The Return of the Distracted Artist

On Wednesday I have a Dear Jerxy post devoted to how to handle people asking to see a trick again. In preparation for that, I wanted to write more about the Distracted Artist style because the reason I developed it was specifically to indulge in the type of short, visual magic that's so fun to watch and perform, but often leaves you hounded to "do it again." This style lets me dodge that request.

This is one of the more misunderstood things I've proposed on this site. The idea is not "magic is happening around me and I'm just a hapless bystander!" It's about performing effects with no presentation to disabuse people of the idea that what happened was planned. The moment you say, "While traveling through Bahrain I was gifted a magical ring," or, "This one time a drunkard shuffled my deck of cards," or even just, "Hey, watch this," you've lost the notion of complete spontaneity. That's fine for most tricks. You can't be like, "My nine-phase Ambitious Card routine just happened." But for quick, visual tricks, I find I get a better reaction when they come off as brief magical glitches in reality. The type of thing that might happen to someone who practices magic a lot (in a universe mostly similar to ours). With the Distracted Artist style, you are not trying to suggest you're not responsible for what happened. Just that it was unintended.

The motivations for these magical glitches can be things like:


"What happened? My napkin vanished? Oh... yeah... I guess that's something I've done since I was a kid. Ball it up and make it vanish rather than throw it out. It's just better for the environment. It's all just muscle-memory now. I don't even think about it. In fact, if I tried to do it I'd probably screw it up."

Real-world equivalent: The distracted artist who sits at a table doodling on a placemat. An careless demonstration of artistic skill done without putting any focus on it.

A Manifestation of a Long-Buried Skill or Habit

"This really is a beautiful ring. Where did you... what the hell? My car key? What the... oh my god, you've got to be kidding me. Don't worry, I know where your ring is." [Pulls out key-ring and the spectator's ring is dangling from it.] "I'm sorry. I haven't even thought about that in years. It's an old trick I used to practice like... 15-20 years ago. It's crazy how those things stay with you. Your ring is probably about the same size and weight as the one I used to practice with. And then my brain is just on auto-pilot with that sort of thing. "

Real-world equivalent: Upon hearing a piece of classical music in the elevator, a woman's fingers start moving along with the trumpet part from when she performed it in high-school band 20 years earlier.

The Culmination of Numerous Attempts

A lemon wedge goes flying off the edge of your glass, untouched by you. "Holy shit! It finally worked! I've been trying that with every drink I've ordered for 10 years. What did you say? What is it? Oh... I don't know what you'd call it. It's like this energy projection thing. But it's almost impossible to control. For me, at least. I once saw a video on it and the guy in the video happened to use mind energy to fling a piece of lemon off his drink and that always just stuck in my head. That's crazy. I couldn't do that again in a million years."

Real-world equivalent: The guy who take a full-court hook-shot at the end of every basketball practice eventually sinks one.


You're sitting at the bar and you pick up your change and, mid-conversation, you balance three coins on top of one another. "Holy crap!" you say.

Real-world equivalent: 

The intention when I perform these things is not that something supernatural is happening. It's not an "I can't control my powers!" situation. These moments are just meant to be the byproduct of the intense study of magic.

There is one negative and three positives to the Distracted Artist approach.

The negative is that sometimes you will perform a trick and no one will notice. I don't really mind that. It's kind of amusing when it happens. I just load up and try again.

The positives are these:

1. As I mentioned, people don't ask you to "do it again" because your attitude is that it was unintentional. If they do ask you to do it again, you can try it and fail and that only reinforces that what happened wasn't a planned "trick."

2. I love presentations that allow you to model reactions for the spectators and in most of these variations it's perfectly reasonable to be a little freaked out, impressed, or amazed yourself. And that allows your spectator to feel comfortable expressing those things freely.

3. You kind of get two magical effects for one. You get the actual trick, but then you also impart this strange/wonderful idea that if you're someone who puts a significant amount of time and effort into the study of magic that amazing things can just sort of happen from time to time without you intending them to.

People don't understand exactly what it means to practice magic. So we take advantage of that and make it seem like there could be echoes of that practice in your day-to-day life. Just in the same way if you practice a song on piano a lot you'll find yourself humming it at the grocery store, or tapping away the notes on your desk. "I've practiced making coins disappear so much that sometimes when I handle them I unintentionally make the disappear." 

Making a napkin vanish is a fairly small, inconsequential magic idea. And one that is easily dismissed. "I can make a napkin disappear." - "No. No you can't." But the notion that once you get really advanced, magic becomes second-nature to the point that it occurs without thinking is kind of a big magic idea that can't necessarily be easily dismissed because we know it's the type of thing that happens to all other sorts of artists. And it suggests a type of magic secret that isn't just the mundane and mechanical sort of thing we know magic methods to consist of. It suggests a more arcane and esoteric type of secret that could worm itself into your subconscious and slip out inadvertently. And that's the type of charming benevolent fiction I like to leave people with.