What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Stage Magicians
Gabriel Urza on the Literary Virtues of Defamiliarization
A decade ago, a friend told me about his previous life as a stage magician in his late teens. His career came to an abrupt end when an escape he’d practiced countless times went wrong—he’d found himself handcuffed to a grate at the bottom of a swimming pool, the trick suddenly escaping him. The oxygen in his lungs was nearly depleted when the lock finally gave, sparing his life.
As he told the story, it was clear that it still haunted him. In the days after, the image began to haunt me, as well: a young magician, arm stretched down towards the bottom of the pool, suddenly turned mortal lost in the chlorine-blue water.
From this image a short story began to emerge about a young magic protégé, but I never seemed to be able to finish it. Over the years it morphed into something more unwieldy, a metafictional albatross whose footnotes and endnotes began to be taken over by an anxious academic who—my wife liked to point out—bore more than a passing resemblance to me. It was during this time that I often found myself lost in research on the subject of magic, immersed in old instruction books redolent with line drawings of silver rings and playing cards and handkerchiefs, watching YouTube videos of hand sleights and escape acts in the dark hours of the night.
Late into revisions of this manuscript, which had slowly evolved into a novella called The White Death: an Illusion, I came across the work of magician Joshua Jay. I’d first heard of Jay a decade earlier from Michelle Herman, my professor in the MFA program at Ohio State University. Jay had been an undergraduate student of hers a few years before, a promising writer and a world-renowned professional magician. When I searched his name, one of the first videos to appear was for “Balance,” an illusion of his own creation. In the sea of YouTube videos that I’d watched with while researching the novella, the video instantly stood out in several ways.
The first thing I noticed was that Jay seemed—well—normal. Standard work attire for most magicians, even now, falls somewhere on a spectrum between Penn & Teller pinstripes and Criss Angel BDSM. Jay was business casual; he might pass for a thirtysomething coder out on a sushi break. His normality was, oddly, unsettling. But what set this illusion apart—aside from its basic inexplicability—was the story that Jay began to tell.
In the video, Jay begins with a half-dozen items spread out on a table before him: a Gatorade bottle, a deck of playing cards, a pencil, a toothbrush, a cigarette pack, and a loose cigarette. He invented this trick, he explains, after sharing a years-long mail correspondence with an inmate who practiced magic in prison. As he’s talking, he places the toothbrush atop the Gatorade bottle. He designed the trick, he tells his audience, using only items that his pen-pal would have available to him. Jay slides the toothbrush so that it hangs—first precariously, then impossibly—from the lid of the bottle.
Jay then proceeds to stack the remaining items vertically from the teetering end of the toothbrush, taller and taller, at wild, unreasonable angles. First the pencil, tip down, nested into the bristles of the brush. Then the deck of cards balancing atop the pencil’s eraser, followed by the pack of cigarettes. Finally Jay places the lone cigarette, which teeters precariously atop the sculpture, now two feet tall.The imagined reality Jay had created in the act felt like the embodiment of good fiction writing.
As magician Paul Harris noted in his review of Balance, “I don’t really want to call it a trick. It’s a moment of strange, a piece of oddness.” The illusion is mesmerizing in its own right, but the image of the balancing objects is inextricably paired with that of the prison magician, alone in his cell somewhere, performing this same minor miracle. The prisoner seems to inhabit the objects themselves, creating a sort of secondary illusion. It’s magic, but it’s also metaphor.
As a fiction writer, the act had an immediate, recognizable weight to it; the imagined reality Jay had created in the act felt like the embodiment of good fiction writing. I began to consider the connections between the two crafts of magic and fiction writing, wondering what might be gleaned about the process of creating living fictions. The suspension of disbelief required by both reader and audience member. The inherent tension between believability and deception. The materialization of something where there once was nothing.
As I began researching Jay’s career, I soon learned that he was a prolific writer himself, having published a dozen books on magic. He’s authored a lecture—”Tragic Magic”—on historical magicians who died in the pursuit of their craft, and has recently published an anthology of essays on magic.
When I reached out to Jay a few months ago with the aim of writing a piece exploring the connections between magic and fiction writing, I was surprised to get a quick and enthusiastic response. “I’d love to help in any way I can,” he wrote, noting that he was currently performing in French Polynesia. “There is a fascinating connection between magic and storytelling.”
He then went on to describe a new book by the legendary Spanish magician Juan Tamariz, which discusses how magic tricks often follow the familiar story arc of Freitag’s Triangle. “Tamariz’ brilliant insight is that you can chart most magic effects in exactly the same way, with one notable exception: there’s no resolution after the climax. The climax is the endpoint of a magic trick.”
We began to trade emails, discussing the ways that writing and magic were similar, and the ways that they differed. I soon came to expect this sort of thoughtful, conceptual answer to my questions. I learned that Jay authors many of his illusions, something that sets him apart from the vast majority of performers. And it was in our discussion of this creative process that I found myself rethinking approaches to my own writing, ways to create and to disrupt reflexive approaches to storytelling.
It begins, most often, with an image: a credit card frozen impossibly inside a block of ice. An inmate alone in a cell, practicing a bottom-deal using cards created from prison-issued milk cartons. A fish, miraculously appearing in a drinking glass. For Jay, these are the places from where magic and story begin to unfurl. The illusion following the image, the story chasing the vision.
Consider, for example, the evolution of Balance. If the mechanics of a magic trick might be thought of as the trick’s “plot,” then the context surrounding it might be character and setting and structure; all the components of a fiction that give it specificity, that make it more meaningful than a series of events.
“I’d been playing with a suspension effect for years, impossibly balancing objects on top of each other,” Jay explained. “It was visually arresting, but it had no context.”“You can chart most magic effects in exactly the same way, with one notable exception: there’s no resolution after the climax. The climax is the endpoint of a magic trick.”
It was then that Jay first received a letter from an inmate who had taken up magic after reading Jay’s book Magic: The Complete Course in prison. As Jay began writing to the man, he began to see the context his suspension effect had been lacking. “Doing magic in a cage is a grim, poetic image,” he said. “The story works without a trick, and the story enhances the illusion.”
On Education and the Benefits of Isolation
There’s no MFA for magicians yet, thank God. In fact, there are few institutionalized methods for learning magic—private magic classes, books and online tutorials, some innovative in-person schools offering specific courses. When Jay began studying magic at the age of seven in Canton, Ohio, even these sources weren’t available—Canton didn’t have much of a magic scene, and YouTube wouldn’t be created for another seventeen years. Instead, he had to teach himself.
“Most magicians study under another performer, or take classes or lessons,” Jay explained. “I had to invent the tricks I would perform, or learn from old books. My prototypes were made with duct tape and cereal boxes.”
It’s clear that this forced creativity is something that Jay values, that struggling on his own is what lead to what he calls his “magic instinct.” Instead of mimicking the acts of accomplished magicians, he was forced to innovate. “Looking back,” he reflected, “being alone was a huge asset. Nobody was there to tell me that I couldn’t do something, or that there were rules to how we use sleight of hand and misdirection.”
This is something that comes up over and over in our conversations: the creative value of aloneness, the generative side effects of separateness. Writing, for Jay, has become something of a refuge from the hyper-socialness of his life as a professional magician. “Writing is such a solitary exercise,” he said. “It’s a perfect counterpoint for me to hole up in a hotel room or coffee shop, and interact with a story or history or concept without having to say a word.”
But for Jay, creative solitude doesn’t mean being locked away from people—at least not always.
Even now, while developing a new illusion, Jay will seek out solitude, if not isolation. Instead, he will actively seek out places of influence and inspiration; when he’s working on creating a new act, he’ll often going alone to concerts with a deck of cards and a notebook.
“This makes me, perhaps, the dorkiest spectator in any arena,” Jay said. “But I find that the hardest part of developing something is not getting inspiration, but blocking out everything else. At a concert, there are no distractions. Only music. And that’s often where the kernels of ideas come from.”
Jay describes an illusion that he recently performed on The Late Show With James Corden. It’s a trick he developed after going to a Robert Plant concert at Forrest Hills Stadium in Queens. During the show, Jay noticed a t-shirt that the guy next to him was wearing: on it was a piece of duct tape with the band name “Soundgarden” written in black Sharpie.
“My immediate instinct was to pull the tape off the shirt,” he said, “but as I snuck glances at my neighbor, I realized it was just a shirt. It was printed to look like tape on a shirt. . . .175 shows later, the piece has developed into something I’m proud of.”
On Defamiliarization and the Beholder’s Share
We know what a magic show looks like: a guy in a bad suit—too much silk, too baggy in the jacket—on a large stage, maybe with an assistant. Audience in front of him, far enough away to feel comfortable. Far enough to know we’re being entertained, that we’re being fooled. We’ve read this story. It’s a good one, but it’s safe. This is the expectation that Jay seeks to rupture.“Many magicians have become too comfortable inhabiting the same two emotions for an entire show: humor and astonishment.”
“Many magicians have become too comfortable inhabiting the same two emotions for an entire show: humor and astonishment,” Jay says. “Those are both great feelings, and most decent magic shows offer both feelings in abundance. But my question is this: what about everything else? Is it possible to feel fear in a magic show? Love? Utter shock? Being uncomfortable?”
This ambition is perhaps best captured in Jay’s current show, Six Impossible Things, which he performs in a venue on Canal Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The show sets out to upend the safety of the traditional magic show in just about every way, from audience size (only twenty people are allowed to each performance) to venue (each of the six acts takes place in a different, small room), to level of personal interaction (the show concludes with each audience member meeting Jay alone in a room, one-on-one, for a single trick). It’s an experiment in the power of perspective and point of view, an example of what happens when time or space are compressed or expanded.
“I [want] to ask this fundamental question: what are the different ways we can experience magic?” Jay says. “Throughout the evening, you feel magic in the dark, see magic in the dark, see magic surrounding you, standing, seated, on the ground, and then, at the end, one on one, alone in a room.”
Perhaps the most striking—and most literary—move that Jay makes is to strip away the senses that his audience are most expecting to engage. The vast majority of magic tricks are, of course, visual; the sleights in “sleight of hand” are almost always seen by an audience. But something strange happens when this expectation is derailed.
“Since people have never experienced magic with their other senses, they often don’t know how to respond,” Jay says.
To illustrate, he describes a trick in which coins vanish out of an audience member’s hand, only to appear in a bucket that’s been placed under another person’s shirt. In the middle of the act, the lights go out, and it’s in the silence of this darkness that the audience hears the unmistakable sound of the coin landing in the bottom of the bucket. It’s an effect that elicits, most often, not applause but silence.
“What I discovered is that when the lights go out, we’re no longer playing to each other,” Jay says. “With the lights out, people feel alone, and they react in line with how they’re really feeling. When we’re most surprised, when we’re shook, we feel a stillness.”
It’s this sense of rupture and disquiet that calls to mind a line in Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “On Defamiliarization”: “Images become memorable when some crucial part of their meaning has been stripped of them.” (To paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins). What happens when we take away the familiar illusion? Often, an unfamiliar truth rises to take its place.
What stands out to me in Jay’s approach is this way in which he regards his audience: not as an enemy to be overcome, but as a collaborator, aware of both their role as witness and of his as author. “In the best writing and the best magic, there’s a role for the audience to play,” Jay says. “[Art critic Ernst] Gombrich called this ‘the Beholder’s Share.’ He was talking about painting, but he might as well have been describing writing or magic.”
As an example, he discusses an illusion from Six Impossible Things called “Trust.” In this act, an audience member is asked to place a finger into a cigar cutter, an idea Jay conceived of after reading the Roald Dahl story “The Man From the South.”
“My favorite line in the show happens here,” Jay says. “I say, ‘You think of a magic show as something you watch the magician do. But in this show, I’m watching you back.’ I first said it one night because it’s absolutely true, and people don’t realize it until it’s pointed out. In every piece of the show, I can see you as clearly as you can see me, which is, I think, unsettling and fascinating for both of us.”
It’s a strange moment of metafiction, the artist acknowledging their audience, momentarily putting himself in their position as observer. The move changes the power dynamic—imperceptibly but significantly—for the rest of the show.
Points of Entry
Both magic and fiction seek to convince their audience of the authenticity of their realities, a task that begins from the first moment of interaction with their audience. This is a concern that Jay takes to its extreme in Six Impossible Things, in no small part because Jay has to overcome the expectations that a ticket holder at a magic show is likely to have.This sense of rupture and disquiet calls to mind Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “On Defamiliarization”: “Images become memorable when some crucial part of their meaning has been stripped of them.” What happens when we take away the familiar illusion? Often, an unfamiliar truth rises to take its place.
For Jay, the point of entry begins before the audience is even seated. The show is limited to only twenty audience members, and children under the age of fourteen are prohibited. Second, the show can be viewed only once—Jay’s staff keep close tabs on who is attending and suss out anyone trying to see the show a second time. These seem like peevish requirements, but they change the audience’s expectation at the outset; in the first moment, Jay is telling his audience how to read the text. He is telling the viewer that the story takes itself seriously, and that they should, too.
In a similar way, Jay closely hones and refines the opening lines of a routine, editing and reworking until he’s landed on an opening that introduces not just the mechanics of the trick, but how it’s to be viewed.
In our discussion of points of entry, Jay cites an opening line for his trick, “Out of Sight,” which he used to trick Penn & Teller on “Fool Us”: “I was doing a show about two years ago and right in the middle of the performance, a woman asked me, ‘Hey can you show a trick to her?’ I thought that was an odd thing to say until she clarified: ‘You don’t understand. This woman is blind.'”
It’s a dramatic line, but it’s also one that draws attention, conspicuously, to the rules of the world we’re about to enter.
If magic is fiction enacted, then Joshua Jay’s approaches to his craft might similarly be transposed to the process of creating fiction. There are stories that we all know—an uncle’s performance of the old severed thumb gag, the doves flying out of a tuxedoed man’s hat on a stage. What’s captivating about Jay’s approach, the way he subverts our expectations, isn’t just the result—the image stripped of its meaning, the audience left in rapt silence. It’s also the sheer and obvious excitement that the performer himself experiences, no longer bound by expectations of the past.
Gabriel Urza’s The White Death is out now from Nouvella Books.