Legerdemain

by Robert Gregory Browne

Patricia Storms says writers are magicians.

When I read her quote several months ago on the Paperback Writer blog, I had to stop a moment and think about this.  And, by God, I think she may be right.

When I was about ten years old, my father took me to a magic 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 the hat.

I loved the show and, afterwards, my father immediately took me to
Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop, where I picked up a trick called multiplying
billiard balls. Only the billiard ball size were too large for my small
hands, so I got the pint-sized version.

I practiced that trick for months. And if I do say so myself, I got
pretty darn good at it. I still have a picture of me at twelve years
old, decked out in the tux my mother made for me, 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
any 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 and trying our best to make it all look seamless and — hopefully
— get our readers (and our editors and publishers) to 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 trick, they’re
ready to perform, to get in front of an audience of their friends and
family and show off.

First time writers often think that the moment they’ve put that
first story down on paper, they’re ready to be published — “How do I
get an agent?” is the most commonly asked question of professional
writers next to “Where do you get your ideas?”

But are you ready for that agent any more than that first time magician is 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. When
the 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 them believe that what we do is magic.

8 thoughts on “Legerdemain

  1. E Scott Johnson

    Rob,

    This is truly odd that you wrote this blog today. I’m reading The Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver, where he equates murder to magic, and I was thinking the exact same thing about writing. He makes the key point of the necessity of unending practice to seamlessly pull off an illusion. You hit the nail on the head that writing is exactly the same. If you’re not constantly writing, you’re never going to pull off the perfect illusion.

    Reply
  2. Louise Ure

    Morning RGB,

    I’ve read a couple of books recently that left me not with “how did he do that?” but rather “how did he make it look so easy — so perfect?” That’s the real magic for me, when it doesn’t look like a trick at all.

    Reply
  3. toni mcgee causey

    Great comparison, Rob. I love it when a book makes me believe it’s real, that the characters live, even when I know logically it’s just words printed on a page that someone made up somewhere.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Another great analogy, RGB. I’ll add that writing is like music – a musician has to be able to sit down (or stand up) and play anything, at any time. And the only way to maintain that facility is by daily practice.

    Reply
  5. Mark Terry

    I think so, too. Interesting, though, isn’t it, how sometimes we equate musicians who dazzle us with their virtuosity have a somewhat different effect? Becuase there we know how hard it is and yet they might make it easy. I’m thinking of Leo Kottke specifically, but any virtuoso on any instrument.

    I think it’s rare that a novelist makes things look easy that a typical reader would go, “Wow, that was amazingly difficult, but he made it look easy.”

    Other writers might, I suppose.

    So I guess the magician thing is a terrific metaphor.

    Reply

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