Tarot Cards for Dissertation Writing

I’ve been working on my dissertation since September of 2013, I believe, and I will turn it in to my committee on September 1st, 2015. Over the past nearly two years, my relationship with my dissertation has changed a lot, as have the daily habits that I’ve come to cultivate. I only started studying tarot recently, but lately I’ve noticed that many of the cards embody energies, ideas, and perspectives that I’ve discovered in the process of dissertation writing. Only some of the cards below concern the intellectual side of the endeavor. Others correct for grad students’ tendency to focus on the intellect at the expense of everything else. I have found out how to live while writing my dissertation, rather than being a slave to it, and these cards express some of the lessons I’ve learned.

The Empress. Dreaming Way Tarot and Smith-Waite Centennial Deck

The Empress. In our temple, there’s a verse we recite before eating each meal.

This food comes from the labors of being past and present.
From this, our body-mind is nourished, our practice sustained.
Gratefully, we accept this meal.

We often refer to this thing we live in as the body-mind because the body and mind are not separate, despite what you might think if you were born in the West at any point in the last 400 years. The mind cannot function well if you don’t treat your body with care. After all, the brain is an organ–an organ which uses an incredible amount of oxygen and blood sugar. Bodily self-care is something that is rarely discussed among academics, although if you hang around an academic department long enough, you’ll notice a mix of people who deal with the stresses of academia through their bodies, everything from serious athletes to health nuts to pallid desk-chair dwellers to those who primarily subsist on everyone’s favorite upper and downer: caffeine and alcohol.

In my experience, taking care one’s body and living in one’s body are vital. This means getting enough sleep (by determining how much you actually need, rather than the 5 hours that grad students “should” need), eating real food, laying off the caffeine and alcohol, and doing some semblance of physical activity. This is where the Empress comes in. She is a reminder to nurture your body and to live in the physical world, rather than in your head all the time.  Remember those MIT guys who created a glop that you just mix with water and are marketing it as a “food replacement”? The Empress says, as nicely and regally as possible, fuck that. What happened to the wonderfully tactile experiences of cooking and eating? I’m not talking about hedonism here, but simply connecting yourself to the world by consuming real things that came from the earth. I know that affordable food isn’t always possible for grad students, and I also know that grad students with children do not always have the time to exercise and take care of themselves. But if these things are at the bottom of your priority list, consider moving them up. I promise you: abusing your body for the sake of living in your head only comes back to bite your ass in the long term.

The Five of Wands and the Seven of Wands. Both of these cards are about conflict: the Five of Wands represents divisiveness and infighting, while the Seven of Wands represents putting up a unified front to defend oneself. In terms of dissertation-writing, I think that it’s easy to fall prey to mistaking the Five for the Seven. When I started writing, my writing was a little combative and snotty even though in general I do not practice speaking harshly about the work of other scholars. I thought I was defending the poets I was writing about from other critics, but as I gained more confidence, I realized that I was only “defending” the poets from my own insecurities. I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to say, so I fell back on attacking others–who ended up being little more than straw men I created in my head.

There are times in academia where you really are in the situation of the Seven of Wands: your ideas are being challenged and you need to defend them. But as I’ve become more confident in my own writing, I’ve found that those situations are pretty rare (well, that is, unless you seek them out by going to lots of conferences with big-name people, etc.) Usually, most of the fighting is simply self-generated and just gets in the way of actually saying something worthwhile.

The Hermit. Smith-Waite Centennial Deck and Linestrider Tarot.

The Hermit. This guy comes up a lot in my readings about my dissertation, or in daily readings when I’m working on my dissertation. Writing a dissertation, especially in the humanities, can be a lonely endeavor. It’s not a lone endeavor–it’s impossible to write a dissertation without the help of friends, other scholars, and advisors–but it does require a willingness to work in solitude for long stretches of time. The Hermit is a good reminder that wisdom is to be found in solitude, even if that solitude feels austere. Dissertation writing is not just about producing a document, it’s about cultivating self-reliance and learning how to work skillfully with inner demons. For sure, it’s a long road, but the Hermit’s light is like a beacon, letting you know that you do have the power to do this. However, there can be a tendency to retreat from others too much, to never get out of the house, and to be afraid to ask for help–that’s the Hermit’s shadow side. I’ve wrestled with this shadow a lot and always have to check in from time to time to see whether the Hermit is appearing upright or reversed, so to speak, in my daily life.

Seven of Cups. Linestrider Tarot and Smith-Waite Centennial Deck
Seven of Cups. Linestrider Tarot and Smith-Waite Centennial Deck

The Seven of Cups. This card is about illusions, particularly about illusive choices regarding endeavors or other people. To me, this card signifies the many, many times that one is tempted to say, “I need to read some more about this before I can write anything.” There’s good research and then there’s being so obsessed with not missing a single word written about your topic that it paralyzes you. And then there’s indulgence in needless research because it’s procrastination that doesn’t feel quite so guilty. Just say no to the Seven of Cups and start writing. If there’s truly a gap in your research, either it will become apparent to you on its own or your advisor will point it out to you.

Three of Cups. Smith-Waite Centennial Deck and Linestrider Tarot
Three of Cups. Smith-Waite Centennial Deck and Linestrider Tarot

The Three of Cups. There are a few things to take away from this card. Number one: don’t let your dissertation ruin your relationships. Even though you’ve got this big document you’re stressing out about, relationships still need to be maintained. Remember to call or text people every once in a while; buy birthday cards and presents, let people know you care about them. Number two: get out of the house or the library and get out of your head every once in a while. Go to dinner, go to a party, go bike riding with a friend, spend time with your squishy. Spend time with other people. Three: celebrate when things are going well!

six of wands
Six of Wands. Wild Unknown Tarot and Smith-Waite Centennial Deck.

The Six of Wands. This is an extension of the last one. When you hit a major milestone or successfully accomplish a difficult task like meeting a chapter deadline, take a moment to formally acknowledge your success to yourself. This could also mean going out to dinner or celebrating in a more traditional way. But if you can’t do that, just at least acknowledge that you have done something awesome before moving on to the next thing.

Knight of Pentacles. Dreaming Way Tarot, Wild Unknown Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck.
Knight of Pentacles. Dreaming Way Tarot, Wild Unknown Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck.

The Knight of Pentacles. Put your ass. On the chair. In front of your computer. Your ass doesn’t want to be there most days, but it needs to be. The Knight of Pentacles will help you keep it there. He is steady and dependable. He works five days a week, he keeps to-do lists and crosses things off of them, he sets goals and accomplishes them.

I’m not going to say that you need to get in the habit of waking up every morning at 7 and writing till 10am without fail. I have tried so many times to set a regular writing schedule for myself and it has never worked. If it works for you, congratulations. But if regular schedules don’t work for you, the key is this: assessing what you can get done in the present moment. For instance, I had a chapter deadline a few days ago. When I got up in the morning, it seemed impossible that I would ever accomplish the amount of work I needed to do to finish the chapter by the end of the day. For a few reasons, I was really wound up in the morning and couldn’t even settle down enough to get to work until noon. But I just got into Knight of Pentacles mode and did what I could, even if that meant writing for 30 minutes and taking a nap, and then getting up and writing for an hour and taking another nap. If that sounds pathetic, well, it is. But I was able to send off my finished chapter by 6 in the evening, amazed at my own persistence. That pie-in-the-sky work schedule never materialized for me, so the more time I spend agonizing about it, the more time and energy I waste. But if I can say, “How much work can I do right now?” and just sit down and do it, even if it’s only for a few minutes, that’s what gets things done. The Knight of Pentacles knows: slow and steady wins the race.

Kind of Wands. Linestrider Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck, Wild Unknown Tarot
Kind of Wands. Linestrider Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck, Wild Unknown Tarot

The King of Wands. Some days you are the Knight of Pentacles, plodding along. And then some days you are the King of Wands.This is the guy who’s going to get it done. He’s the “fire in the belly,” the guy who will finish this goddamn dissertation no matter what it takes. He usually manages to do it with flair, too, but flair is optional. The King of Wands is determination and unbending will–he is that part of you that won’t let yourself fail.

Four of Swords. Linestrider Tarot, Dreaming Way Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck
Four of Swords. Linestrider Tarot, Dreaming Way Tarot, Smith-Waite Centennial Deck

The Four of Swords. But you can’t be the King of Wands all the time, or even the Knight of Pentacles all the time. After you’ve finished a chapter or worked through a really knotty problem, prioritize resting. Even while you’re working, make rest a priority. For me,that means taking naps during the day and taking breaks to do something that I know will not zap a lot of energy, like tending to plants in my garden. Your mind cannot continue to function if you do not rest well.

Eight of Pentacles. Smith-Waite Centennial Deck, Dreaming Way Tarot, Wild Unknown Tarot
Eight of Pentacles. Smith-Waite Centennial Deck, Dreaming Way Tarot, Wild Unknown Tarot

Eight of Pentacles. And there are sometimes when you’re working that you really do realize that you’re not just trudging along or pulling teeth, but you’re crafting something. Those times when you read the paragraphs aloud and an energy rushes through your body: This is really good. It’s hard to lose sight of the fact that you are spending years creating a one of a kind object, a work of true craftsmanship. To my mind, these are the most important moments of writing a dissertation, the ones in which it becomes apparent that it is the process, not the product, that matters.

There are many more cards I could list here, but these are the ones that have had the most immediate effect on my experience. The process if dissertation writing is full of so many ups and downs, however, that I think every card in the deck could be relevant.


    1. Tarot decks can be the best portable art galleries around. Many of them are just not to my taste at all, but when I find a good one it’s so good.


  1. These are some great insights, and I totally relate to some of those writing-process moments!! Most relate-able is probably your rumination on writing as reflected by the 5/7 of Wands: “Usually, most of the fighting is simply self-generated and just gets in the way of actually saying something worthwhile.” …So get that!!

    And the Knight of Coins… “Put your ass. On the chair…” LOL. I think you should make T-shirts to sell.

    Well done.


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