IV of Rods

A wreath of roses and violets adorning four rods welcomes guests who

Morgan Greer_IV of Rods

The IV of Rods from the Morgan Greer Tarot.

have traveled from the four corners of the earth to warm our home. This we have built: a castle hewn into a rock. A home base, it will outlast the elements and life’s vagaries, provide a shelter in the arid desert, and promise a place to rest from summer’s fervor. The wreath and the rods we have also nurtured—hidden behind the rough stone lies a fertile garden.

We have done the work. It is solid. It blooms. Now it is time to frame what we have done.

XIV Temperance

This is the first in a new blog series called the “Tarot Hundreds.” It’s pretty straightforward: I describe a Tarot card in one hundred words. No more, no less. Give it a try, it’s a fun exercise.

Morgan Greer 14 Temperance

Temperance from the Morgan Greer Tarot deck

An archangel holds two cups, water flowing between them like energy between two magnets. One foot on fertile land, the other submerged in placid water. Behind the angel, a halo of insight, a path leading to the hills. It will lead us out; we will carry our lessons with us.

But first, this moment where difficult action meets perfect stillness.

We have walked with death and are preparing to face demons, but we pause to focus on balancing the impossible. We are learning to temper opposing poles, opposing forces, opposing thoughts, opposing selves within. Never one way. Never one answer.

Tarot as tool for self-care

Three of my favorite Empresses. Left to right, they are from the Steampunk Tarot, the Enchanted Tarot, and the Stolen Child Tarot.

Three of my favorite Empresses. Left to right, they are from the Steampunk Tarot, the Enchanted Tarot, and the Stolen Child Tarot.

The biggest gift Tarot has given me is support for self-care.

Sure, reading Tarot for myself does much more than that; it helps me answer loads of different questions—from everything to making big life-changing decisions to grasping the bigger picture to figuring out how to approach difficult relationships more constructively. Even in these situations, however, it is acting in a broader sense as a tool for self-care, too. Any time I read Tarot for myself, I am taking care of myself.

But Tarot also helps me take care of myself in a concrete way.

A lot of people do daily or weekly readings. For a long time, when I started reading Tarot I wasn’t sure how to do regular readings. I wanted to do them to get more practice with the cards, but I personally don’t do predictive readings, so asking something like “What will happen today?” was never an option for me. I wasn’t sure what to ask regularly instead of that; I thought I had to always read on a specific question or issue I was struggling with.

But once I started doing the types of self-care readings below as regular readings, I realized that this is one of the best uses of Tarot: as a radical and regular tool for self-care. It helps you structure a regular practice for taking care of yourself. It gives you a concrete action plan. It teaches you about yourself. If you read for yourself regularly on issues of self-care, Tarot can help you transform your life. For me, it’s helped me learn to identify my own needs more quickly, say no when I need to (something that’s not easy for many women), acknowledge when I’m being undervalued and underappreciated, recognize when I need to take time off to rest, and stop beating up on myself for mistakes I’ve made. As somebody who has suffered from severe depression at several points of my life, I know that regular, mindful self-care (along with the anti-depressants I’m on and therapy) is absolutely necessary for my mental health.

Radical Self-Care

Before I tell you how Tarot has helped me practice self-care, let me say a word on the concept itself: No, it is not selfish to take care of yourself. It’s a mindfulness practice; it’s a loving practice. Not only that, it can be a radical act for women, for queers, for people of color, for trans people, for mothers, for anyone who’s told that somebody else’s lives or bodies matter more than theirs, who’s told that they should not exist, that their bodies do not deserve to be cared for. In particular, some academics of color have written beautifully on radical self-care as a way of transforming internalized racist, heterosexist, and patriarchal social structures. See, for example, SooJin Pate’s piece and Sara Ahmed’s “Selfcare as Warfare.”

Also, interestingly, I just found this piece from Jennifer Racioppi about how with the New Moon in Virgo, RIGHT NOW, aka September 2015, is a prime time to begin a self-care practice. (I found this AFTER I woke up and wrote this blog. Huh. I guess the woo-woo was strong with me this morning. After a took a full day off from work for my own self-care. Funny how that works.)

Tarot Readings for Self-Care

One simple daily/weekly one-card draw you can do is as an answer to the following question:

  • How can I best take care of myself today/this week?

Other longer options include these two 3-card spreads I’ve used as weekly readings in the past. They’re great for Sunday nights when you’re gearing up for the week. Or you can use them at any time when you’re feeling unsure or like you need a little TLC.

  • How can I best approach this [week/day/weekend/event] in body, mind, and spirit?
  • Lay out the cards in a column with body as the base of the column and spirit at the top.

This reading is especially supportive when you feel like you’re facing potentially hostile forces—at work, with your family, etc.—in your week, when you feel the need to put on armor, prepare for battle. It helps you do so in a way that puts your self-care first, before all the other people in your work and life making demands on you.

It’s a way to calibrate your settings for the week. Sometimes you get very concrete answers; for example, once just before I got really sick, I pulled the Tower as the body card. The Tarot was telling me to let it all fall apart—to take time off from work and just be sick. Sometimes it helps you figure out what attitude to channel: to be open to new experiences (Page of Cups as the mind card) or act like the head bitch in charge (Queen of Wands). Other times, it was a truth to embrace: It’s okay if things don’t work out the way you want them to, it’s okay to let yourself be sad about that (5 of Cups as the spirit card).

The next spread is the one I now use as my regular weekly draw for self-care. It’s rather straightforward:

  • How can I encourage self-care this [week/day/weekend]?
  • Lay the cards out in a horizontal row for the following positions:
    • Left: What is one thing I can let go of this week?
    • Middle: What is what thing I can embrace this week?
    • Right: What is one action I can do to take care of myself this week?

I’ve just started using it, and I find, like the other spread, it can give you both conceptual and concrete answers. For example, I did this reading over the past weekend and laughed when I drew the 4 of Swords for the final position: how to take care of myself. That’s a pretty damn clear answer: rest, meditate, unplug. SLEEP. I’d been running on about 5 hours of sleep all week, so that was a big no brainer. Sometimes you need the Tarot to give you those “No duh” answers. Sometimes you need to sit down with the Tarot and figure out where you can be kinder to yourself, where you can give yourself permission. Especially when you’re feeling caught up in the whirlwind of busyness.

This reading is especially helpful when you’re juggling a lot. When you’re in control, but you feel pulled in many different directions. Whereas I used the mind/body/spirit reading when I felt like I was regularly dealing with situations that felt like negotiating a minefield, I use this reading now that I’m in a situation where I don’t feel the need for armor every day, but where I do feel the need for balance. If I’m not careful, I can become my own worst enemy and overplan myself to death. I’m working several jobs, writing a novel, wanting to hang out with friends all the time, and trying to make sure I take time off, too. This spread ensures I check (in with) myself.

She’s Got the Love

When I’m having a hard time focusing for these readings, I like to invoke the Empress. As the source of universal love, she is always there when you need her to teach you about self-love.

She’s got the love you need to see you through.

 © Mia Fitzroy | 2015

How to make writing happen when you’d rather poke your eye out

My rules for myself are pretty simple:

  • Write at least 500 words a day on your novel.
  • Every single day.
  • Unless you’re too sick to do your day job.
  • Or you’re taking a vacation day. You’re allowed 10 of those a year. ONLY 10. If you write less than 500, it counts as a half vacation day.
  • Try to write in the morning or you’ll be grumpy by the evening.

These rules work for me; mileage may vary. Maybe you need to take weekends off or maybe you can only manage 100 words a day. It’s all about finding what fits you. (I found that if I was allowed to take days off, then I was always debating about which days I’d take off. It’s easier to just know I have to write every fucking day.)

But even with the rules, it’s hard. Some days I wake up and am super psyched to be sitting down to the novel, picking up where I left off mid-swashbuckle, or finally finishing a difficult scene. Some days my fingers pound out 700 words in 25 minutes and then I can cheer, have my second cup of coffee, and start my dayjob.

But let’s face it, some days, many days, in fact, I do not want to face the manuscript. Even though I like writing—being in the process of it, learning about storytelling, crafting narratives, and daydreaming about my characters—I still don’t want to open Scrivener, and I’d much rather watch fan video mashups of Kimmy Schmitt and Furiosa than figure out where that silly dialogue I started yesterday is actually going. And then there are those worse days when I’d really rather poke my eye out than finish writing that horrible, traumatic scene that I fear I am sucking at.

Right now, I’m in the mushy mushy middle, slogging towards my midpoint. I know what has to happen, I know how to get there, but why can’t my protagonist be more willing to just embrace her arc already, dammit? This leads to mornings where I just don’t feel like sticking my butt in the chair.

On days like this, I dick around on the internet, put off writing, put off my dayjob, and generally make myself unhappy for awhile. Then, when I actually start writing, it’s fine. I just do the work. And hey, it’s usually turns out pretty damn painless. And then it’s done and I can start my day. So how can I eliminate the step where I dick around, avoid writing, and make myself unhappy? Here a few tricks I’ve learned.

1) Make yourself a writing soundtrack for this particular story/novel/character.

Sometimes I need to listen to music (without lyrics) to help me concentrate, sometimes my wife is in the background slaughtering other players on DOTA 2 and a calm British voice is echoing through the apartment announcing that an enemy has been slain, sometimes I’m sitting in a crowded coffee shop where people at nearby tables are talking rather loudly and I just need music to cancel out the voices around me so I can write my 500 words.

So: music without lyrics, headphones, Scrivener. It’s a way to make the writing happen no matter what environment I’m in.

But I realized else something rather cool, actually. The music functions like Pavlov’s bell. Every time I hear the first chord of the initial song in the playlist I’ve titled “Brunhilda writing,” it helps me zone in. It’s mental habit building. I associate the music with writing, the music starts playing, and BAM I have to start writing.

Just don’t fiddle with the playlist too much, clearly. (Although it can be good to have different sections for different types of scenes you’re writing.)

Also movie soundtracks make great writing music because they’re often exclusively instrumental and emotionally evocative. Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks rock as writing music.

2) If you don’t have time to complete your daily writing goal in the morning, just write for 25 minutes.

In another post, I’ve waxed rhapsodic about why I write in 25-minute chunks called pomodoros and why sometimes I actually divide my whole work day into pomodoros.

When I face a morning where I know that I’ve got a huge work load that day that doesn’t leave me much time for writing, when I’m wrestling with a difficult scene, or when I know that it’s going to be the kind of day where words do not magically flow from my fingers but instead skulk in the shadowy hinterlands of my brain, I tell myself that’s okay. I’ll just do one pomodoro before starting my work day, I don’t have to do all 500 words.

Sometimes I do end up competing 500 in that one morning pomodoro. Other days it’s only about 200. But that’s fine, when my timer goes off, I finish whatever sentence I’m on, close Scrivener, and start attacking my dayjob to-do list. After dinner, I manage to bang out the remaining 300 or so words. It may mean that my wife and I have to sacrifice TV watching for the evening, but really there are worse things (unless it’s an episode of Penny Dreadful, there’s nothing worse than missing out on Eva Green). If I know I have just a little bit to finish (not the whole 500), it’s surprisingly easy to do at the end of the day. The important thing is not to put everything off in the morning just because it doesn’t seem doable in the amount of time you have. Just tell yourself you only have to do some of it before starting your day.

3) Freewrite in a notebook before you start writing so you know what you’re writing.

It stalls me out to open Scrivener and stare blankly at the screen. I re-read what I wrote before and start fiddling too much. So before actually starting the day’s writing, I scratch out a few notes about exactly what I will be writing that day. Sometimes I write for a few pages, sometimes it’s just a few words.

It makes me use my writing time more efficiently to have a direction in mind before I actually get to the word-crafting stage. I may veer from the plan as I write, and I usually do not complete the scene/dialogue that I thought I could, but that’s fine. All that matters is the starting point it gives me, one which I re-assess anew every morning.

Also if I don’t set a direction before writing, I find my characters having long and confusing conversations about gooseberry sauce while cutting roses.

4) Keep a “Crappy Angst Folder.” 
The biggest thing that hinders me from actually doing the writing are my fears, my anxieties. I’m comparing my rough draft to a polished published book, I’m afraid of how arduous the editing process is going to be once I finish the rough draft, my syntax feels like it’s fallen into a repetitive rut, my character growth feels forced or not well timed, I have so many TKs on one page that just looking at it makes me think about the hours and hours of research I still haven’t done yet.

Basically, in my head I’m thinking about the project as a whole and I’m getting scared; then this paralyzes me when I’m trying to do the one task I can do to fix these things: write. I’ve made a Scrivener folder called “Crappy Angst Folder” and whenever I’m feeling full of this crappy, paralyzing angst, whenever the insidious demons are sneaking into my thoughts, I create a new file in this folder and give it an innocuous date as a title. I set my timer for five minutes, close my eyes, and start typing furiously. I get all the fears out. I write about how worried I am, I write about how much my syntax sucks, I write about how stubborn my protagonist is. I write and write about how much I don’t want to write. I gnash my teeth and tear my hair out. I spill my guts and fears and the finely ground bone powder of my back molars onto the page.

Freiheit_statt_Angst_by_Markus_Winkler

Oh, the angst of the plot bunny. Source: Flickr, “Freiheit statt Angst” (Freedom instead of fear) by Markus Winkler

And then two things happen:

1) I run out of things to say. Just spilling this shit onto the page and saying it once can help me let go of it. How many times can you write “Argh I SUUHCK” before you’re ready to do something else. In the light of day, the angst burns out. It’s not as large and scary.

And 2) I start countering these things with positive mantras. One of my favorites for the rough draft process is the brilliant Chuck Wendigism “Writing is when I make the words. Editing is when I make them not shitty.” So basically all that writing advice I’ve been absorbing from books and the blogosphere—rough drafts are supposed to be shitty, do not compare your rough draft to published writers, just keep writing—begins to speak up. It’s like there’s another voice in my that starts shouting to drown out the angsty self-deprecating one.

Exorcise the angst for five minutes, give in to it. And then once it’s there, squalling on the page, weak and helpless, fire-bomb that fucker. You’re better than that angst. That angst is unjustified. And you’ll never know if you’re a good writer if you don’t try, so art harder, motherfucker and kick that angst to the curb.

When the timer goes off I open my manuscript draft and somehow I’m magically ready. And here’s the key, I NEVER READ THOSE CRAPPY ANGST FOLDER ENTRIES AGAIN. Don’t let them have any power over you, don’t read them, don’t think about them. Just let them be what they are in the moment, crappy angst that needs to be exorcised.

And to give credit where credit is due—I did not come up with all these ideas on my own. Many of them came from other awesome writers and bloggers out there. I believe Chuck Wendig, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Rachel Aaron inspired some of these ideas.

Tell me what you all do to make writing happen when you’d rather poke your eye out.

© Mia Fitzroy | 2015

Tarot deck review: Stolen Child Tarot by Monica L. Knighton

My sister knows me quite well. So well, in fact, that when she purchased a Tarot deck from Etsy for my birthday, she picked one that I’d never heard of before and that I find absolutely brilliant. So brilliant that I want to share it and urge you to check it out, too.

Monica Knighton has created the Major Arcana for this deck based on the William Butler Yeats’ poem “Stolen Child Tarot,” and she is still working on the Minor Arcana (which you can support here via Patreon). So it’s not a full deck yet, just the Majors. It’s a limited edition beautifully printed on fine card stock and packaged in carefully folded, sturdy packaging.

Striking and Eerie

Stolen Child Tarot: The playful Fool and the treacherous Devil

Stolen Child Tarot: The playful Fool and the treacherous Devil

The lovely and eerie Yeats poem tells a tale of fairies seducing human children away from the hardships of life. The poem contains gorgeous nature imagery—“Till the moon has taken flight; / To and fro we leap / And chase the frothy bubbles” (which you can see reflected in the Moon card below)—and chilling escapist promises—“Come away, o human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” (There’s also an excellent tabletop role-playing game Changeling based on this very idea, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Knighton’s deck with its rich, striking colors and intriguing combination of children, nature, and magic does an excellent job of capturing both the playfulness and the treachery of the Yeats poem. She captures perfectly the world he describes, where the magical mixes with the human in a far-off Neverland. In fact, speaking of Neverland, her style reminds me strongly of my favorite illustrator of children’s stories, Trina Schart Hyman (whose illustration of Peter Pan happens to be tattooed on my back).

I find this rendition of the Hermit absolutely intriguing.

I find this rendition of the Hermit absolutely intriguing.

I like the fact that Knighton chose a fanciful, yet slightly eerie poem as the inspiration for this deck; too often decks about fairies or children err on the side of only being light and bright. In order to capture all aspects of the Tarot—which represents all stages of life—the deck’s designer has to be willing to go a little dark, and this deck does that, although not excessively so. For example, there’s something fascinating and unsettling about this Hermit. I definitely get the sense of the human merging with the natural world—animals and plants—to depict life lessons. And of course it has to be children who stumble into this magical world, as they’re the ones closest to the natural world.

Not Just a RWS-inspired Deck

The deck is striking because of how powerfully she captures the essence of the Major Arcana, as well. While sometimes clearly inspired by Rider-Waite-Smith imagery, more often than not, Knighton sets up her own scenes for the cards, giving us a new way of seeing something familiar.

The Moon is instantly recognizable.

The Moon is instantly recognizable.

The cards are neither labeled by name or number (something which I appreciate) because you just have the image to work with. When they arrived in the mail, they were out of order in their little package. I immediately began sorting them, trying to figure out which card was what, and that process of discovering the deck on my own was tremendous fun. (Of course Knighton sends you a “Field Guide to the Stolen Child Tarot” as a PDF, which my sister sent me the next day. But I highly recommend trying to order the cards on your own when you first encounter them.)

Some I figured out right away, like the Moon; others delighted me when I suddenly had the eureka realization of what they were, like the Chariot (she’s riding a tortoise!) and Judgement (it’s rebirth!). 

The Chariot and Judgement

The Chariot and Judgement

I was stumped by this until I read Knighton's description of Temperance.

I was stumped by this until I read Knighton’s description of Temperance.

And others stumped me completely, like this card, which turned out to be Temperance. But then, after reading her explanation, which describes the frog as balancing land/materiality and water/spirituality because of its amphibious nature, I had the forehead-hitting aha! moment.

Finally, there were some I had to guess about, which I could sense what they were, but didn’t know why. For example, I was so sure that this was the Lovers card, without knowing why. Her explanation of it, based on the role that bats play in flower pollination, is again quite thoughtful.

The Lovers

The Lovers

Androgynous Figures

In addition to its compelling gorgeous artwork and thoughtful reinterpretation of the Majors, there’s another important reason this deck speaks to me, too. Like many other Tarot readers who are queer or feminist, or who just don’t view gender through a strict dualistic lens, I have struggled a lot with what can seem like the heavily gendered nature of Tarot images. In many decks, three of the four court cards of each suit are male, and many of the archetypal Major Arcana figures are male, too: the Hierophant, the Hermit, the Chariot, etc.

In my own process of learning Tarot, I eventually learned to disassociate the masculine from the male and the feminine from the female, and identify all Tarot cards as positions available to everyone: Yang/masculine energy simply encompasses traits that society has labeled “masculine” and ditto for feminine/yin energy. So when the Tarot tells me to be the Knight of Wands, I ask myself how I can channel my inner frat boy. And when it tells me to embrace the Empress, I ask myself how I can focus more on receptivity and passivity in a situation.

It can make readings for others a bit more difficult, though, especially as I always ask people to tell me where they are in each card. When I’m reading for female querents, for example, sometimes they cannot identify with the male figures in the card; they cannot see themselves as the Knights or Emperors, because they do not see female or gender-neutral figures reflected back at them through the Tarot. Which then further enforces the idea that yang energies are only open to men, which is, of course, not true.

The Empress and the Emperor

The Empress and the Emperor

The Stolen Child Tarot eliminates all this hard work you have to do to neutralize or downplay the traditional gender stereotypes lurking in the Tarot by depicting animals and mostly sexless children, and yet in no way does this make the figures unrelatable or distant. The emotions in the cards are clear. The Emperor and the Empress, the cards that I think of the most gendered in traditional Tarot decks, are a polar bear and a brown bear, both defending their young, taking a stance. In this case, Knighton uses seasons to depict the difference in their energies. The Emperor’s cold polar-icecap world captures the distance and standoffishness of the Emperor in comparison to the inviting, flowering springtime of the Empress’s world (also emphasizing this card’s reproductive receptivity).

Finally! A gender-neutral Judgement card.

Finally! A gender-neutral Judgement card.

My favorite example of gender neutrality in this deck is Judgement, which is actually one of the most gendered cards of traditional RWS decks in that it depicts a nuclear family—man, wife, and child—rising from their coffins for rebirth. Here it is instead a gorgeous, gender-neutral butterfly awakening to a new world from its chrysalis. It perfectly captures the essence of Judgement: The figure’s up-turned face is looking towards the heavens from where it has heard the call to wake up to its own transformation. Not all the cards are 100% gender neutral, but androgyny does win out in this deck’s representation.

The only possible critique I have of this deck is that many of the human figures are very light skinned, and while there’s the occasional character who could be identified as Black, Asian, or mixed race, it has the problem that so manyTarot decks do—unless they specifically are working against this, such as the Afro-Brazilian Tarot or Tarot of the Ages—that people of color are few and far between. However, there’s a chance that Knighton will incorporate more inclusivity in her upcoming cards, the Minor Arcana. And like I said, not all human figures are lily white.

This caveat aside, this deck is a gorgeous, primarily gender-neutral deck that rethinks the Major Arcana in complex and interesting ways. Especially if you’re into the natural world and fairies and want something fairy-inspired other than your usual skimpily dressed women pouting like Scarlet Johannson, this may be the deck for you. As soon as I received this deck, I signed up to support Knighton’s further work on this. On Patreon, she links previews of the Minor Arcana she’s already finished and it looks pretty damn epic.

Check it out on Etsy or support it on Patreon.

© Mia Fitzroy | 2015

An alternative to New Year’s resolutions: a Tarot spread for reflecting on your craft

The new year is a time for resolutions. While I get the idea in principle, personally, they’ve never worked for me. They feel too much like hangover promises—made as a reaction against something else you’ve done and forced upon yourself in a desire to fit some ideal. “I’ll never drink again.” “I’ll finally stop smoking or eating chocolate.” Or “I’ll read good books again.” All worthy things. But they often come from a place of forcing, of being hard on yourself. Or at least for me, they have.

Gym memberships climb in January, yoga classes are full, and then people quickly lose steam and everything goes back to normal in February. Because it’s hard to be that hard on yourself all the time. Seriously not dissing, if they work for you, that is awesome.

What I like, instead of enforcing resolutions, is to do some reflecting during the time from the winter solstice into the new year: reflecting on the past year and thinking with intent about the upcoming one.

The solstice—the darkest time of year—lends itself well to reflection. Partially because during the holiday season, time often feels like it pauses, wobbling between past and future. We stop work, stop school, and come home to each other. We return to the places we grew up, unpack the family traditions and ornaments, eat fancy meals we’ve cooked year after year, and maybe give each other gifts. Of course there’s often a sense of frenzied preparations for holiday parties and festivities. If you have kids, there’s a mad rush to buy all the right presents and stocking stuffers. There may be the stress of the same dinner-table arguments with your family that you know will come up year after year.

It’s like the holiday season has its own clock and the regular world pauses just for awhile. Here in Berlin, the city’s emptying out as all the young hipsters go home to their families, the stores are closing up, and the Christmas chocolate that’s been on sale since October is finally selling out. Because we can’t afford the airfare to fly to the States for a family visit and because we enjoy the quiet, my wife and I are staying in the city this year, celebrating with friends and enjoying some downtime. The gray quiet feels wonderful.

During the holiday-season clock, a good thing to stop and take stock of is your writing. Instead of forcing decisions or resolutions onto the new year, spend some time thinking hard about what your relationship to your craft is like. Where are your projects going? What kind of space are you in with your writing? What are your regular writing habits like? Where and how can you keep learning about your craft?

There’s a tarot spread that I like using for self-assessment at this time of year; it’s Barbara Moore’s “Halycon Solstice Spread” from her book Tarot Spreads: Layouts and Techniques to Empower Your Readings, and I’ve shortened and adapted it to be specifically about the craft of writing. Here it is:

The question to ask as you shuffle is How do I transition my writing into 2015? It uses four cards, laid out in a diamond shape as follows:

       4

         2                         3

       1

The positions have the following meanings:

1: Now: A snapshot of where you are now with your writing.

2. Behind you: What to leave in 2014 in your writing practice.

3. Before you: What to carry into 2015 in your writing practice.

4. Message: An overall message about your writing to carry with you throughout the year.

The act of looking back as you look forward is what I find particularly effective about this spread. You see where you are now (1) and where you can be with your writing in the new year (4). You also see the projects/hang-ups/worries/practices you can give yourself permission to let go of (2) and the projects/goals/practices to invite into your life in the new year (3). Overall, it gives you a pretty good picture of where you are and how to approach what’s coming.

It also works for anything besides writing, too. I like to do a general How do I transition into 2015 reading, as well. This year, in both spreads, I got the same card in the fourth position. Looks like there will be a lot of overlap in life and writing.

Happy holidays, everyone!

© Mia Fitzroy | 2014

Taking life one tomato at a time: craftsmanship and timing

Last time I blogged, I wrote about the Nine of Wands, the card for writers needing discipline (meaning me!). Wands are the suit of creativity, and the Nine of Wands is about disciplining that creativity over a long period. It’s the finish your shit card. That post was my dedication to discipline, my promise to write something—no matter how small—on my novel regularly.

8 of Pentacles

Eight of Pentacles from Morgan Greer Tarot

Whereas Wands are about creativity, Pentacles are the suit of earthly concerns—time, wealth, housing, physicality, all that material stuff. Today I’m talking about timing and writing using the Eight of Pentacles as my focus card. When I look at the Eight of Pentacles, I see a man focused on his craft, using his time well. He moves from one task to the next, taking each pentacle one at a time, ending up with eight finished pentacles. One keyword for this card is craftsmanship. It’s about being focused, knowledgeable, driven, and just doing the work.

But noticed how it’s broken up into smaller pieces? This is the key to craftsmanship, this card tells us, taking things one task at a time. The Pomodoro Technique helps us do that, too, which is why I like to think of those pentacles he’s carving as Pomodoros.

If the Nine of Wands helps me find the inner drive to write regularly, it’s the Eight of Pentacles and the focus of the Pomodoro that helps me carry out my plan.

I first heard about Pomodoros a few years back when I was telling one of my best friends how I was trying madly to finish a long piece of fiction before the semester started, and she said, “Oh, are you writing in Pomodoros?” Now this friend is one of these amazing people who can, in the course of a semester, bust out reams of academic articles, teach three classes a week, cook delicious vegan food every day, win dozens of roller derby bouts as the team’s star jammer, and preach feminist theory while standing on her head—all without breaking a sweat (except during derby). She is my personal role model of somebody who HAS HER SHIT TOGETHER.

So when she said to me, “Oh, are you writing in Pomodoros?”

I perked up and replied, “No. What is this thing you call Pomodoros? If you’re doing it, it must be genius.”

And I haven’t looked back ever since.

Here’s the Pomodoro recipe:

1. Sit at your computer.

2. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes.

3. Write. As long as that timer’s going, do not tab out of your document, do not check your Twitter feed, do not open email. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

4. When the timer goes off, stop. (Okay finish the sentence if necessary, but no more!)

5. Next, set your timer for five minutes.

6. Stand up and leave your computer.

7. When your timer goes off, return to your computer.

That, my friend, is one full Pomodoro. Repeat steps 1–7 as necessary. Obviously other variations include writing in a notebook, on lined paper or an antique parchment for twenty-five minutes. It doesn’t have to be a computer.

What you do for that five-minute break is your choice, it just has to be a break from what you were doing (do yoga, make tea, eat a power bar, take the dog out to pee, practice your best pop-and-lock moves). It’s best to include standing in the break. Okay if you want to check your Twitter feed during the break, fine. But make a conscious decision about how you’re going to use your break, don’t just fall into habits. And make sure you at least stand up and stretch before you do anything else on the computer. Even better, leave the desk completely for the whole five minutes.

Also another key to the Pomodoro Recipe is that you cannot rinse and repeat more than four times (two hours) at once. After two hours of Pomodoro-ing on the same thing, take a full thirty-minute break from your work. This is a good time to eat, phone your mom, go for a brief run (but wait until your next long break before showering unless you can run and shower in thirty minutes). After thirty minutes, go back to Pomodoro-ing.

Notice how the Eight of Pentacles has finished eight Pomodoros? That’s two two-hour chunks of Pomodoros. A good day’s work.

There’s supposedly some scientific theory behind all this, I think, about how twenty-five minutes is the best time span in which we can hold focus. That’s great and all, but that’s not why I do them. Here are the reasons I like them:

Short time chunks: Often we say to ourselves, “Oh, twenty-five minutes isn’t enough to get work done on my novel.”

Not true!! In fact, one very popular book for dissertating grad students is called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. It’s popular for a reason. Often we think we don’t have enough time to do things, but you know what?

That mindset is flat-out wrong. Time is all in your mind, bitches! It’s just a matter of perception, so get rid of the idea that you need FIVE HOURS in a row to make progress. A lot of that five-hour chunk is actually spent picking your nose, checking Facebook, sifting through books, deciding where to start and what color pen to write in.

Small chunks add up to more efficiency in the long run. Plus, the small chunk of time is great for those who write before leaving for work in the morning. Write a novel by adding one Pomodoro to your morning routine every weekday.  If you adjust your daily routine by setting that alarm clock just twenty-five minutes earlier, you can get shit done. A powerful thought, isn’t it?

Long time chunks: The Pomodoro Technique gives you stamina, too. Its flexible technique adapts well to that five-hour chunk or even a ten-hour chunk. You know why? Those little breaks.

I once finished 10,000 words of a short story in a single day. I had a deadline, so I woke up and pomodoro-ed that shit out all day. The five minutes off and the longer thirty-minute breaks paced me to make it through the day and also ensured I ate food. The twenty-five-minute timer kept me on task.

The key to this pacing is using those five minutes as breaks. Make sure you stand up and leave your computer! Otherwise I might have pounded away at the keyboard for four hours straight and then fallen down dead, like that dude who ran the first marathon.

Awareness of your own state: The more used to Pomodoros you get, the more they can help you become aware of your own mental state. Brace yourselves for the woo-woo part of the posting. It’s like meditating.

In Zen meditation, they tell you to cup your left hand in your right with your thumbs resting against lightly each other. As you practice, you realize it’s hard to rest your thumbs lightly against each other. Sometimes in the middle of meditating, you realize that you’re using the force of your whole arms to drive your thumbprints into each other (you’re probably clenching your teeth, too). This means you’re worked up, your body’s holding your stress for you. Other times, you realize your thumbs are waving in the wind nowhere close to each other like flags in a windy used-car lot. This usually means you’re spaced out, close to sleep; you’ve lost your focus.

In the Pomodoro Technique, the timer functions like your thumbs in Zen meditation. You might find yourself tabbing out of your manuscript to check your timer every few minutes or so. I take this as a sign of distraction, lack of focus. When this happens, I just tab right back to my manuscript and tell myself something like: Okay, I know your brain’s distracted right now, but it’s only twenty-five minutes. You can do it, you can get through this. After I finish that Pomodoro, I’ll make sure to do something active during the break (crunches! dancing!). If I’m still distracted during the next Pomodoro, unable to focus, then I take it as a sign to do something else for awhile. Maybe you really need lunch early, or maybe it’s time for that catnap. Shake it up and come back to it. It’s not worth torturing yourself.

Alternately, you might write, write, write and not even notice when that timer goes off because you are so in the fucking zone. Take note of this, too, and ask yourself what it was that helped get you in the zone. The second cup of coffee? The Yanni playlist you listened to while writing? (Don’t hate on Yanni, man, his music is epic for writing and houaw cleaning.)

Other ways you can use the Pomodoro Technique, or Yes, it may be a cult, but that’s okay.

When my amazing role model of a friend told me about the Pomodoro Technique, I googled it and thought its main website looked just a little bit cult-like. The website (or maybe it’s in the free E-Book they offer) tells you that to become an advanced Pomodoro Practitioner TM, you have to know exactly how many Pomodoros you’re going to need to get things done, in fact, you can do anything in Pomodoros, it insists! Live your whole life in twenty-five-minute segments. I threw my hands in the air and said, “Woah, that’s a cult. I’ll just use it for writing, thanks guys.”

Something’s changed since then, though. Maybe I’ve just been drinking the Kool-Aid too long, but now I get through my workday in Pomodoros. I spend twenty-five minutes on work email, take a break, then spend twenty-five minutes on a work project for a different company. Here are the two reasons I divide my work day into Pomodoros:

1) Most of my work takes place in front of a computer. I’m not the kind of person out there laying down pavement or speed-biking through the city delivering documents. Like many people in the twenty-first century, my work is sedentary. But sitting for too long is bad for our bodies and minds. Pomodoros force you to stand up every twenty-five minutes.

2) I find the Pomodoro Technique helpful for multi-tasking or, as I like to call it, mini-tasking. Because the truth is, despite what the job ads tell you—(We’re looking for a multi-tasking genius who’s a creative problem-solver and knowledgeable about these five programming languages and can dance the cha-cha while tweeting and organizing projects and answering phones. Also we have a league-winning interoffice ping-pong team, so competitive ping-pongers are always a plus!!!!)—multi-tasking doesn’t really work. If I’m trying to write while email notifications are floating across my screen, guess what suffers? My writing.

But I will tell anyone who asks that I am a skilled multi-tasker. What I mean by that, however, is that I’m a skilled mini-tasker or task-jumper. I am always juggling. We all are. Many days, heck, many weeks, I feel on the “Ahhhhh fuck!” end of the feeling-in-control spectrum. But what always helps bring me back is just a teensy bit of order through the Pomodoro. The secret to juggling—to “multi-tasking”—is to “mini-task,” to spend a small chunk of time on one task and then switch to the next.

“But that’s hard! I’m not happy until I’m finished with the whole project.”

Just no. Nope that’s not how it works. Do an experiment, don’t be a perfectionist and just let it go. Spend two to four Pomodoros on one thing that needs your attention and then move on to the next; you’ll come back to the first thing eventually, and at the end of the day, you’ll find you’ve made progress on all seven fronts you had to.

I actually find the structure of the Pomodoro freeing. I know that I only have to do what I can in the next twenty-five minutes. If I’m in the middle of an email to a consultant who’s making me crazy or in the middle of a five-line-long sentence that seriously needs editing, once that timer goes off, I’m allowed to walk away for five minutes and breakdance around the kitchen (if only I could breakdance). Chances are, when I come back, it’ll be much easier to handle.

Maybe the reason the Pomodoro Technique is powerful for me is that it forces me to set my intention. The Pomodoro is a shortcut for saying to yourself, “Now I will focus on this and only this. And I only have to do that for twenty-five minutes.” I further set the intention by closing all unrelated programs (turning off Skype so I can copyedit, closing my Outlook and opening Scrivener). When she approaches me with a question, my wife’s come to respect the request “I’m Pomodoring, can we talk in eleven minutes?” Just as I respect the request “I’m in a boss battle, can we talk about cleaning up the kitchen when I’m done?”

8 of Pentacles Steampunk

Eight of Pentacles from Steampunk Tarot. Love the mug of coffee at her workstation!

Basically, the act of setting your intention and of knowing that you only have a limited amount of time allows you to work quickly and efficiently. The promise of the break allows you to step away, to return to yourself, to disengage for a moment, which actually strengthens your focus when you come back to work.

To go back to the Eight of Pentacles, the card of Pomodoros, here’s another version from the Steampunk Tarot deck. I love this card because it shows that these little tomatoes (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, it’s also the guy’s name who invented the technique) add up to something impressive, daunting even. She’s doing the work, and she’s proud of it. Focus on each pentacle at a time—each Pomodoro at a time—and you’ll find you’ve built an amazing tower of work.

© Mia Fitzroy | 2014

Time to nut up and commit

Significantly, the first time that I asked the tarot a question, it was a question about writing. I asked the tarot how I could make more time for writing in my life, and the tarot said:

Discipline

Basically, duh, commit. Sometimes the tarot gets cheeky with you and tells you things you already know. Duh, this card says, decide you are going to make time for writing in your life and just do it. See how focused that woman is? See how driven she is? She’s rammed each one of those wands into the ground, and now she’s holding two up with the sheer power of her will. And she will do that as long as she has to.

Another version of the 9 of Wands that I love is from the Morgan-Greer deck. Here he’s patrolling, guarding something he’s created. He’s focused; even if he’s tired, he’s still going. He’s the energizer fucking bunny.

The message I get from both of these cards is that to write is to commit.

It’s to commit to yourself, to your writing. It means being selfish with your writing time and using that time in a focused productive manner. It means guarding your work, guarding yourself. One of my gurus of writing advice, Chuck Wendig, drives this message home over and over when he says: finish your shit. That’s it, that’s the secret to writing. To finish your shit. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says the same thing—make time for writing even when you don’t feel like it. So does Stephen King in On Writing. Basically every purveyor of writing advice ever says one key to writing well is to do it a lot. Commit to the time to write.

Instead of waiting for the motherfucking muse, just put your ass in the chair, open the computer, and go go go. And why is that so hard for us? Because there’s always something else you could be doing—cats to feed, emails to answers, twitter updates to make (#amwriting w00t!) Because it’s scary to face the thoughts that pop up as you write, the thoughts that tell you your verbs are weak, your action scenes boring, your hero two-dimensional. Because it’s scary to face an empty screen.

This summer and fall I’m channeling the 9 of Wands, and I’m taking the tarot’s advice. It’s time to nut up and commit. I’m committing to writing five days a week, regardless of the work load I’m facing in my day job. Even if it’s just five words some days, I want to write every day so as to keep my head in the story. I’ve decided to stop flitting from one unfinished novel project to another. I’m committing to finishing a draft of my first novel, a lesbian reboot of the Nibelungenlied by February 2015.

What are you committing to?

© Mia Fitzroy | 2014