Writing Through the Elements

While I’ve already talked a little bit about Tarot in writing, I thought I would look at another esoteric approach to the creative topic: writing through the Elements.

As you may already know, I’m very interested in the tarot. So much so that I have a whole tarot blog, sell professional tarot readings, and incorporate tarot in my writing. This post, however, is not about this. What it is about are the suits in tarot, or, more accurately, their elements.

When I talk about elements, I’m specifically referring to the four western elements: air, fire, water, earth (and if the order of those elements hurt your eyeballs (because it would hurt mine), don’t worry, I have them ordered like this for a reason).

Each of these Elements correspond to a different Tarot suit, and it was actually through the Tarot that I gained the most understanding of the Elements. Since I write using the Tarot, I write using the Elements, and I have some insight that I would like to pass along to you.

Let me give you a little introduction to each of the Four Elements.

Air:
Concept, Communication, Thinking, Education, Law

The element of Air in the Tarot is the Swords, and is likely the most important steppingstone for the writer. Air represents thoughts and communication.

Consider how Air is our outward breath on which our words are carried. Consider how ideas and inspiration are fleeting, as if being carried away or being dissolved by the wind.

When we’re in our plotting and planning mode, when we’re thinking about character development, when we’re editing and revising, that is when Air is at play. Air is the logic that gets us started. It’s the idea that germinates within us, which we then communicate through our writing.

In the Lenormond (which isn’t the tarot, but an oracle deck designed in the 18th century by Madam Lenormond), the card, Birds, represents community and gossip. Birds twitter (Tweet) to one another, letting each other know that they’re there, and thus they can represent people speaking. Likewise, birds also have hollow bone and (most) travel through the air.

Every time you sit down to write, you are bringing forth the element of Air. You are thinking and you are communicating.

However, the thing about Air is that it is all logic and the expression of it. For this reason, it also corresponds to education and the law, as both are meant to be non-biased, but simply facts in front of you. Because air is simply facts in front of you, you need to look to the other elements.

Fire:
Creation (Process), Passion, Drive, Will

Fire, which I personally love, represents activity, creation, and passion. This is essential when you’re writing. That passion is what will bring forth that idea. It’s the drive behind you. It is the burning in your belly that demands action from you lest the fire consume you alive.

It’s what makes us write.

In the Tarot, Fire is represented by the suit of Wands. Wands are that magical tool that zaps magic and makes things happen at will. Fire represents the Will and the action to bring forth that Will.

Consider all the analogies we have with this element:

  • The spark of inspiration
  • Fanning the flame
  • Burning desire
  • Heat of passion

All of these apply to our art.

Without Fire, we have an idea, but we don’t have the energy to pull through that idea. Fire is our inspiration, the thing that gets us excited. It can be the thing that gets you to starting your idea, and is the flame that needs to be fanned in order to get the idea into fruition.

Water:
Creativity, Emotion, Intuition, Subconscious

The element of Water is a big on, in my mind. There are some elements that mingle with Air, depending on who you talk to, but here are my associations: emotion, creativity, intuition, and the subconscious. In the Tarot, Cups represents Water, for they hold liquid, they are the container of that creativity. With a container, we can see how much or how little Water we have.

There is a lot to unpack there.

When we think of Water, it is the lifeforce that it in all of it. We need it to survive. And thus, we need our art. Art is our form of expression, whatever medium we choose—whether it’s dance, painting, sculpting, speaking, writing, singing—it’s how we communicate who we are and how we feel. When our forms of expression are stifled, then we have problems.

Consider the concept of Toxic Masculinity, or the idea of what a man “should” be. One of the biggest tropes of this is that men don’t cry. This erodes a person when they can’t fully express themselves. The emotion is there, the expression is there, and it has to come out. The result can be very unhealthy actions such as self-harm, addiction, or outward verbal or even physical abuse. Anger and bitterness can be the result.

We all have the element of Water in us, literally and metaphorically. We are made up of Water in our cells and tissues, and we need it to survive. If we want to stay healthy, then we need to work with Water.

There is a lot I want to say regarding Water and creativity, but I’ll leave it for another post. For now, consider how you interact with water. Consider the affects of the moon on people—the idea that people “get weird” on a full moon may have to do with it’s pull on Water and the Water within us.

Consider the many variations of Water, how malleable it is, how it can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. Consider the difference between a puddle and the deepest parts of the ocean. Consider a placid lake, or fifty-foot swells. Consider the corrosive power of a repetitive drop of water, and the carving power of the water that shaped the Grand Canyon.

While you’re in your flow, in your creative element, you mold and shape worlds, people, and situations. You take the idea and passion you have, and you apply creativity and emotion. Water is life, and that is what you bring to your writing when you apply emotion to your idea and passion.

Earth:
Creation, Manifestation, Health, Money, Physical World

Earlier I mentioned that there would be some people who wouldn’t like the arrangement of the list I gave: Air, Fire, Water, Earth. If you’re anything like me, Earth comes first. However, when we’re talking about the creative process, Earth comes last.

The element of Earth represents physical matters. In the Tarot, it represents everything that we need for our physical survival in the everyday (mundane) world: food, health, shelter, money. When it comes to creativity, Earth is the fruit that is born of the combination of the rest of the elements. It is the idea you had in the beginning made manifest in the shared world we all live in. When you are working with Earth, then you have something you can show those around you. It’s your completed manuscript draft, it’s the sketch of your painting, it’s the notation of a song. It’s the product you created.

It’s that simple.

In the Tarot, Earth is represented by the suit of Coins, or Pentacles. The Pentacles are represented by a upright, five-pointed star in a circle. Each point represents a different element while the fifth point represents Spirit, or our individuality. The circle of the Pentacle represents how they’re all connected. This is essential to understanding the Earth element.

When Pentacles are present, they are saying that Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit have all come together to work in the physical world. Only when these things come together can something be created and exist in the shared reality.

Consider getting a Psychology degree, for example. You go to school to learn about Psychology (Air is education), you work diligently through the requirements (Fire is drive), you believe in what you are learning (Water), and you develop your own personal take on what you’re learning (Spirit is individuality). When you get to the point where you are putting all of these things to practice in your career, then you’re bringing those elements into the shared world, which is Earth. However, if any one of these things is left out, you won’t find success in your profession.

Earth marks the end of the cycle. But all ends are just beginnings, as I’ll explain when I talk about how Earth and Air interact.

The Progression of the Elements

There is a natural progression through the elements, in case you hadn’t caught on. I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about how they work together, flowing from one into the other to create the cycle. This is also where I want to talk about balance. With everything, there is a balance that must be achieved in order for it to work. Just like when you start a marathon, you know you need to keep your breathing just right so you don’t make yourself dizzy or deprive yourself of air; you need to keep your pace steady so you conserve your energy for the long-haul; you don’t drink too much water so you don’t cramp or make yourself sick, but you drink enough that you muscles are nourished; and so on. Everything must be in balance.

Air & Fire Infusion

When we have an idea, we need inspiration to get it started. The word Inspiration to me is carried on the breath, but backed by fire. It’s like a hot air balloon—it’s air that carries us up, but it’s fire that gets that air moving and gives us lift-off.

When we think about the nature of Fire, and what it needs, we begin to understand how it can effectively work with Air.

Fire starts as a spark. We blow gently on it (applying Air) to turn it into a flame. With controlled air, we feed the flame until it’s burning steadily. If we apply the right amount of air, we can turn it into a raging torrent. If we apply too much too soon, we extinguish the flame.

Fire consumes Air. Have you ever been inspired but had no idea what to do with that inspiration? You know you want to write, or paint, or create, but you’re fresh out of ideas? That creativity dwindles into nothingness, because it has no ideas to feed on.

This is why it is so important to keep an idea journal. When you have any idea at all, whether you like it or you don’t, write it down. Make sure that when those creative surges come, you have plenty of Air to feed that Fire.

This is how you create a balance between Air and Fire.

Fire & Water in Harmony

You might have noticed that fire and water both have variations of the word “create” in them. I want to point out the distinction. Fire has to do with creation in the sense of the creative process. It is an active word energy, and specifically talks about the process of bringing something to fruition. Water has to do with creativity. It’s like the bead of magic that swirls through you and your work, surprising you as you go.

In the Tarot, Fire and Water are brought together in the 14th Major Arcana, Temperance. She is seen as mixing two things together that seemingly shouldn’t be mixed, yet bringing harmony as a result. She does it with such patience and mindfulness, that it brings something beautiful and harmonious into the world. In the Thoth Tarot, this card isn’t called Temperance. It’s called Art. The two mysterious opposites being brought together are Fire and Water. When you have a spark of creativity, you have Fire and Water. When you have passion you have emotion. When you have drive, you’re working from a place of your intuition and subconscious, both of the latter are Water, which we didn’t go too much into in this post.  

In the natural world, Fire and Water interact in interesting ways. When you apply heat to water, the molecules shake up and the water begins to boil. Apply more heat and you have steam, which is what you want when it comes to your writing (the perfect mix of Air, Water, and Fire). But if you apply too much, then there is no more water because it all evaporates.

If you have too much Water and apply it to the Fire, then you’re dousing the Fire. You lose your passion. It seems backwards, doesn’t it? Too much creativity (Water) hindering creation (Fire).

I once tried to write a 500-word piece of flash fiction where every non-article and non-preposition started with the same letter. My goal was to write 26 of these, one for each letter of the alphabet. I had to get creative with it, so much so that I burnt myself out doing it. I couldn’t complete the project. I didn’t even get through the first piece. My creativity suffocated my creation. Too much Water on the Fire killed it.

You want to remember to use your Fire to keep your Water at a nice simmer, and remember to take the time to replenish your Water as you go along so it doesn’t dry up. And you want to make sure you aren’t suffocating your flames with too much creativity.

Water & Earth Shaping

Water is the what shapes the physical. Likewise, the physical shapes water. What happens in the real world changes how we feel about things and how we view the world. For example, if you and tend to your garden, it will grow and produce fruit. If you love it too much, you might not even want to make a cut of it, leaving trees unpruned, beds unthinned, or even fruit unpicked, because you simply want it to be.

Our love for something can nurture growth, just like it can erode it. This is especially true when it comes to our creativity.

When we have our creation, or a draft of it (Earth), we need to nurture (Water) it into maturation. This is looking at it and understanding that some parts will have to be trimmed back, that you might have to redirect the growth, or even remove parts altogether. This is the balance. It is knowing when to “kill your darlings.”

However, when we have too much love for what we’ve created, we might not be able to see where it is that needs to be altered.

In the Tarot, I always see the Queen of Cups as the ultimate card to represent Water. She is seen as caring and nurturing, in touch with her emotions, and a very mothering figure. The reversal of her is “smother love.” Pouring too much Water on a garden will drown it.

Water is powerful and can be eroding. When we put too much heart into something, then it can erode the outcome. Consider how water carved the Grand Canyon.

Likewise, the drive to manifest a draft of a finished product might tempt you to bypass your creativity and emotions. You might just want to get the thing done. Thus, Earth can serve as a block. You might have a finished product, but it will fall flat.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

Robert Frost

When Earth and Water collide, they have the opportunity to work in harmony with one another. Allow Earth to guide your Water, and allow the presence of Water in your Earth.

Earth & Air Seaming

As I mentioned before, Earth marks the end of the cycle. But it doesn’t mean that you’re done. I also mentioned, when I talked about Air, that it represents the first idea and outlining (both of which are the beginning of the writing process) and editing. Air is also the beginning and the end.

What does this mean?

When you have a tangible product in your hands, it might just be a first draft. Then, you start the process over again, this time with editing in mind, until you have your next draft, and so on until you have your physical product.

Earth can sometimes be immovable. Consider a wall that breaks the wind. This can sometimes be the barrier we face when we’ve finished a draft and aren’t willing to begin the editing process. I know plenty of people who get stuck in editing because they just don’t want to do it.

Adjusting your mindset so that you see your draft as something that’s malleable and workable will help make the shift from Earth back to Air. Consider saplings that bow in the wind. They’re Earth, and they’re in their early stages of life. With each pass of the year, they get stronger, and bow less in the wind because they’re stronger and more solid. Your first draft should allow easy editing—by that, I mean there should be ample material to edit. But with each pass of the creative cycle, your MS gets more and more solid, until there are only leaves reacting to the wind, just tweaks here and there that aren’t necessary to make.

The key is knowing when to stop editing.

I had a teacher who once told us that there was no such thing as a final draft. We, as writers and artists, will always find something we want to change. The final harmony between Air and Earth is having the wisdom to know when to stop the cycle on a particular piece, to know when it is completed.

Your Homework

The instructions for this homework assignment are basic, though be prepared, the work itself is not.

  1. What is an idea for a piece that you’ve had but haven’t acted on? If you don’t have one, spend some time coming up with an idea.
  2. Work through the elements to see how you can use them to move you through your first draft.

Here is a recap of the elemental associations for you:

  • Air – ideas, concepts, education, outlining, editing, communication
  • Fire – passion, creation, drive
  • Water – emotion, creativity, intuition, subconscious
  • Earth – manifesting, completion, health, solidifying, that which is physical
  • Bonus: Spirit – you
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