Tarot Cards and Counting Cats: Writers as Magical Thinkers
By Emma Sloley •
Seven is the optimal number of cats. Four is acceptable but dicey, and only three is worth getting nervous about. Any fewer than three is cause for great mental anguish and an absolute certainty that the day is going to be terrible. Not seeing any cats at all? Apocalyptic.
I’m not a particularly superstitious person. Sure, I avoid walking beneath ladders—an avoidance that feels more practical than superstitious, honestly—but that’s about the only precaution I take against fate in ordinary times. In less ordinary times, like while I’m searching for an agent or I have a book out on submission, I become a different person entirely. These situations bring out the nervous witch in me. I become a faulty soothsayer, a reader of tea leaves, a carrier of talismans, a fervent temporary believer in signs and portents.
My debut novel went out on submission in early 2018. I had, of course, heard rumors about how terrible and brain melting this time could be, but like so much of the publishing-anxiety-industrial-complex, the warnings seemed overblown. How bad could it really be? Surely the book would either sell or it wouldn’t, and all of that was out of my hands anyway. What would be the point in worrying about it?
I started most days then, as now, doing yoga on the rooftop of the house at which my husband and I live for part of the year in Mérida, Mexico. The rooftop has views over the flat sun-bleached rooftops, the palm trees, and the tinacos, those distinctive plastic water tanks installed on the roof of every house in the historic center. These rooftops are the domain of several colonies of feral cats, who spend their days hunting, fighting, mating, and sunning, passing in and out of view on their mysterious feline beats.
I’m not sure when I started counting the cats, but I’m certain the ritual began during one of the many excruciating periods of waiting that characterize being an aspiring author. First during my search for a literary agent, and then again once I’d signed with an agent, during the time the novel was being considered by editors at publishing houses. I would sit on my yoga mat, engaged in the extremely non-Zen activity of scrutinizing the near horizon for cats, my heart lifting when a new one would come into view, or sinking if I discovered that I had double-counted a particular individual who had disappeared then reappeared. The total number of kitties I saw during those forty-five minutes of supposed inward focus would set the tone for the rest of the day.
My days became marked by tiny signs and harbingers, by actions taken or not taken, by inconsequential quotidian choices I became convinced had great bearing on the outcome of various hopes and opportunities. I would walk past an open cupboard door, then hesitate, stop, and turn back to close it. Locking the French doors that lead onto the garden, I would silently repeat, “Right at night” to remind myself which way to turn the key. In the mornings, it became a grim secret challenge to finish making breakfast before the coffee maker beeped to say it was ready. All these creepy behaviors because my brain insisted that some small decision or oversight might make all the difference between a good news day and a bad one.
As soon as I had an agent, then a book deal, the superstitions and rituals disappeared and I returned to simply fretting about the writing process itself, which at least felt healthy in that I had some control over the process. I know I’m not the only part-time magical thinker who’s experienced this strange fugue state. Spend time in any social media spaces where writers lurk and it’s clear how many of us believe our careers are cleaved to fortune. So many writers rely on rituals, talismans, superstitions, signs, “lucky” objects, and even occult practices to divine some kind of meaning, weave an illusion of power, or try to wrest control over the process. Because the publishing industry can feel so bafflingly opaque, we rely on these unreliable sources of comfort to guide us during the writing and protect us during the vulnerable waiting. “Good luck!” we cheer each other on when we’re trying to sell a book or place a story, as if we’re all secretly convinced anything good that happens is entirely due to luck and not years and countless deleted sentences worth of hard work. At these times we’ll do anything. We will light candles and incense every day in hopes the fickle gods of publishing will consider bending some of that good fortune our way. We’ll take pilgrimages to visit the places where revered writers worked as if in doing so we might absorb some of the magical energy the author brought to their work, as if a desk or a table or chair can impart some of the genius of its previous owner by osmosis.
Many of the writers I admire have spoken of the ritual magic contained in their chosen routines. In his essay “The Querent,” contained in the brilliant collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee talks about how he was drawn to Tarot card reading as a college student: “Much of what I love about literature is also what I love about Tarot—archetypes at play, hidden forces, secrets brought to light. When I bought the deck, it was for the same reason I bought the car: I felt too much like a character in a novel, buffeted by cruel turns of fate. I wanted to feel powerful in the face of my fate.” According to Ellen Weinstein, who wrote a whole book on the subject (Recipes for Good Luck: The Superstitions, Rituals, and Practices of Extraordinary People), Isabel Allende began her first novel, The House of the Spirits, on January 8, and now begins all of her books on the same auspicious date. Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel, writes eloquently in an essay excerpted from the book Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents about her family’s brushes with the paranormal and her own experiment in having Tarot readings all over the world. Explaining why she decided to get her first reading: “Writing a novel can feel like an attempt to make sense of chaos.” Later, she reflects, “Making big decisions can be so lonely, after all, and there is a special kind of power in a stranger telling you what you already know, in the deepest well of yourself. Just keep going. You know what you need to do.”
Then there are the writers whose rituals are less rooted in superstition than in a desire to control their physical environment—a stealthy means of tricking the mind into the ideal state for writing. Haruki Murakami’s obsession with running, for instance, feels like a way to summon a kind of power from the mind-emptying meditation of physical exercise. “I just run,” he has said. “I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.” Charles Dickens suffered from insomnia he worried would affect his writing, so insisted on only sleeping in a bed in which his head could face north. Kurt Vonnegut famously swore by daily push-ups to keep his mind and body in shape, and Henry Miller adhered to a strict, self-imposed “eleven commandants” while writing Tropic of Cancer, which included dictates like “Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers,” and “Work on one thing at a time until finished.” Maya Angelou would supposedly get into a meditative writing state by renting a hotel room whose walls needed to be stripped of any ornamentation, while Gertrude Stein was fond of driving into the countryside with Alice and staring at cows until inspiration struck.
When I quizzed the writers in my circle about the kind of rituals and superstitious habits they turn to in times of anxiety, the same themes kept cropping up. Music provided either focus or the way into a hypnotic state. “I’ll listen to the same song or two on repeat,” said short fiction writer Nikoletta Gjoni. “Agnes Obel’s September Song is a go-to. The piano is wonderful…it just sounds nostalgic and sad and a little joyful…it puts me in a very particular state of mind.” Nicole Mabry, author of the novel Past This Point, picks a specific song—“for inspiration and courage”—every time she sits down to start a new novel, while Eliza Nellums, whose novel All That’s Bright and Gone released late 2019, plays the same chosen song on a loop (“It’s a good thing I live alone”). Like Chee, several writers mentioned turning to Tarot or divination texts like the I Ching to seek clarity or tamp down anxiety. Said One Night Gone author Tara Laskowski: “It’s the only way I can trick myself into thinking I have control over something I do not.” Author of the novel Boomer1, Daniel Torday, has a more pragmatic go-to: “Xanax, but like more than usual.”
At least one person shared my predilection for random, slightly weird rituals. Nicole Bross, author of the novel Past Presence, uses “everything from having all my tabs in the correct order, to where I’m working (my shed) to time of day (I always start on the hour). To be honest, I consider them hurdles to be overcome more than superstitions because sometimes if things aren’t right I can’t start.”
When I queried my writing circle, I had expected tales of woe similar to my own when it came to finding homes for our words, but I was surprised by how many writers incorporate magical thinking into their daily writing lives, too. I respect their dedication, but it also scares me. I can’t imagine trying to summon that kind of dark power every day. My own version of magical thinking is a seasonal occurrence, like allergies, and I’m always relieved to retire my witch’s hat once the stressful times have passed. It’s exhausting counting cats.
EMMA SLOLEY’s work has appeared in Catapult, Literary Hub, Yemassee, Lunch Ticket, Structo, and The Masters Review Anthology, among many others. She is a MacDowell fellow and her debut novel, Disaster’s Children, was published by Little A books in 2019. Born in Australia, Emma now divides her time between the US and the city of Mérida, Mexico. You can find her on Twitter @Emma_Sloley and at emmasloley.com.