Tina Whittle is a mystery writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. The Dangerous Edge of Things, her first novel, debuted February 1st from Poisoned Pen Press. Set in contemporary Atlanta, The Dangerous Edge of Things is the first book in a series featuring gun-shop owner Tai Randolph and corporate security agent Trey Seaver. When not writing or reading, Tina enjoys golf, sushi, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens). You can find her at www.tinawhittle.com .
Being a mystery novelist is a full-time job; unfortunately, it often pays like a hobby, at least at the beginning of one‘s career. So like many other writers, I have supplemented my wordcraft with paying gigs. I’ve worked cash registers and proofread copy. I’ve been a professional Girl Scout, a college composition instructor, and an environmentally-integrated cleaning person (which is a fancy way of saying I can scrub down a house with little more than elbow grease and vodka). I also do some freelance work as a feature writer and newspaper columnist.
But my favorite extra-vocational work involves little more than a clean surface and a deck of cards. I’m a professional tarot reader, and for less than the price of a night at the movies, I’ll lay your life on the table and let you ask the cards whatever question you want.
Of course some questions are better at getting answers than others. And that is the secret of this job, and one of the reasons I find it so appealing — my clients do most of the hard work, and that hard work starts with coming up with the right question. An added bonus is that the same skills than make me a good mystery writer also make me a good tarot reader. It’s like cross-training for my creative muscle.
For those unfamiliar with tarot, let me provide a quick Tarot 101. Like modern playing cards, tarot cards are broken into four suits: Cups, Coins, Swords, and Staves. Each suit contains 14 cards consisting of numbered cards Ace through Ten, and four court cards ((Pages, Knights, Queens, and Kings). There’s one other difference — in addition to the four suits, tarot cards also contain trump cards, a mini-deck of 22 number cards including The Lovers, The Devil, and most infamously, Death. Of these cards, only The Fool remains in the modern deck, know today as The Joker. Each card has a traditional meaning based on the image appearing on it, and in some interpretations, whether or not the card is upside-down (or in tarot lingo, reversed).
While I’m sure you could play many games with a tarot deck (indeed, that’s what it began as, a trick-taking game much like bridge), that’s not what my clients and I do. We use the cards as tools to engage the human intuition. This is where my fiction-writing skills come in handy, for my approach to tarot is all about creating a narrative.
In other words, I tell a story.
Tarot works because it engages the intuition, that notoriously subconscious way of knowing that emerges in sudden hunches and gut feelings. Engaging the intuition is a bit like playing hide and seek — sometimes it seems the harder you look, the more elusive your quarry becomes.
Tarot gives the subconscious a set of pretty pictures to play with, which sometimes lures it out of its hidey-hole. The Six of Cups, with its image of two children playfully exchanging flowers, may bring up memories of a childhood incident. The Strength card, with its image of a young woman cradling a lion’s head in her lap, reminds that calm control is sometimes more effective than a show of force.
It’s this aspect of reading the cards that I find both most challenging, and therefore, most rewarding. When a reading starts to take on shape, it’s the same feeling that happens during my writing when a crucial bit of backstory plugs right into a plot hole, or a previously misunderstood character motivation suddenly shines with clarity. There’s this bright burst of “aha!” followed by an almost effortless falling into place.
Like a good book, each tarot spread has a narrative thread running through the middle, connecting each image to a central theme. My job is to help my clients figure out this narrative for themselves. I interpret the cards, ask questions, make comparisons. But the heavy lifting of the reading is done by the client, not by me. I’m more of a midwife, guiding and encouraging and explaining as the answer to the question on the table starts to become more apparent.
The tarot functions as a tool, a channel, a container for meaning. And most of the time, the answer that bubbles up in response to the seeking is never a surprise. My clients already know what they need to know — sometimes they just need a place to put that knowledge. Tarot provides a structure, but my clients supply the meaning, always.
Tarot reading is an enjoyable part-time job that lets me choose my own hours, set my own pay, and be my own employer. It requires continual study, and the only way to get really good at it is through on-the-job training (which is why I do a lot of free readings for friends, especially when I’m trying out new techniques). Also, since you’re sometimes dealing with confidential information, being a tarot reader requires a firm code of ethics and a commitment to truth-telling. And you must be willing to self-promote. In other words, it’s very much like being a writer.
As a mystery novelist, I’m often stuck behind a computer making up imaginary scenarios for imaginary people. Tarot pulls me into the real world again, into the company of real people. It keeps me authentic, and it grounds me in the greater human narrative. Even with my skill at making stuff up, I don’t think I could have made up a better second job for myself than tarot reading.