Dear Jerxy: Establishing the Public Face of Your Relationship to Magic


Dear Jerxy: You write in a few posts that your "image" is one who has an interest in magic, rather than a magician. You don't give off the impression to friends that you work really hard to accomplish technical gambling moves but rather you belong to a secret circle of magicians with ancient rules and culture, or you met this cool person who can do ACAAN over text, or get nicely wrapped gifts from an overweight Santa figure. 

However, this immersive style of magic you also say you only do 1/3 of the time; the other times you do backstage "let me show you what I'm working on" or traditional presentations. So I'm sure many of your friends know you as a magician, from these traditional presentations. 

When you use cards in some of these "weird" presentations, like the Time Traveler's Toilet, or the torn up card a la intercessor for the trick where you take your friend digging for buried treasure that she never buried with you, does that telegraph that "oh it's just a card trick?" After all, cards are never usually used for such a situation involving toilets -they're used for playing card games. "Why not test it with another object, rather than one historically associated with magic tricks" is a thought that the spectator might think.

Hope that made sense. I think there were two thoughts there, one concerning an image of "the magician," and another concerning the usage of cards and their respective interference with the immersive performance style.

Befuddled in Berkeley

Dear Befuddled:

Okay, I think I might not be clear when I say that my goal is to come off as someone with an interest in magic as opposed to a “magician,” so let me try to clarify.

I think as a social magician, you need to come up with an understanding of how you want people to view you and your relationship to magic. I was watching a Peter Turner video the other day and he says that he never lets the people he’s dating know that what he does isn’t real. He tells them that his abilities are a product of his keen intuition, not tricks. That would be an exhausting way to go through life for me. I want to feel comfortable in my own skin, not like I’m playing a part when I wake up with my girlfriend.

So, what then do I want to project to the friends and family I see all the time? I don’t want to claim special powers. I don’t want to pretend I don’t have an interest in magic and that weird things are just happening around me (you can only keep that up for so long.) But I also don’t want the dullness of, “Yeah, my hobby is magic and these are tricks 1 million other magicians could show you.”

The “story” I tell people is this:

  1. When I was a kid, magic was one of many hobbies I had. As it is for many kids. (This is 100% true.)

  2. I took that interest further than most kids and I would go to magic stores and lectures and conventions when I was young. (This is mostly true.)

  3. My initial interest was in traditional things like tricks with cards and coins, but as the years have passed, I’ve been following many more arcane branches of the art. This had led me to discover all types of strange people, techniques, rituals, objects, etc. This is stuff that you can’t find in the library or on youtube. It’s not supernatural, it’s not witchcraft. It’s just some of the more obscure aspects of magic that most people don’t have access to. (This is mostly untrue.)

So the public face of my relationship with magic is that I’m someone who has an interest in magic that is intense enough that I’ve pursued it far past where most people with a casual interest have and therefore I can show them some things they would be unlikely to see anywhere else. It’s never a matter of me being special. I’ve just come across these weird things and other types of magic because I’ve devoted the time to it and was lucky enough to make connections with people who showed me stuff “beyond sleight-of-hand and gimmicks.” I never really explain what I mean when I say something like that, I just like to imply there’s some other kind of trickery beyond the things they know.

I’ll be getting back to your question, but I’m trying to lay some foundation first.

I will tell you a mistake I made. I used to like performing tricks for friends and family, but I didn’t really want them to associate me too much with magic. I didn’t want to be saddled with the baggage of people’s notions of cornball magicians. So I wouldn’t talk about magic. I would just occasionally show people tricks. They liked the tricks, everything was fine, but they were just disconnected incidents. There was no momentum to the effects; they didn’t mean anything in concert.

Imagine if someone occasionally danced for you and it was really impressive, but they didn’t want to be known as a dancer, didn’t want to be associated with dancers, didn’t want to talk about dancing. They would do this three minute performance for you and that would be the end of it. That’s fine, you’d enjoy the performance, but there would never be a way to connect with that person through this experience.

Over time, I realized that by opening up about my interest in magic, I could give the tricks a broader context and it wouldn’t be just isolated moments of entertainment. The big breakthrough I had was when I realized that I could let people into a fictionalized world of what it meant to have an “interest in magic,” and no one has a problem with that. I didn’t have to embrace all the cheesy aspects of the reality of learning magic. Because magic is inherently fantastical, people are okay with a story that’s not rooted 100% in reality at all times.

Some of the contexts I’ve put tricks in ring true, some don’t. Once people understand that I’m not seriously trying to convince them of anything untrue, they’re usually more than willing to just go along with things. “Did he really find this object in his grandfather’s attic?” At a certain point they realize it doesn’t matter.

Getting back to the original question: how do I reconcile the bigger immersive tricks and the smaller scale “let me show you this trick I’m working on” sort of presentation? The answer is that I don’t have to reconcile them. The relationship with magic that I’ve established is one where I have a history with, and an interest in, classic sleight-of-hand tricks. But in later years I’ve pursued some stranger sorts of things. So it’s a cohesive story no matter what type of effect I perform. I haven’t painted myself into a corner. I can do sponge balls, I can read their mind, I can do a Tenyo trick, I can do a three day trick where I leave a little satchel of dried flowers under their bed and it ends up affecting their dreams (see, “Send Me a Pillow, The One That You Dream On,” in the upcoming book). I can do any of these and they’re all part of the same narrative.

The same goes for the other part of your question: Does using cards telegraph that it’s a trick? Maybe. But that doesn’t matter to me. “I’m never seriously suggesting it’s anything other than a trick. My presumption is that the audience always knows it’s a trick. And my goal is never to disabuse them of that knowledge. My goal for a trick is for it to elicit one of the following reactions.

  • They know it’s a trick… but it’s so strong and convincing that they’re forced to briefly consider some absurd presentation I’ve attached to it because that momentarily feels more possible than the idea that it was a trick.

  • They know it’s a trick… but it’s such a well thought-out and engaging interaction that they choose to let it wash over them as if it’s real, just because it’s more fun that way.

  • They know it’s a trick… but they don’t quite understand the nature of the trick. The trick may be a ball disappears. No modern audience will ever ask, “Did the ball really disappear?” If your goal is to convince them it did, you’re doomed. But you can still generate mystery by getting them to question the nature of the trick via the presentation you establish. “Did he really hypnotize me not to see the ball?” “Is it really some kind of mechanical gimmick and he doesn’t know how it works either?” “Is there really something called, sleight of energy,’ that would allow a manipulation in how I perceive the ball?” “Is this really the first time it’s ever worked for him?” “Has he really been working on this for six weeks?” “Was there really never a ball at all?” Im not trying to convince them of something that isn’t real (the ball really disappeared), but I want to create mystery by blurring the lines in regards to where reality crossed over into fiction.

  • They know it’s a trick… but so what? It was an awesome trick and they had fun.