The Power of Illusion (and the Illusion of Power)

After a long hiatus, it’s story time, folks:

My grandfather Jack Maynard was a brilliant illusionist, as you might expect of an extremely old fellow with my DNA. He taught me a little bit as a child, though not enough to be like him, really: I was into too many things to achieve any kind of mastery through practice.

But as a result, when it comes to illusionists, I’ve always preferred the intimacy and skill of small sleight-of-hands and “close magic” to enormous spectacles which, by and large, you can just buy if you’re rich enough. I saw David Copperfield in Toronto at the age of either 10 or 12, and as powerful as it was to see him fly over our heads and make it snow indoors, I knew even then that his real genius wasn’t in these big show-stopping pieces: it was in the pure magic of his hands, the way that he handled cards and coins and ropes in impossible ways. No matter how big he got, there was no stage equipment that could substitute for his real skill. To me, as an amateur illusionist, the things he could do with a $2 million mirror setup were nothing compared to what he could do with a $2 pack of Bicycle playing cards.

Ironically, given the kind of magic I do now with writing, what I didn’t realize at the time was just how much of David Copperfield’s magic came from good storytelling. (Maybe I should have known this, given that he’s taken his stage name from a Dickens novel).

Aside from his skill with Big Things, which never really impressed me, and his skill with Small Things, which impressed me a whole lot, David Copperfield is an uncommonly gifted storyteller, and that—not his sleight of hand—seems to be what separated him from the birthday-party magicians who were all the rage in the 1980s before he restored the illusionist to superstar status as a very, very young man.

The long-form GQ video I’ve linked below is a surprisingly candid, humble, and technically detailed interview, and it’s partly so fascinating because Copperfield’s storytelling gifts come to the fore. He thinks he’s just giving a candid interview here, but he can’t escape putting on The Act: if you want to improve your skills as a raconteur and storyteller, it’s fascinating to watch the way he headlines his memory, introduces and walks us through his tricks with nothing but his words, and somehow manages to fully explain the planning and execution of his Biggest Things without actually committing the cardinal illusionist’s sin of telling you the secret of how they work.

It’s nothing but a monologue, watching a guy in showbiz talk about the things he did. But it’s one of the better explanations I’ve seen, and a terrific example of how interesting the world can be if you just listen to people.

Also interesting, for the entrepreneurial-minded, is how much of his success comes from being a 20-year-old nobody who was not afraid to talk to huge superstars as if they were real people. It’s easy for me to speculate what I could accomplish in life if I had Frank Capra and Ronald Reagan on my team, or their modern-day equivalent. But the truth is, I could, and we all could, if we had the courage to ask, and to ask repeatedly, and to treat people like people and ask from one person to the next until we got to a “yes.”

Between launching my début novel, The Season of the Plough, and trying to kickstart my nascent law career, I’ve had around 120 rejections in the past two years. What they’ve mostly done for me is to take away my fear of asking, and that becomes an incredible superpower. In the same two years, I’ve also met and sat down with my first showrunner, my first filmmaker, my first New York Times bestselling author, my first billionaire. What comes through it all is that the art of human power, if you want to call it that, is itself a masterful illusion. Whoever you are and however you frame your power (which isn’t the same thing as fame, but for artists and creators they often overlap), 99% of your extraordinary power is always illusory. It’s always a mirror trick, always some elaborate spectacle. Like Copperfield’s Big Tricks, so much of it comes from phony staging, and that phony staging can get expensive. People spend a shit-ton of money, I’ve learned, to create and maintain the illusion of their wealth. And fundamentally, it’s no different than David Copperfield vanishing a Lear jet, or the Statute of Liberty, or the moon.

Fundamentally, though, I’ve learned that there’s no going without the 1% of the illusion that comes from a learned and honed skill. Trickery will get you 99% of the way there, but if you can’t deliver that 1% of skill when called for, the whole illusion falls apart. That’s why Donald Trump will never be seen by the public as a good businessman, no matter how elaborate the trickery that holds him up. When it comes to that 1% skill, the close magic, the sleight of hand, his tiny hands can’t deliver. He might have a billion dollars, but the House is never going to stop looking for the wires and trapdoors that make him possible, because they just don’t believe the illusion. And sooner or later, they’ll find them.

What I guess I’m saying is that I found this whole 40-minute GQ piece with David Copperfield to be riveting, and I found that I learned an awful lot from it about art and storytelling, about the power of illusion and the illusion of power. Copperfield is one of the few experts in the world at developing & operating Big Thing illusions, and a lot of that has to do with his gifts of language and narrative. As a writer who tries, insofar as it’s possible, to bend reality by putting one word in front of the last, that’s an inspiring thing.

If you watch the video in isolation, it’s not that different from me saying, “hey, here’s a cool link I found. Check it out!” But I think there’s much more to be had here if you watch it while thinking actively about matrices of narrative, power, mythmaking, falseness, storytelling, and craft in your own life. The more you  bring to the table of engaged thought, the more you’ll take away from this interesting interview. Give it a try here:

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