Sleight of Hand

From Noel Qualter, close-up magician

One of my very favorite ways to spend a few minutes is to watch clips from the tv show Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, a show in which professional magicians get to perform a trick on stage to see if Penn and Teller can figure out how it was done. And that’s basically the way most people think about magic… they want to see if they can figure it out.

But when magic is done beautifully, we lose that ego-sense and just give ourselves over to the fact that we’ve seen something amazing. I give you four quick examples, in four very different modes:

There are innumerable others. Some are funny, some are mystical, some are conversational and some are gigantic and stagey. But they all rely on the magician’s ability to make one action seem like another.

The magician Noel Qualter differentiates between what he calls sleight of hand and flourishes. In sleight of hand, the viewer/participant sees nothing at all of the underlying mechanism. The act can seem simple, even skill-less. And yet, the outcome is never as we expect. With flourishes, the magician does all kinds of showy mechanical manipulation—fancy cuts, the coin rolling across the back of the knuckles, all acting as a kind of misdirection for the real work going on unseen.

Sleight of hand is pure craft, the endless practice that allows a manipulation to be not merely obscured but convincingly unseen. The magician has to not merely master the props and the hands, but also the face and the patter. No hesitation or furrowed brow at the moment of truth, just fluid movement, seamless across the before and the after.

Writing is a form of sleight of hand. When it works, the viewer/participant stops thinking about letters and words and sentences, and just falls completely into the world of ideas and characters and problems and opportunities. Every decision a writer makes is in service to sleight of hand, the invitation to let the reader feel as though something else is happening. Something larger that can’t be predicted by the mechanical facts of spelling and syntax.

I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and most of my tricks are now just native. I can employ them in different forms, but my readers are pretty reliably lost to the illusion rather than just watching my hands. And that’s no accident, just practice. Lots and lots of practice. And I keep trying to learn new tricks, to expand my repertoire. There’s always more craft to take on, and to respect.

The reason I raise this question today is because I’m working on two different stories at once, and in both cases, I haven’t manufactured the next step of the illusion. I’m watching my hands in the mirror as I do the next part of the trick, and in both cases, I can see the mechanical move. I can spot the drop or the pass or the force that ought to go unseen. And if I leave it that way, it’s going to be visible to you, too, and the magic will at that moment crumble entirely. The illusion will disappear and we’ll just be left watching a shuffle. So I have to push past “good enough” to “exactly right.” Good enough is rarely good enough.

I think that’s a lot of what people talk about when they use the term “writer’s block.” Sometimes it’s that we’re sick of the craft, that we don’t feel like we’re learning. Sometimes it’s that we haven’t heard the idea or the character speaking to us yet who’s worth days or months or years of our time. But often, I think it’s those long periods of watching our hands in the mirror and saying, over and over, “Nope. Nope. Close… Nope.”

It’s super frustrating, that time before the right sequence of motions makes itself evident. I’ve gotten used to it, and I have confidence that I will be able to manufacture the illusion again. But it always feels clumsy, until it doesn’t.