I used to snicker at people who religiously read their daily horoscopes. Astrology is not science. Not even close. “No one has shown that astrology can be used to predict the future or describe what people are like based on their birth dates,” some exasperated person at NASA wrote in a Tumblr post debunking a rumor that NASA had changed the zodiac signs.
I share that NASA communicator’s irritation. (If NASA hasn’t convinced you, the University of California Museum of Paleontology has created a handy checklist to help you determine whether astrology is scientific. Spoiler: it’s not.) Yet I’ve also come to understand why people got hooked. One day last year while wrestling with my book writing, I accidentally read the horoscopes in my local paper and realized that they were actually just snippets of useful writing advice dressed up as astrological wisdom.
And that’s how I began reading Holiday Mathis’s syndicated horoscopes with an eye toward finding answers to my creative conundrums. Here are a few of the insights that I found.
Crucial advice when you’re struggling to begin a creative project — if you wait until you have it all figured out, you’ll never start.
This one reads like a card from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. You’re stuck… try this.
Here’s a siren to heed the call of that passion project I’ve been putting off.
Totally solid advice for a woman (or anyone else) writing on the internet these days.
This one reads like a description of some of my most productive reporting trips.
Do you see what I’m doing? I’m taking advice and insights from Holiday Mathis and projecting them onto my own life. This is what makes astrology so enticing.
Look, I know that astrology is nonsense and there’s nothing particular to me here. But I gotta admire Holiday’s talent. I’m an avid collector of creative prompts like Lynda Barry’s incredible books, Austin Kleon’s blog, Susan G. Wooldridge’s Poemcrazy and Ann Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird. But what makes the personalized daily messages from Miz Mathis so alluring is that she writes them as though she’s speaking directly to me.
I wanted to know who this creative fortune teller was, so I sent her an email and asked if I could call. She passed on the phone call, but sent me a 2,000 word response to my questions. She started writing horoscopes in 1991 after answering an ad on a college bulletin board. “I don’t even know what made me think I could write horoscopes except that I had read a trillion of them in Cosmo and Seventeen mags,” she says. Next thing she knew, she was working “through the mail, sending in floppy disks and getting a checks in return from a ‘Linda Twitchel.’” She didn’t ask questions.
Eventually she met Joyce Jillson (“Linda Twitchel” was a pseudonym) — an actress, socialite, best-selling author and syndicated astrologer. Jillson had discovered that “writing horoscopes en masse is no easy gig” so she hired Mathis and several other writers to help. Eventually it was just Mathis writing all the horoscopes, and when Jillson died in 2004, she took over the column.
“The column averages 7,500 words a week. It’s about 900 words for each day of the week,” Mathis says, “and then another 1,200 for the week ahead.” She estimates that she’s written about “5,070,000 words published as Holiday Mathis and at least 3,000,000 ghost written for Joyce Jillson.” It adds up to a little more than 8 million words. No wonder she’s amassed so much writing advice.
She’s also pretty good at existential angst. “I have published over 8 million words, and what do I have to show for it? No best seller or movie version of the work. No Wikipedia page. I make a modest living and I have never gone on an extended vacation,” she says. She has a weekly deadline, and she’s come to see her work as “a spiritual practice. I am like those monks who create sand mandalas to be briefly enjoyed by the passersby and tossed to the river at the end of the day.”
“The fact that nobody is going to care about it tomorrow, or even an hour from now, that’s liberating,” she says. I asked if there was a formula, and she says no. “It’s more of an intention. I want to create a tiny poem for each sign.”
She doesn’t know how she filters all her random sources of inspiration into the words of a horoscope, but says, “the muses favor me. I believe the muses favor me for the same reason that Joyce Jillson did: I’m desperate. I’m game. I show up.” She notes that “turning in this column is how I buy food, and I like to eat. That helps. I don’t ever have writer’s block – I don’t even believe in it – because I can’t afford to.”
What I most wanted to ask her was whether she really believes in astrology. “The astrology is a given. I read the ephemeris and offer an interpretation,” she says. “The symbols are playful invitations to do my best… they are chiefs in my pantheon of muses.” She views them as characters — “Big Daddy Jupiter and the Venus the strumpet, or maybe she’s in her maternal mode, wearing a gown by Virgo or a pantsuit by Capricorn.”
She went on:
I’m sure a versed science writer such as yourself is well-aware that humans are notoriously uncomfortable with randomness. Our brains have evolved to filter out most of it, so all that gets through are the threats, the changes, and a small amount of “other” which we are compelled to make order out of… look for a pattern, come up with a theory, construct a narrative, dig into a belief about…
I am just like everyone else, bringing all I know into looking for the pattern. The pattern I’m looking for in the context of the horoscope column is one that will help people settle in to a positive feeling about the day. One that will make people feel seen and understood. Make them feel like they belong in this cluster of humanity under one sky.
I read this answer to mean that Mathis doesn’t truly believe in astrology, but when I showed her reply to a friend, she had the opposite reaction — “oh yeah, she totally believes in it.”
Which gets me to my ultimate conclusion about Holiday Mathis and about horoscopes more broadly — they aim to give us what we’re seeking. Some days my sign’s horoscope isn’t speaking to me, and so I read through the list to find one that does. I don’t actually care which sign I take from. I know that this is just generic advice that can mean whatever I want it to. I think of these daily horoscopes much like Holiday does — as “A candy snack to set the day on a sweet note. A personal nudge toward levity or introspection or fun or kindness or wisdom.”
This post first ran on May 11, 2018, but I have since interviewed Holiday Mathis and discovered that she is even more delightful than I could have ever imagined. You can listen to my interview with her on this episode of Emerging Form, my podcast about creativity. Episode link: https://emergingform.substack.com/p/episode-28-the-daily-grind-with-holiday