and transform sorrow and anger. Sevens also correspond to communication, which gives us a double dose of communicating for the writer. This is the card of boundaries, and the importance of drawing them clearly, and with song, which makes it perfect for today’s question.
So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?
Know what you want. Get what you need.
The image of this card is of two people working, individually but beside each other, according to the clear and mutual boundaries they are creating. Above them, birds have also claimed their territory, through song. Evoking behavioral bird studies, and Aboriginal land claims, creator Rachel Pollack introduces the idea of a song as a map. And what is a song, but a celebration, an expression, a story?
From this card, the message I am getting is that you can’t do it all, you can’t have it all, but every being in the card does have what they need and what they claim. A reminder of the common wisdom that you can only do so much, and that you have to prioritize, makes sense here. But sometimes, when there are too many balls in the air, we move instinctively to grab the ones that are dropping first. This card reminds me that I have a particular song to sing, and it has its own tone, and emotion, and story. What is my song and what do I want to sing? is a much more helpful, and more grounding, way to figure out how to go forward than What do I have to do and what’s about to collapse?
So how do we apply this card to our work?
Go back to the shape of your intention.
What does that mean? Well, in my case, not only do I have a lot going on in my life, I have a lot going on on the page: three narratives, three timelines, three locations. My final edit calls for moving some of these pieces around, while trying to track all the pieces to make sure they make it back in somewhere to do the work they were originally intended to do. I’m a big fan of the outline, and going back to the beginning to remember what I put in, where and most importantly why, is a help to me. But for today’s exercise, I want to suggest a trick that can help if you have so much going on in your story and your revision that you can’t remember or recognize what you set out to do.
Think of a shape you are familiar with. Possibly a song, a poem, a three act. Maybe, more radically, the structure of Catholic mass, or the architecture of a high-rise building, or the five stages of grief, as my colleague at Goddard College, playwright Kyle Bass, suggested at a recent residency. How does your work fit into that shape?
What is your ground floor/processional/first act? How does it fit the requirement of the new structure (to hold everything up, to move everything into the space)? What is being “denied” in your first stage of grief?
Or, going with the idea of song, think about how the elements of your work correspond with the elements of a song (even a symphony!) to “test” them and make sure they are there and doing the necessary work. Find your melody, your base line. Think about your verses and your chorus. Is there a bridge? What does the harmony sound like?
There are so many structures you can use to get fresh eyes and ears on your work, to help you when you are so close to your material that you can no longer see all of it for what it was meant to do. Use your “song” to help you identify, pare back, rearrange, and most importantly, remember the emotional journey you are creating for your reader.
*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.