stage magic

A craft post after an eternity of no craft posts, oh man.

Recently, I was talking on twitter using #betatips about what it means to be a good beta reader and critique partner. One thing I touched on particularly bothered me in a way I didn’t feel like I could sum up in 140 characters: how people are convinced that reading books critically will affect their ability to read them for pleasure.

I understand that, for sure. I used to feel that way, worried that if I poked around too much in something I liked that I’d analyze the magic out of it. It’s a very real fear: you’d much rather not mess with the TV if learning about how to take it apart means you’ll destroy it forever.

So, let’s talk about stage magic.

DEM HANDSMy favorite movie with Real People in it (my favorite of all time is, of course, animated and also Spirited Away) is The Illusionist. I love a lot of Wes Anderson films (and someday want to write a book like a Wes Anderson film but hey that’s a goal for later) and yet none of them have as of 2015 made me fall as in love with them as The Illusionist. Clearly Edward Norton is transferable, so I bet if I ever do shift favorites for the Real Human category, it will involve him somehow.

Norton’s character in The Illusionist is a stage magician named Eisenheim. I won’t spoil it too much for you if you haven’t seen it, but it’s got ghosts, tragic love, subterfuge, a cat and mouse game, detectives, dexterity, heirs apparent, stage magic, and an orange tree.  Also it is set in Vienna. Throughout the movie, an inspector attempts expose Eisenheim as a fake, to figure out the trick behind his shows.

Reading is a lot like stage magic. As a reader, you’re in Eisenheim’s audience. You see the trick performed and you’re like whoa! how did he do that thing? The author is performing on stage and you’re along for the ride.

Reading books as a writer is where it gets more complicated. You’re a magician sitting in on another magician’s show. You have now become the kind of person who wants to know how the trick is done. And sure, you know how to do some tricks, not all of them, and while you can still shift back into watching the spectacle as a member of the audience, there’s also this curiosity in you: you want to be able to make people vanish, throw birds into the air from nothing.

throws birds helloThe first rule of stage magic is to never do the same trick twice.  You don’t want to make it too easy for your audience to figure you out. You want them to be mystified enough to wonder about it on their own (which is relying on the fact that your audience/reader is smart, also good to keep in mind).

When you’re reading as a writer, though, you’re an apprentice stage magician. You need to see tricks multiple times. This is how you learn, watching the pros perform over and over until you see the sleight of hand and then can work to master it on your own. Reading is an essential part of writing development– how else are you going to acquire new skills?

But that brings us back to our original problem. You took the TV apart, you couldn’t put it together for hours, and after all the sweat and possibly blood and possibly also tears, you did it and for two minutes it felt like a miracle. The TV turns on, it even gets cable, and now you know about the switches, the cathode ray tube, the wiring, what constitutes high vacuum. It’s no longer just pressing a button and presto for you. But then you kind of hated it and hated it viscerally, all those working parts, for not being as magical as you thought they must be.

And that’s your worst fear: you learned the trick and the wonder is gone.

ghost vanishIs that the price of knowledge? Sadness, eternal cynicism? Does Art have to be this forever-mysterious capitalized word that you analyze at your peril? Yeah, sounds terrible, no thank you. Some people say art’s like wild magic, like a horse: once broken, you’ll never be able to get it to go as fast as it was untamed.

I disagree. I think there are many types of magic, and the one I subscribe to is the one born from technique. I’d rather have a magic school over a muse any day. Repetition and constant study give me control, and it’s control over the magic, over the writing that I want.

But what about the wonder?

I didn’t really have a good answer to this until I started teaching and had to present on a daily basis: most of what you’re doing is acting.  When I teach calculus, I already know how the triple integral needs to go. But to connect with my audience, aka my students, I have to remember the intimidation of all those integral signs, the points where it’s easy to mess up, the tips and mnemonics I used when I was learning the first time.

It’s same in writing. As you revise, you’ve known from the very first sentence where the characters are going to end up, what cosmic inevitabilities await them.  But you pretend you don’t to build the show for the reader and draw them in. You pretend that the tricks you’re doing really are some crazy power you have– you believe the illusion to make it real.

You learn to cultivate this weird split-headedness, sort of like separating yourself into characters or into an author and an editor but also a little different. The best way I’ve heard to describe it was an author’s character teaching someone to do magic: you have to believe something to be true, absolutely true, even when you know without a doubt it’s false, and you have to believe both things completely at the same time.

orange treeThere’s a part of you that knows exactly how the trick works, and a part of you that fiercely doesn’t, that’s convinced you’re performing real, actual magic and is in love with it as much as your audience is. And that’s why I love The Illusionist: it says magic isn’t something that gets lost when you understand it. Watch any of Eisenheim’s movements, and you can see that this is a person who’s just as into it as his audience.

That’s what storytelling is: performance. It’s lying to yourself and believing it 100% because you know that if you don’t your audience never will.

And when you get there and you study another writer’s work and see the trick, it doesn’t make you sad anymore. The TV for you now exists in two worlds: as the magic box and the logical array of parts and you revel in it. Because you got it, you figured it out, you got tricked and now you see the magic and you’re so damn excited to make it your own.

ORANGE TREE omgThis is how you do stage magic.

This is how you write.


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