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.


The postman probably thinks you’re insane.

They probably also wonder why you do this, why there are so many letters going out when so few come back in, why, when letters, letter-writing, and the post office are all supposed to be dying, you refuse to let them die in peace with all your myriad correspondence. They probably think you are the sort of vigilante hipster who only writes with artisanly sharpened pencils.

And chances are they deliver your incoming mail as well as manage the outgoing, so they probably observe several things: there are some addresses that write you back, there is a home address that unabashedly sends you packages with stickers and pictures on them, there are cards from distant relatives, and postcards with inside jokes.

And then there is that one address you write to, less frequently, that never writes you back.

You are five or so, and your dad has taken you to work.

You get to play with the expo markers and the whiteboard, and while you like that, it’s not quite your favorite. The board got erased before you came in, will get erased again, and you dislike working with such impermanent materials. You learned this fact young, and this was why you took to the walls with markers when you were younger still: walls lasted. Your parents, of course, flipped out and plied you with other materials, and you are now more interested in sheets of printer paper.

But only used printer paper–one side blank, one side printed on– you’re only allowed to draw on that kind (because to only use one part of the animal is wasteful and also your dad needs the blank ones for work). There are no windows in the office (it will be the last one of your dad’s offices like that) though there is a ficus (there will always, relentlessly be a ficus).

On the way out, you hold your dad’s hand and someone wheels what seems to you a huge cart of recycling past.

There are moments that make you think your heart is a magnet and that you can feel the world shift as it shudder-swings toward a pole. When you become an adult, you will be able to count these moments on one hand.

And this is the first: this anonymous man pushing a cart piled with mountains of used paper, one side printed on, the other side clear, still so much blankness aching to be filled up.

When you got to fifth grade, your school did an invention fair. Your job was to invent something within two weeks and you couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done before.

What you ended up making was disappointing: a portfolio with all the necessary amenities for correspondence: pencil holder, clips, paper, envelopes. But hey, you were nine, maybe ten. What could you have done?

Then, you saw the girl with the stamps.

Why do stamps have to taste gross? She’d asked. She made little scraps of paper with different flavors of adhesive on the backs, so they’d be more fun to lick than the regular kind.

You were in awe. You hadn’t even thought about making an extant thing better, and now it seemed so obvious. Here, finally, was someone who had had an Idea.

You and your friends traded stamp flavors among yourselves so you could have the full flavor experience (the girl has signs posted saying explicitly Not to Do That because germs but you were nine and reckless). Banana was gross, even to someone like you who actually liked banana flavor, but the others, cookie dough and chocolate and strawberry, were good.

You walked off with your friends and your collectively licked scraps of paper, faith in your peers restored and convinced you had caught a glimpse of the future.

Years later, it really surprised you when the post office made stamps self-adhesive instead.

This is the third post office in southern Ohio you and your mother have visited, because you are trying very desperately to pick up a few more sheets of the Lunar New Year stamps. Your mother has been a real champ about this, because you are sometimes unable to explain why you are drawn so powerfully to purchase what are effectively stickers for grown-ups, but she humors you. Drives you, even.

You ask the nice postal worker there about the New Years stamps.

“Oh yeah, those,” she says, and pulls out at least one hundred sheets of the stamps you have been chasing across the city in a sheaf. She flips through it, nonchalant. “How many did you want again?”

“Three.” You watch her fan them out like cards in a deck, thousands of gold-edged puzzle pieces, blue and gold.

“These are really pretty.” She counts out three, and then laughs when she catches you staring. “You sure you don’t want another?”

You end up getting four, and leave with your waxy envelope full of ram stamps. Collection has always been important to you: things too sacred to use, like the snake, dragon, and horse stamps you have at home. Some day, eight years from now, you will finally have a full zodiac.

“I like having goals.” You tell your mother.

“You’re philatelic.” She unlocks the car so she can drive you both the fifteen minutes back home. “The one for coins is numismatist, which I always remember because it sounds so great.”

“Yeah.” You agree, buckling your seat belt. “Like you’re an arithmancer or something.”

Save a stamp! entreats the lettering under the a square outline on the return envelope. Then: Electronic service requested, starkly and snarkily, as though you’re the one being difficult by not paying your bills online.

Don’t you care about the stamps? You worked so hard to collect them, went to so many post offices to find just the right ones–doesn’t it make you sad, using up all these nice pictures you have on crud like credit card payments?

Look, here’s a simple way to save your precious stamps: don’t use them. Conserve and preserve. Aren’t you philatelic? Shouldn’t you be trying harder?

Doesn’t it bother you, using them all up?

The thing about magic is that it always comes with a cost.

Stamps are their own kind of sorcery: stick the appropriate charm on the envelope and it will go where you tell it to. You used to dream about the department of lost letters, magics gone wrong, letters that ended up in limbo for years, slowly finding their way to the descendents of the addressees.

The thing about stamps is that they are created to serve a purpose. They’re useful. Take away their use and they cease to exist.

It’s like asking someone to cancel their newspaper subscription for the sake of their paperboy. Sure, you’re saving someone a trip to your apartment through the early AM streets, but if enough people are that considerate, there won’t be any newspapers left to deliver and the kid’s out of a job.

It’s fine to talk about conservation when the thing you’re trying to save has lasted perfectly well on its own without human interference, like certain animals or coral. But when it’s man-made, it’s different.

It must be used to survive, or else you destroy the thing you mean to save.

Truth be told, it’s bad letter-writing etiquette using both sides of the paper and you know this, but you do it anyway. Call it a bad habit.

There’s just a lot to say, and if writing on both sides is too informal for etiquette then whatever. You write close, speak in slangs, all spiked, slanted capitals, lowercase g’s with sinister hooks, and the recipients of your letters know what they’re getting into before they slit the envelope.

This is the cost of magic: the postmark, the ink laser printed over something beautiful to nullify it. Sometimes when relatives send you birthday cards you trace your finger over a foreign stamp and get sad, but you’re old enough to know that you can’t have rarity without sacrifice.

So you tear open the envelopes and the double envelopes, make your replies, and keep waiting for that black hole address to cave. You are as relentless as a windowless office ficus and this is your magic: sheets and sheets of commemorative stamps, some squirreled away in wax envelopes and others carrying letters to their destinations, spells in effect.

And does it bother you? The writing beneath the stamp square asks. Doesn’t that make you a bad collector, using them like that?

You stuff the return envelope into the post box and walk off. Because, no, it doesn’t.

You wouldn’t want something so bad if it was so easy to keep it forever.