Tarot has a long history and lots of very detailed symbolism that is present in many traditional decks. But every day, new decks are being created, some of which break free from the pattern. On top of this, there are many oracle decks that don't use the tarot format at all, but can be really great to use in divination.
Many people learn to read based on traditional meanings associated with cards. They make take a course or do a study of the Rider Waite or Thoth decks, or they may just learn the meanings that came with the particular deck they bought. But either way, they start with a basic understanding of the cards, as explained to them by someone else.
I love tarot books. I especially love tarot books that go beyond the strings of words and basic explanations, and really tell the story behind the cards. My favorite tarot guide books do exactly that: tell a story for the cards. Being a storyteller myself, I've always remembered stories better than other forms of information telling. I may not recall all of the details, but I can get the gist of the story from the first telling. By tying the meaning into a story and building that story off of the imagery in the cards, this creates a very easy way for me to remember what a card means, because I can look at the card, see the story, and then recall the meaning of it.
Even with decks that don't do this, I love creating stories about the cards. When I read, I tend to read intuitively, which is to say that I look at the cards, and I see what story they are telling me. The stories I see in the cards will definitely draw on my whole body of knowledge concerning the symbols that are on the cards themselves.
And this is something fantastic about building a personal symbol library. When we have an experience, whether it is a dream, reading oracle cards, or taking notice of something that happened to us, we reference our symbol library to find meaning in what has happened. We may not even be aware of all the symbols that we have connected, but we will see something, like a read heart symbol, and think of love, or a dagger and think of danger.
One of the things I've been doing recently, with my monthly tarot readings, is to sketch a symbol or two from each of the cards, as you can see in the picture above! I will note down which card it is (and at the top of the page, I always note which deck I used, as well as the focus of the reading, and any spread I use if I'm using a particular spread), but then I will see where my eye is drawn on the card. Sometimes it is whatever is central in the card, whatever the main theme of the card is, but sometimes it is a side detail.
I then journal about what I see, not just the symbol I have drawn. I will write my impressions of the card, of what I think it represents, and what it is saying to me. After I have done this for all the cards, I'll go back (with another color of ink...I'm really big on using many colors when I journal!) and really try to tap into what I feel the ultimate meaning of that card is, in it's position in the spread.
Speaking of spreads, I do love looking up other people's spreads. And, the Celtic Cross is still one of my go-to spreads. But, I've also been making my own up, for my monthly readings. Each month, I'll draw cards to see what the moon cycle has in store for me. And I'm using the meaning for that specific full moon, based on my moon work a couple of years back. So, throughout the year, I'll focus on 12 or 13 different areas like: relationships, animals, protection or harvest.
Sometimes, there are spreads that will match what I'm wanting to look into, but sometimes there just isn't. So, instead, I'll make my own! I tend to start with questions or areas in which I want more clarification. In my planner (where I record my readings for each month), I'll draw a little rectangle, and then write what that card will tell me around the border. I like being able to tune my reading to exactly what I want to explore, and drawing out the positions (with what each position stands for) helps me when I go back and look at my readings later, for further contemplation.
Tarot journaling is something I do as well. I originally started to do this for every card in every deck I owned, but then at the time I only owned a few decks! I would lay out all the Fool cards, and see what similarities there were, and write about the Fool in general. Then, I would pick one of the Fool cards, and write about that card specifically: what I saw on it, and what it meant to me.
This is sort of an evolution of what I did when I got my first deck. As I mentioned, I don't always resonate with the lists of words, and my first deck (the Cosmic Tarot) had big sections of those lists for each card.
*note* I've since learned that some other readers treat the word lists as another layer of divination, much like I do picking out one or two symbols on a card, they pick the words in the list that stand out to them when they read a card. I think that's really cool, and suggest trying it out!
But, at the time, I was having a hard time remembering what the card meant, and I felt kind of like I needed to memorize the little book to be a good reader. Instead, I sat down, and went through my deck, one card at a time. I just sat with the card, looked at it, and let myself see it. I let myself play with what the card might mean. I asked myself questions about all of the things I could see in the card.
If there were birds, how many were there, and where were they facing? What color was dominant on the card? What did the people look like? What did the card make me feel?
It took me probably a couple of hours, I didn't try to rush, but spent as long with each card as I felt I needed. And when I was done, I really felt connected to my deck. I felt like it truly belonged to me. I still wasn't super confidant about my interpretations (to be honest, to this day, I'm still not always confidant!), but I felt like I had started on a journey to connect with the deck, and my introduction was complete.
I don't sit as long with every new deck I get, but I do sit with them all. I go through them, card by card, and explore what they have to share with me. I like meditating with or on a card, even if I don't write about it afterward.
But I also think that drawing a single card as a focus for a journaling session can be truly insightful. Sometimes, when I sit to journal, especially if I am working with something like a daily journaling practice (that doesn't have a specific prompt or focus for each day), I'll feel at a loss. I won't know what to write about! If I draw a card, it gives me stuff to start me writing, and I always end up discovering I had more to say than I thought.
Drawing little symbols from the card can be a fun addition to this kind of journaling practice. I think doodling is natural to many people, but we may feel self-conscious about the quality of our art. Doodles are, by their very nature, just quick sketches! They don't have to be super detailed, or artistic. My little tarot sketches in the picture aren't even complete all the time. The bottom left shows a bunch of daggers that I reduced to little V shapes!
Writing and drawing make us think in different ways. When I sketch, I tend not to think in words. But I may be reminded of other images. It can be a lot of fun to make sketch notes, to let one image flow into the next and then just sketch out whatever comes to mind.
All of these little practices are ways to work with your tarot or oracle cards that don't require formal study. They are just you, sitting with your cards, learning how you work best with them! You may find that one technique really resonates with you, while another you don't like at all. Or, you may feel drawn to do one thing one day and another thing another day. Giving yourself room to play with your cards lets you have the freedom to see what comes up, instead of trying to direct how they work. You may find that it makes it easier to connect!