Using Bibliomancy as a Drafting Tool

Bibliomancy is a traditional divinatory practice that can be found across all religions, and it uses passages from books or sacred texts as a way to predict and interpret future events and our relationship to moral and emotional predicaments. Historically it has an interesting past, because while the church was against fortune telling or augury due to its ties to witchcraft and heathenism in the middle ages, bibliomancy was allowed because it used the Bible, the Qur’an, the Torah, etc. as its primary tool to commune with the divine, and that was viewed very differently when compared to the use of other non-sacred tools like tarot, pendulums, or spirits boards. 

When I first learned about bibliomancy years ago, I had just started studying tarot, which was something I was using fairly regularly in my day-to-day life, but also in my writing. I found myself drawn to the cards because I loved to use the artwork as a visual component in both my poetry and my fiction, but this idea of seeking out or invoking specific words or passages from my favorite books or from holy texts was new to me, but equally, if not more, exciting because I felt that it would deepen my connection to books that I already felt had greatly impacted my life. Bibliomancy also provided a way to take my emotional relationship with literature to another level, and books that spoke to me while I was growing up, that got me through heartbreak, through depression, that provided me comfort when I was scared or alone, were now my companions in making art, and I wanted to tap into that energy to see what I would create alongside it and within it. 

While writing this, I pulled a couple of books off my shelves and decided that I was going to work with them on a series of poems as a way to conjure tone, imagery, and potentially character arcs in the pieces themselves. For those who may be curious about what books I picked, I used: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Before I got started, I took a few moments to ground myself and find my breath. Sometimes I do this with music, other times I’ll listen to Gregorian chants, to Tibetan singings bowls, or often times, complete silence works just as well. I often like to also light a candle, or maybe pour myself a cup of tea, but that’s just what helps me relax and open my mind a bit, so I encourage you to find what works best for you in this exercise.

As I meditated (or tried to), I either worked to empty my thoughts completely, or I used this time to pose a specific question or focus on the book itself, its cover art, how it made me feel when I read it, or how I related to the characters or to a particular scene. For instance, in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat structures her life around protection, and I’ve always loved how she uses and embraces rituals as a way to find comfort and peace, so for this particular exercise, I thought about what I do in my life to feel protected and safe and I did this while resting my hand on the book.

When I felt ready, I randomly opened the book and let my finger intuitively find its place on the page. Depending on your preference, you could also rest the book on its spine and let it naturally fall open, and then you could choose either to randomly find a passage through intuition or you could even read through the whole page and see if anything jumps out at you or speaks to the question you were asking. I landed on the following passage:

I was resolute about not thinking my three magic words and would not let them into my mind, but the air of change was so strong that there was no avoiding it; change lay over the stairs and kitchen and the garden like fog.

(Jackson 51)

Swoon-worthy writing aside, I was pretty excited about my selection.

At this point, there’s a couple different routes that I like to consider:

  • As a drafting technique, I’ll sometimes start writing as if I’m picking up where the sentence left off, almost as if Jackson herself gave me my first line, and now it’s my job to continue the piece.
  • I’ll sometimes start with the word that my finger landed on, which in this case was “three.” So, I’ll either start my poem with the word “three” or I’ll use that number as the focal point for the entire piece.
  • Another avenue to try is to free write what the sentence evokes or how it speaks to you. For instance, when I read these lines, I thought about conflict, the danger of breaking routine, how we sometimes try to change ourselves because we think there is something wrong with our instincts or how they’re being perceived. The phrase “garden like fog” sticks out to me too, so I might consider that as an image or mood to write to as well.
  • Lastly, there’s always the chance that maybe nothing comes to mind right away, so what I’ll do in that instance is copy the passage in a notebook that I keep at my desk, and then repeat this exercise a few times throughout the week to look for patterns, consistencies, repetition, etc. 

Bibliomancy for me is a fun way to brainstorm, to draft, and to interact with my favorite stories all while strengthening my creativity and my critical-thinking skills. It helps me find symbols and pay attention to structure and syntax, and it allows me to deep dive into source material that profoundly changed me as a reader and as a writer. If you find yourself wanting to switch up your process a bit, or if you’re feeling blocked and want to try something new, head over to your shelf and pick up your favorite book. I’d be willing to bet there’s some advice and secrets embedded inside waiting to speak to you again.

Get We Have Always Lived in the Castle at Bookshop or Amazon

Works Cited:

Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Penguin, 1962. 

Stephanie M. Wytovich, MFA

Column by Stephanie M. Wytovich, MFA

Stephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous venues such as Weird Tales, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Fantastic Tales of Terror, Year's Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.

Follow Wytovich on her blog at stephaniewytovich.blogspot and on twitter @SWytovich. 

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