by Lee Bursten
My friend Jean-Michel David has asked me to set down some thoughts on my experiences as a tarot deck creator and author. During a three-year period, from 2003 through 2006, I authored the Zodiac Tarot (art by Luca Raimondo), the Gay Tarot (art by Antonella Platano), The Tarot of Dreams Guidebook, and The Universal Marseille Tarot Companion. All were published by Lo Scarabeo, except for The Tarot of Dreams Guidebook, which was published by artist Ciro Marchetti as part of his Tarot of Dreams.
As I write these words on October 28, 2007, in today’s New York Times there is a review of a biography of Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi, in which the reviewer, Michael Kimmelman, writes that “Musical careers, like all careers in the arts, depend on a mix of perseverance, patience, good luck and talent.” My “career” as a tarot author, if one may call it that, certainly bears that out, at least with regard to perseverance, patience, and good luck.
One might say that I first came to the attention of Lo Scarabeo through my own perseverance. I didn’t decide that I wanted to author tarot decks and books for them – quite the contrary; it never would have occurred to me that such a thing was possible. Starting in 1998 I wrote many deck reviews for the Tarot Passages site, in the process increasing my deck collection exponentially and diminishing my bank account considerably! I received no compensation for writing these reviews, but it paid off in an unexpected way when Riccardo Minetti, an editor at Lo Scarabeo, wrote to ask me if I would be interested in authoring a gay tarot deck for them (he knew I was gay because I had mentioned it in passing in one of my reviews). I was lucky in being, to a certain extent, in the right place at the right time. But in a certain sense I had also placed myself in the right place by putting in the time and effort on the reviews.
The subject of perseverance also raises for me the issue of worth. Was I among the most intelligent, the most educated, and the most worthy of tarot aficionados, such that I deserved to be plucked from obscurity and handed an assignment to create a deck for a major tarot publisher? Certainly not! When I started exploring the various tarot forums and e-lists, I quickly discovered that there were many, many people who were much more intelligent, educated, and worthy than I. But when a publisher entrusts a project to an author, there is a certain amount of risk involved for them. They need to know that the author will apply themselves diligently and responsibly to the project and will deliver suitable material by the agreed-upon deadline. So while in some ways it seemed a stroke from out of the blue when Riccardo wrote me, from another perspective I had manufactured my own good luck by applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, so to speak, to produce the body of work – my reviews – which initially caught his attention, and by proving myself to be a responsible and trustworthy fellow.
I was able to experience a new depth of perseverance when I wrote an accompanying guidebook for Ciro Marchetti’s self-published Tarot of Dreams, beginning in the middle of 2004. At 48,000 words, this was a full-length book, and I had never in the past written anything even approaching this length. Besides the actual writing, there was a tremendous amount of work involved, including long telephone and e-mail discussions with Ciro in which I offered feedback on the general direction he envisioned for the deck, what kind of esoteric symbols we would include in the borders, the mechanics and timing of self-publishing, and specific feedback on each card as he finished it and e-mailed it to me. Of course, all of this work was highly enjoyable – Ciro is a true gentleman and was a pleasure to work with – and it was extremely exciting to see the deck take shape card by card.
I had bought my first Marseille deck in the early ‘80s (a red-boxed Grimaud, purchased at Weiser’s no-longer-extant occult bookstore in Manhattan), and was introduced to the deeper study of the trump symbolism by Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and Tarot, and to the suit-number method of reading non-scenic pip cards by Gail Fairfield’s Choice-Centered Tarot. When I joined the Aeclectic Tarot Forum, I was amazed and delighted at the depth of knowledge displayed by several members, and learned much by reading their posts, which inspired me to further research.
The information available from books and forum posts was fascinating, but the books were long and intimidating for beginners, and the forum posts required much patient sifting to extract the truly valuable from the circularly speculative. I had long wanted to write a book about the Marseille pattern, one which would be forthright, concise, and approachable, as I felt there was a lack of this type of material. (I was delighted to learn recently that Jean-Michel is developing a correspondence course on the Marseille which will be a welcome addition to the learning materials available.)
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t come up with an organizing structure or approach. Around the middle of 2005, it suddenly fell into place for me and I saw how it might be done. I would give an overall view of the history of the pattern, provide a conceptual framework for the trumps based on how people in the 15th through 17th centuries might have perceived them, and then provide divinatory meanings derived from such a framework. I would pull together concepts from several sources and present them in a digestible form as a basis to inspire readers to further exploration. As luck would have it, Lo Scarabeo was working on a new Marseille deck, and my proposal fit in perfectly with their plans to publish their new deck (the Universal Marseille Tarot) with a small book.
Writing the book was definitely the most difficult task I have ever faced. The final published book is only 64 pages in length, 20,342 words, but it took me four months, working several hours every day. When writing a book based on history, one cannot simply write off the top of one’s head. Every reference to another source – and in a book like this, almost every sentence contains such references – must be double-checked to make sure the source is being cited accurately.
My most recent publication, the Zodiac Tarot, was a change in pace in that it didn’t require any perseverance. Riccardo asked me in July of 2005 if I would be interested in creating an astrological tarot. I thought about it and decided it would be interesting to create a deck based solely on the Golden Dawn’s astrological tarot correspondences, with no reference either to traditional tarot images or to A.E. Waite’s and Pamela Smith’s designs. I decided that for the trumps, the cards assigned by the Golden Dawn to Planets would be People, and the cards assigned to Signs would be Places. The pip cards, therefore, which the Golden Dawn assigned to a planet and a sign each, would have scenes showing the People from the Planet trumps, inhabiting the Places from the Sign trumps. My goal was to create an interesting variation on the astrological aspects of tarot, and one which was self-contained, without the need for an accompanying book (since I knew it was unlikely one would be published). This project wasn’t as deep or as heartfelt as my previous projects. Rather, I regard it as a folly, as the word is used in an architectural sense; according to Merriam-Webster, “an often extravagant picturesque building erected to suit a fanciful taste.” Although my work was finished in 2005, the deck wasn’t published until 2007.
Getting back to Kimmelman’s equation for creative success – perseverance, patience, good luck and talent – I have found that patience is also an important factor. It certainly required patience to plow through long and difficult projects like my two books. But patience with myself and with others was an unexpectedly necessary ingredient. While I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to be published, but as with any human endeavor, there are negative as well as positive factors. Many people would like to think of themselves as uninterested in fame, but if I am to be candid, I must admit that I was looking forward to the enhanced status and attention on the Aeclectic forum that my work would bring. And I did get that status and attention, at least for a while (and probably more than I deserve). But I also found that my forum experience became less pleasant. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in my dual role as fellow forum member on the one hand and as an author whose work the members are there to discuss on the other. It was as if a wall had descended between myself and others. I stopped visiting the forum for eight months, and have only recently begun visiting and posting there again – and happily, with the passage of time, I now feel much more comfortable in doing so.
I also had to learn patience with the publishing process. I’m eternally grateful that Lo Scarabeo saw fit to publish me, but there were some aspects of the process I found frustrating. These aspects were no one’s fault, but simply the result of the way the system was set up, and of the geographical distance between the company (in Italy) and myself (in the U.S.). Once the author’s script is submitted, the script is then assigned to an artist, who executes the artwork and submits it to Lo Scarabeo for approval. There is no actual collaboration between the author and the artist after the author’s script is submitted. At least this was my experience. The result of this procedure is that the author and artist cannot have a truly satisfying back-and-forth collaborative exchange.
I was also frustrated with the publishing/distributing process which caused the Universal Marseille deck to be released several months before the deck-and-book kit. Most people who were interested in the deck bought the deck alone rather than wait for the kit, and thus missed out on receiving the book.
Finally, I had to have patience with the failures as well as the victories. An artist friend of mine and I submitted a painstakingly-prepared proposal to a major publisher for a deck/book set, which resulted in a very cordial and very swift rejection letter. Over the years I’ve approached several artists with various ideas for decks, and for one reason or another these would-be collaborations simply didn’t work out. I had to learn not to take these various failures personally, and to accept them as an inevitable part of the publishing process.
As of this writing, I consider my creative tarot output to have reached its end. For one thing, I don’t feel I have very much more to say from a tarot perspective, and I would rather spend some time gathering and processing input at this point rather than continually producing output. Also, increased responsibilities at work have reduced the time I have available for creative pursuits. One never knows what the future will bring, but for now I’m enjoying my more passive engagement with tarot.
Overall, my adventure as a published author was exhilerating, and I learned a great deal about tarot, about the publishing process, and about myself. And as for the final factor in the equation – talent – I’ll happily leave that determination to the reader!