This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Nicholas J. Johnnson about being a magician.
I was standing awkwardly at a rooftop BBQ in North Fitzroy being introduced to a group of artistic types by my friend Neil.
“This is Alice, Patrick and Luca. They’re writers.” Neil said, turning to me. “And this is Nicholas. He’s a magician.”
“Really, can you do a trick for me?”
It is true. I am a professional magician.
Of course, if Neil was doing the “What’s-Your-Real-Job?” thing, he should have introduced Alice, Patrick and Luca as a barista, an arts administrator and a production assistant on that ABC TV kids show about the talking owl puppet.
But, at this most posturing of events, it was important that we all put our most pretentious foot forward. And so my new friends were all writers. I, on the other hand, was undeniably and unambiguously most definitely a magician.
Because that’s how all encompassing being a magician is. No one wants to hear about your new novel (Fast & Loose, in all good book stores now) or your blog (The Scamopedia, a pithy exploration of the world of the professional con man). Instead, they want to see a card trick. The need to know if you have a rabbit and if so, have you ever pulled it out of a hat. They’re keen for your opinion on that TV show from fifteen years ago about that guy in the mask who reveals all the magician’s secrets.
To be honest, being a magician is nowhere near as interesting as seeing one. In fact, sometimes it’s a little frustrating. Most magicians are cover bands, talented mimics who purchased full routines and acts online and then parrot back the stock lines provided to their oblivious audiences.
“How did I do that? Very well thank you!”
“Hold out your hand. No, the clean one. Oh, I guess that was the clean one.”
“I’m the best magician in my price range.”
99% of the creativity in magic comes from just 1% of the magicians. Original magic is created by performers like Penn Jillette, Teller, Derren Brown, Yif and Dai Vernon, despite a close up magician whose influence you would have felt if you’ve ever witnessed a card trick.
If they’re saavy, this minority of performers will published their work in books, on instructional DVDs or in 10-20 minute downloadable videos. They’ll find a way to profit from their creativity. If not, they’ll have their performances stolen by other magicians and reproduced with varying success in acts around the world.
For example, in the early 1980’s a magician name Tom Ogden took an old vaudeville gag about a Banana and a Bandana and turned it into a magic trick. David Copperfield loved the idea so much he used in a TV special, without permission. From there, the effect went into mass production and now peppers the acts of comedy magicians everywhere. Tom is yet to see any royalties
So while the few creative magicians innovate, the rest of us fool ourselves into thinking we too are a creative force because we had the idea of using a FedEx envelope instead of a cardboard box.
“Any five year old can do this…with twenty years of practice.”
Perhaps that’s why I like to write. As an author, there is no greater sin than committing plagiarism. You can’t slap a beard on Jack Reacher and say that I “made the character my own.” You can’t steal slabs of dialogue from that Shane Maloney book you like and pass it off as your own. You need to know the difference between clichés and tropes, between theft and homage.
The reason for this dearth of originality among magicians arises because the art form is perfected through rote learning and imitation. We spend hours alone in our rooms with a deck of cards, practicing unnatural moves until it they feel organic. Or rehearsing memorised scripts until they pass for normal humour interaction.
Because magicians aren’t normal humans. We’re socially awkward children looking for a way to stand out.
We’re sleazy pick up artists hoping a woman might mistake her gasp of amazement as sexual arousal. We’re on the spectrum. We’re OCD. We’re not quite right.
“I hold in my hand a perfectly ordinary red silk handkerchief.”
The usual day for a magician involves waking late, browsing online for new tricks to buy, obsessively practicing a coin move we’ll never use before getting into a massive argument on social media about who came up with their rip off of Micheal Jackson’s Smooth Criminal lean first.
In the evening, we might find ourselves plastering on a grin at a corporate cocktail party as the umpteenth sales exec asks if we can make his wife disappear. Or performing at a Bat Mitzvah for a bunch of over-privileged kids who think they know how the tricks are done. Or we might busk on Swanston Street accommodating screams of “NO FUCKING WAY!” from the sorts of people who beat us up in high school.
Robert Houdin, the 18th century Frenchmen who was the father of modern magic and the namesake of Harry Houdini once said “A conjurer is not a juggler; it is an actor playing the part of the magician.” Magicians are chameleons, not just adept at taking on the role of master of illusion but also that of a regular person capable of ordinary social interaction.
And just as a great con artist usually ends up believing their own scam, we often end up believe that we are great magicians, that we possess extraordinary abilities.
Standing on that rooftop, doing classic Dai Vernon card tricks I’d practiced a thousand times in the mirror, cracking jokes written by funnier performers and perfected over decades, I’m as close to normal as I’m ever going to get.
“If you’ve enjoyed the show, my name is Nicholas J. Johnson. If you haven’t, it’s David Copperfield.”
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Nicholas J. Johnson
Nicholas J. Johnson is an author, magician and an expert on con artists and scams. His first novel, Chasing the Ace, was nominated for the Ned Kelly Award. His second, Fast & Loose, is available now. www.conman.com.au