This is the last in my 1000 word blog posts I did for my Creative Non-Fiction class. I’ll probably also post my major project for that class up here once I’m finished. I had to write about what I learned over the course of the semester.
Lately I’ve been watching magic videos on youtube. Those famous magic guys, Penn & Teller, I’ve been watching their tricks. It seems like they’ve been doing it so long, deception just comes natural to them. And the audience can only work with what they see, and what I can see has been filmed and edited before it went up online, to remove any trace of their deception. It’s impossible to see what isn’t there. Everything else is showmanship. To turn a trick into a narrative. Build up to the twist ending. Leave people wondering how they pulled it off. They’re almost always doing something, we just don’t know what.
I’d like to think I can bring that same sense of mysticism and wonder to my writing. To insert little magic tricks into the writing that conceals my real objective until the right moment, the Big Reveal, to entertain my audience for long enough to get them focusing on one thing, while I’m working a sleight of hand (or sleight of word) outside their gaze.
That’s why I started with Penn and Teller. See, they’ve got this thing where Penn will do all the talking. He tells the audience a bit about the trick they’re about to witness. He sells the story, he hands out information like he’s doing them a favour, telling them everything they need to know to catch the magicians in the act. Meanwhile, Teller — ironically named — remains silent, selling his side of the act through visual narratives. Whether it’s through dialogue or action, the narrative needs to be both entertaining and believable. You buy into the deceit only to find that the unbelievable part is actually the truth.
Style becomes part of their narrative. Some people, you can identify them by their narrative style. They’ve made it into a trick to lure you into a false sense of security. It’s familiar territory. When I’m writing non-fiction, I’ve found myself dropping into a casual conversational tone. Something that rolls along in your head like you’re listening to me talk. Well, yeah. There’s no reason why it can’t work. I just need to put the punctuation in the right spots to reflect the natural breaks in spoken dialogue.
And it doesn’t hurt to throw in an anecdote that doesn’t have an immediate connection with the larger context of the piece. Like this girl at work who tried to tell me I can’t start sentences with ‘And’. Whatever. It becomes a little running joke. She tried to dump her high school English lessons on me while I tried to counter it with examples of notable authors that regularly break the rule. They’re more like guidelines anyway. Whatever. This is just another way of telling stories, keeping the tricks buried beneath narrative.
I think it’s also important to keep structure in the back of your mind as well, so that you’ve got some sort of logical progression with the writing process. I think structure is very important, and the times I forget that are the times my writing just feels dead. And it’s one of those things you can play around with. I like bookending my writing to give it a rounded, resolved feeling, a sense of a natural beginning and ending. Resolution. In the middle is where the magic happens. My assignment was bookended with its core themes and ideas, yet it was also bookended quite literally by a book as my main focus. Motifs are good too. Ideas for readers to latch on to. It’s a sign saying “hey, pay attention, this part is important.” Even if they don’t know why it’s important, it’s got that illusionist angle to it that maybe something else is going on that they can’t quite see. Penn and Teller pulling tricks.
One of my biggest challenges with my assingment, writing about reading, was that I’d latched on to an idea that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t exactly wrong, but it wasn’t quite right. And what really tied everything together was that I’d spent all this time examining this one aspect of my assignment, I was working through all these ideas why it is the way it is. Ho-hum. He likes reading on holidays. There must be a direct correlation between reading and distance from home. There are no other factors. I know this, because I’m telling you this. Because on some level I believe it too.
I go from watching magic tricks to watching videos of atheists talking about their beliefs. Classic misdirection. I go from one video to another to another, and then I’m back to Penn the magician, and he’s talking about his book on atheism and religion. I was pleased to hear the man say, “I don’t know” when asked how the earth came into being. And what happens when you die, you cease to exist. Just like you don’t exist before you are born. It’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a part of life — like so many things — that is beyond comprehension.
Now, I found that while I was working on my assignment, I was driven towards knowledge. To come to an understanding about a fundamental aspect of my life. At times I felt like I was trying to confront issues that were beyond my comprehension. I was writing to work through what I didn’t know. How does my environment affect how I read? This question (posed in a variety of less succinct forms) plagued me for weeks and weeks while I had convinced myself that being in other towns and cities enhanced my reading experience without knowing why. What I came to realise was that I’d been circling around the real issue the whole time. I’d been performing a magic trick where I didn’t know the Big Reveal. I didn’t know what I was going to show off at the end.
Once I found out, I couldn’t just go back to the start and admit that my initial suspicions were wrong. I had a story here, something to distract from the real themes and ideas. Rewriting this assignment was a matter of convincing the audience my first idea was the right one while I built up the story and sold the deception, while the truth was pushed out of sight and pushed up to the end. Some things, some universal themes and ideas really are beyond comprehension, but in my story, it’s my role to know everything. To entertain and to sell a believable story. I want my readers to think they’re smart — look at all the things they know about me! But this is my story. You’re smart? Well, I’m smarter. And I’m here to tell you, you don’t know shit.