Practicing Your Magic

My father once took me to a show in Hollywood called IT’S MAGIC.

There were about twenty magicians on the bill, one after another showing us their biggest and best tricks, sawing women in half, floating balls in the air and, yes, pulling rabbits out of hats.

I loved the show, and after it was over, my father took me to Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying billiard balls.

I practiced that trick for months. And, if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at it. I still have a picture of me—at twelve years old—decked out in the homemade tux my mother made, showing off my sleight of hand dexterity with those Bert Wheeler multiplying balls.

Thing is, the mechanics of the trick weren’t very tough. I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you how it was done, but let’s say that just about anyone could do the trick with a few minutes practice.

But I have a feeling it wouldn’t look much like magic. It would probably look like some guy ham-handedly struggling to multiply those billiard balls, and the gimmick behind the trick would be obvious to all but the dimmest of spectators.

Real magicians, you see, practice day in and out to make their sleight of hand smooth and undetectable, so that it looks like real magic. So that people watch and say, “Wow! Do that again!”

And that’s what writers try to do as well. We work very hard behind the scenes, manipulating words and phrases and characters and plot lines—while trying our best to make it all look seamless—in hopes that our readers will say, “Wow! Do that again!”

A lot of people think that all they need to know is how the trick is done and they, too, can be a magician. They’re unwilling to put in the real practice necessary, and the moment they learn the move, they’re ready to perform.

Writing, like magic, takes years of practice, and a willingness to fail again and again until we get it right, until what we do seems not like simple trickery, but real magic to those who read our work. Until our words draw them in and transport them to another time and place, a time and place filled with characters who are alive and breathing and the suspension of disbelief is so deep that we, as writers, can get away with almost anything. Can make them believe that a woman can be cut in half, that rabbits can materialize from nowhere, that those billiard balls can multiply between our fingers…

The great writers, like the great magicians, elevate craft to an art. And as we read their work, we can’t help but think, “How did he do that?”

But knowing the “how” is only a small part of the trick. It’s knowing what to do with that “how” that really counts.

Making the readers believe that what we do is magic.

10 thoughts on “Practicing Your Magic

  1. Bullseye! This is the best metaphor of the writing craft ever. Chuck Jones, the genius behind Bugs Bunny, put it this way: “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”

    That’s how you acquire the finesse that makes your writing come alive: practice.

  2. Ah, yes. As an amateur magician myself, I appreciate the thought here, Rob. One of the best pieces of advice I got at the beginning was that the presentation was even more important than the mechanics. Yes, you have to have the mechanics (craft) down. You can’t muff the trick itself. But what makes the trick most effective is your particular way of showing the trick, and the patter involved. This is your “voice” so to speak. I’ve seen the cups and balls trick done by some very skilled magicians. But watching and hearing Johnny Ace Palmer do it is unforgettable.

    Because of his obvious JOY in performing. You engage an audience when they know you are about to try to fool them, and you have that sparkle in your eye that says, “This is going to blow you away.”

    So craft, voice, and joy. What works for the magician works for the writer.

    • You just put the bow on the package. Craft, voice, and joy. Now I will go off and start my morning with joy.

  3. Great metaphor, which I plan to borrow the next time someone says to me, “I think I’m going to write a book.” Thanks so much for expressing what I–and lots of other authors–feel at times.

  4. Great post.

    Years ago, a high school kid sat in my law office for a day (a career-choice program).

    He kept asking me what the trick was, and I kept telling him there was no trick, no shortcut. I don’t think he ever believed me, maybe because of my gender (only 3 women lawyers out of 600 at the time), or maybe simply because he was an arrogant little “something unprintable.” Or maybe he learned one day. For his sake, I hope so.

  5. You nailed it. I just read a well-crafted thriller, but the ending turned into a cartoon, with our hero shooting villains and slamming heads and committing mayhem in a small community. Good action, but I couldn’t believe it. The magic was missing.

  6. A good metaphor for writing.

    I always use pro basketball. No one thinks they can become a pro player when they can’t even dribble, but they do think they can write a bestseller when they can’t write a competent sentence, understand structure, plot, etc., etc.

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