Sunday, August 29, 2010

3 Ways to Increase Your Creativity

The creative process varies from individual to individual. Thom Wolfe was known to put himself through all sorts of weird processes to write, including sitting in his kitchen sink simply because he'd never done that before. While it takes time to work out your own process, there are some exercises that can help.

3. Keep a Dream Journal
When our brains go into REM mode during sleep, that's when dreaming occurs. Most of it is nearly impossible to remember, but the recall is there if you just get used to it. Keeping a dream journal is the best way to tap into this.

Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. Get into the habit every morning of writing down what you remember about your dreams. It won't be much at first, but within about a week, you'll start remembering more and be able to write more detailed logs. After a couple months, you might even be able to trigger lucid dreams.

The reason this is a boon to your creativity is because it shuts off the analytical left brain. I've recorded dreams about visiting a town where a pirate is the mayor, where I'm driving the Mach 5, and one in which a demon in the art style of the Scott Pilgrim vs the World graphic novels questions me about my dreams. Your right brain isn't terribly critical of what goes on in dreams, so you end up with these bizarre juxtapositions of logically incompatible ideas.

However, this also means that recorded dreams make interesting fodder for creativity, sometimes providing the seed of an idea. Your brain is simply jumbling together ideas that it's been mulling over for the last couple of days. The connections it sometimes forms are the sort of thing you normally would never think of when conscious because your left brain is being way too critical of content.

If this also leads you to experience lucid dreaming, that has advantages as well. You can rehearse performances, reinforce knowledge you already have, practice a skill, and improve your memory and recall. Of course, this will take some time to get used to and it may be months before you achieve actual lucid dreams. I suggest you do some reading on the subject if you're interested.

Otherwise, just keep a dream journal. Remember to write your dreams down immediately upon waking. Don't get up to stretch and dress. Don't stare at the ceiling. You need to preserve the visions of the dream on paper before they fade away.

2. Clustering
This a freewriting type of exercise that I'm fond of. I discuss it along with others in my ebook "Say What?" It works well for people with very visual imaginations. What you do is write down a single thought. For the sake of example, let's say it's storms. Write it in the center of a blank page and circle it. This is your keystone thought.

Now write down all the things your keystone makes you think of, circle them, and draw a line connecting them to the keystone. Lightning, howling winds, dark clouds, pitch darkness, cold, rain, and so on in this example.

Now repeat the process with every new little node. Lightning makes me think of violence, inspiration, thunderclaps, destruction. Rain makes me think of rejuvenation, flooding, the scent of water in the air, the drumming of falling rain, mist, fog, and summer. Pitch darkness makes me think of isolation, obscurity, fear, night, and so on.

Just keep repeating the process for each node until there's no more room on the page. You now have a mental road map of imaginative connections between disparate elements. The more connections you make, the more you start to see possibilities open up before you. You can explore possibilities you never thought of before. IN this little example, I already got the seed of an idea for a routine using some stage hypnosis and a murder mystery story using effects such as getting people to smell the scent of rain even though there isn't a cloud in the sky.

If you're familiar with freewriting and other concepts, clustering should come naturally to you. Effectively, this is freewriting in a visual format. Experiment with it and see where it takes you. It's an effective way to turn off the analytical left brain for a few minutes, and once you get the feel for it, you can try similar methods such as automatic writing and cave writing.

1. Think Like a Time Traveler
As an avid gamer I've tried out numerous systems, settings, and genres. Pen'n'paper RPGs are still my favorite for truly expansive thinking since so much more is possible when you have a game master responding to your ideas and actions in real time. On that note, I point to a concept from an underrated gem published by Wizards of the Coast called Urban Arcana.

As the name suggests, it's an urban fantasy game. Among suggestions for the players and game master, it recommends that you learn to think like a person displaced in time and space. Go to a hardware store and put yourself in the frame of mind of not knowing what most of the stuff is. Think of the most outrageous uses and explanations for these things that you can. That is every day of a time traveling wizard's life.

Through this exercise, you end up coming up with some pretty interesting ideas. As an example, here's a list of some of the spells and magic items described in the Urban Arcana rule book:

  • A wristwatch that makes you faster.
  • A bullseye tattoo that magically makes you a better shot.
  • A backpack with an extradimensional interior of over 100 cubic feet.
  • A spell that lets you teleport to the location of a telephone you're calling.
  • A spell that disables all surveillance and security devices temporarily.
  • A spell that lets you read barcodes and other data sources like a machine by running your finger over them.

I'm working on an effect based on that last premise, incidentally.  Part of my Dr. Question Mark show.

Anyway, the point is that you start thinking of things not as what they are but what they could be. It's a call back to the days of childhood imagination. For a child, the impossible is only a matter of time. One of the unique challenges to doing magic for children is that they don't take things for granted as adults do. Everything around you could do something fantastic and they're waiting for it happen. Consequently, you can't rely on surprising them as much. But that's tangential to the point.

The message here is to exercise your creativity by thinking laterally and observing possibilities instead of facts. A lot of comedy is based on this as well. You see it frequently in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

"He's got two huge Sudafed on top of his car." (lights on a police car)
"I think the Tin Man had that thing surgically removed." (a small satellite)
"This is the most complicated beer bong I've ever seen." (lab equipment)
"Eat this baguette! Eat it!" (guy getting hit with a 2x4)

Next time you're out in public, give it a try. Consider mundane objects and start thinking of them in a totally new context.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Real Work of Comedy

Kevin Murphy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax fame posted to his Twitter today, a little joke.

A hazard of my work - did extensive research into the career of Ashlee Simpson. Used said research for a single joke. You're welcome.

You want to be funny? This is what goes on behind the scenes. Get to work.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

5 Ways You're Secretly Sabotaging Your Performance

Just get it out of your system. You think I'm high, don't you? You're getting good reactions, so how can you be sabotaging yourself? Well it turns out that people have a lot of curious habits that we developed a long time ago that actually aren't as helpful as we thought they were.

5. You Laugh Too Much and Too Soon
Laughter is great. It's probably one of the best bonding rituals in all of human psychology. But it's primary function is to dispel tension, as I mentioned in a previous entry. If you laugh first, then you are subconsciously communicating that you are experiencing tension between you and the audience and that you need to dispel it now because you can't take the pressure. Not exactly oozing confidence, wouldn't you say?

The temptation to laugh in order to create a chain effect is intense. But you have to train yourself to hold back and only laugh when appropriate. It goes without saying that if you laugh at your own jokes, you're a douchebag. Let the audience laugh first. If someone says something funny, by all means laugh yourself. But you have to maintain the mindset that there is no tension except what they feel. You don't need to relieve anything. Stay in control.

This will take time to get used to. As a society, we're encouraged to laugh or we look weird. Unfortunately, we end up taking it too far and we look weird anyway. But we're magicians and we have to remain in control. We all have to be like one big group of Fonzies: cool. Smile by all means. But cut back on laughing.

4. You Talk Too Much
The more you talk the greater the chance you'll say something banal. People who genuinely have the gift of the gab are few and far between. Most of us just don't know when to shut up. Trust me, I've been acquainted with more than a few magicians, some of them actually very successful, who turned out to be complete windbags.

I'm not unsympathetic. I never professed to be a humble man, and there's a voice in my head constantly saying to me, "Talk! Come on, talk! You've got a radio voice. People love to hear you talk. They should be grateful for your knowledge." I have to hold the urge in, though. There's a line between witty conversation and monopolizing the conversation.

By restraining yourself, you actually make the words that you do say more important. One bad habit most magicians have that you yourself might possess dear reader is the tendency to explain what's going on. A lot. Reign it in. The less information you give, the more valuable it becomes. Sales 101. Robert Cialdini wrote in his influential book "Influence" that you need to create a scarcity paradigm. Since nature abhors a vacuum, you put higher value and weight on that which you give very little of. If you're still a little shaky on this concept, a review of "Influence" is coming down the pipeline.

3. You're Over-Practiced
Rick Maue once told me, "If you're practicing for 2 or more hours a day, you're not performing enough." That's a controversial statement to say the least and it's irritated more than a few people I've mentioned it to. The fact of the matter is that it's very easy to build yourself a nice, secure comfort zone that ends at your bedroom door or webcam.

Have you ever met a dedicated bodybuilder? Would it surprise you to know that some of those guys don't get nearly as many women as you may think? They work hard to build up their strength and muscles. They have 12-inch pythons, legs like tree trunks, 6-pack abs, and a V-shaped body. But some of them only see the flaws. You say they look great. But they might say that they need to work on their delts more. Or they might think their right arm isn't symmetrical with the left. They become so focused on these little details that they miss the fact that most people envy them and a lot of women are lining up to hand over their phone numbers.

That's what an over-practiced magician sounds like. Oh no, my pass isn't invisible enough! I could kind of sort of see it in the mirror from a 27 degree angle. No, no, this two-handed cut isn't fast enough. That would totally disrupt the flow of my show. I can't go out in public yet! Have you seen how unbelievably sloppy my interlock production is?!

And before you ask, yes card specialists, I am singling you out. You're guilty more than anybody else.

You can read every text in the world on martial arts and practice the forms and combos until you've committed them to muscle memory, but in your first sparring match you're going to take a few hits. You'll probably even lose. There's no better teacher than experience. Consider that maybe your ratio of practice to performance is off-balance. I've seen guys who have infinitely better sleight of hand than me, but they can't connect with an audience half as well as I do. And some of them I may never know if they can, because I've never seen them perform for anything that wasn't a webcam.

Consider the early career of early-20th-century boxer Jack Johnson. He couldn't afford to hire a trainer, so he just learned the basics and then booked himself for every available fight, sometimes competing in over 20 matches a year. He trained himself in the crucible of experience and became a champion.

2. You're Using Dead Weight Material
Our brains are remarkably good at surviving, but not particularly good at functioning in society. Especially when it comes to money. We magicians tend to buy stuff and then not like it. But some of it you probably use anyway, because damn it, you paid for it! Your brain is really good at convincing itself that you're a savvy customer.

Simply put, your brain wants to think short-term. So if you've invested in something, it wants to believe that money was worth it, so you try to get some use out of it no matter what. You stay loyal to previous investments. When you spend money on stuff because you've already spent money on stuff like it, this is called the sunk cost fallacy.

Worse yet, you hang onto it for similar reasons. This is called the disposition effect. You're hanging onto something out of the optimistic assumption that its value will climb in time. In other words, "But I might need it later." Any gamers reading this are probably familiar with that thought. You hang onto material you don't use because you don't want to waste the money you spent on it. And instead of going eBay to try and recoup your costs or at least get some money back so that you only lost a few bucks on it, you keep it thinking that it might come in handy later. But it won't.

Go through your stuff, do an inventory of your books, DVDs, gimmicks and whathaveyous and ask yourself how much of it you actually use. How much of it do you use that just isn't that good? Be realistic. Is this stuff ever going to be useful? Get to eBay and clean up that bookshelf.

1. You Have No Plan
So you're getting good reactions. What kind of reactions? Why not great ones? Do you even know what kind of reactions you wanted to get in the first place? A lot of new magicians these days see the preview videos for new material or watch David Blaine and Criss Angel on TV and mistake volume for quality. But more than that, they don't really know what emotion they're trying to elicit.

And even supposing they do, they have no idea what it takes to get that reaction. I've met guys trying to be funny and get laughs, but they don't know anything about comedy. I've met guys who want to scare people, but they couldn't scare a kitten. It's like trying to drive a car blindfolded. And you can't drive a stick. Or at all.

Fact of the matter is that you need a game plan. You need to know what kind of reactions you want and how you can get them. Getting people to feel something specific is a lot harder than just taking the shotgun approach of trying to get any reaction, but the payoff is geometrically higher. People will remember a performance that got a specific emotion out of them long after they've forgotten Generic Card Trick #347. And more importantly, they'll remember you.

I've seen a few guys fall into the trap of thinking any reaction is a good one. They're performing the same bland, generic material day in and day out with very little personality or uniqueness. But they managed to get gasps out of their classmates or coworkers, so they imagine that they're already on the right path. Easy trap to fall into. Again, this is the shotgun approach. But what are shotguns? Situational weapons. They have their place, but if it's all you have, you're in for one hell of a rude awakening down the line.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Why You're an Idiot for Not Reading Richard Matheson

It's impossible for me to talk about Richard Matheson without talking about horror and science fiction. But first an introduction. Matheson has published 28 novels and 100 short stories. He's written several screenplays based on his works and contributed episodes to The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. His influence on speculative fiction and horror is astronomical.

That said, horror is sort of a pet genre of mine. It's arguably the most culturally important genre of fiction due to the fact that it gives a window into a culture's values. Horror is the representation of every fear, every space of ignorance, and every thought we as a society repress to our shadow selves. The werewolf is the personification of emotion unleashed, the id made flesh. The vampire is venereal disease and wasting death in an anthropomorphic package. Witches (as perceived by Westerners) are the nightmare of the misogynist and anyone else who fears feminine power and sexuality. The list goes on.

Consequently, horror is much more difficult to write than most people imagine. It's psychological. It gets under your skin. In my book Exalt of the Weird I go into detail about the different approaches to horror that are primarily split into the difference between spooky and creepy. Matheson is one of the few writers who can ably do both. No easy feat I assure you.

To write horror requires a subtle touch. You must create a balance between the audience's dread and their desire to know how things will end. That tension is at the core of good horror fiction. The climactic final act of Hitchcock's Psycho in which the two protagonists attempt to distract Norman Bates and break into his house to find Mrs. Bates is one of the most gut-wrenching sequences in cinematic history. The viewer is practically screaming at the screen, "Don't go in there!" and yet they continue watching because the not knowing is more terrible than seeing the outcome.

Human psychology proves time and again that people will always be much better at scaring themselves than other people will be at scaring them. Provided of course you get them in the proper frame of mind (i.e. paranoid, suspicious, panicky, etc.). Too often you see movie after movie, game after game, and book after book try to sledgehammer you into being scared. But that will never be anywhere near as effective. Neil Gaiman once said of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, "I never wanted to be the first one to draw a shoggoth because then people would look at it and say, 'Oh, that's what one looks like. I thought it would be weirder.'"

Matheson excelled at getting into the readers' heads, sometimes through a masterful use of unconventional narrative or 1st person perspective. He would use this to convey paranoia, madness, and isolation with visceral tension and intensity.

He was also a master science fiction and fantasy, authoring such works as "I Am Legend" and "What Dreams May Come." As I mentioned prior, he also contributed episodes to The Twilight Zone, which I assure you will have its own spotlight in this blog before long. Speculative fiction when done well is less about the science or the fantastic and all about the people and how they react to it. Matheson understands this. His stories are always about people.

So often magic tries to create a fantasy and screws that up by losing the human element. It becomes another footnote in forgettable 9th-rate entertainment like any movie Seltzer and Friedberg have produced. It's easy to get caught up in the fantastic elements of speculative fiction, but doing so is the kiss of death. Star Trek: the Next Generation made this mistake early on before the writers caught on to what made the original series so loved by fans.

For these reasons, I'm recommending you, my readers, go out and get a collection of Matheson's short stories. For the sake of argument, I'm going to recommend "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" due to some of the incredibly innovative and just generally scary as hell material. Pay attention to how the stories alternate between themes of madness and the supernatural, and that when the latter is involved it goes deliberately unexplained. To repeat, people are much better at scaring themselves than you are. Make that a strength.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Billet Work

At the request of Shawn Mullins, I'm presenting a small guide to billet work resources.  If there are any works you think are missing here, feel free to add in the comments section.

Let me start by saying that 13 Steps to Mentalism and Practical Mental Magic both have some fundamentals, but they're rather light on effects.  If I had to choose between the two however, I'd go with 13 Steps as it discusses billet handling techniques in more detail.

With that said, the effects in the two books aren't bad, but for someone who wants to do a lot of work with billets, you might find yourself wanting a little more.  Especially since some of them as written require specific props and paraphernalia.  I personally don't care for that sort of thing and try to find ways to get the same effect without all the bells and whistles.

Richard Busch's Peek Performances is an excellent resource for grounding peek principles into your head and allowing you to develop your own effects from there.  Richard actually establishes different types of peeks and provides context and sample effects for them.  It's loaded with convincers, info on all the dirty work, and a lot of very practical application of performance theory.  Truly an excellent resource.  If you plan to do a lot of billet work, I consider this a must-have.

Peek wallets are a dicey issue.  A lot of the cheap ones are nice, but not great.  They take a bit of choreography to use properly.  As I said in my beginner's guide to mentalism, I use a homemade peek wallet with the Sight Unseen Case principle.  Outlaw Effects produce some nifty wallets, though they're all a titch on the expensive side.  Make those things last, boys.  The Thought Transmitter uses an interesting principle, but you really need to be wary of what kind of light you use it in.  I won't say more than that.

On the one hand, you can use some peek wallets like the Outlaw series as your regular wallet as well, though I hope you don't them receiving some wear and tear and having to pay to replace them every couple of years.  If you're working regularly and have a decently disposable income, then I suppose it's less of an issue.  Me, I'm a bit of a penny pincher.  What can I say?  Robert Rodriguez is one of my heroes, his affair with Rose McGowan not withstanding.

Banachek is of course a great resource.  Always has been, always will be.  There's some good info to be had on the PSI series, and several principles he uses can be used for billet work as well.  There's a really good switch in DVD 1 for example that can be used in a lot of different contexts.

Richard Osterlind is another obvious choice.  His Perfected Center Tear is still one of the best.  I also highly recommend his Easy to Master Mental Miracles series.  Easy to learn from and packed to bursting with quality material.

That covers the fundamentals and must-haves.  Beyond that, I'd have to say my biggest choice for learning more about billet work would have to be Docc Hilford.  It's his specialization and he has a lot of material out about it.  One thing you can't accuse Docc of is lacking a head for business.  As a result, don't expect large compendiums of his work like Banachek's Psychological Subtleties or Barrie Richardson's Theater of the Mind.  Most of Docc's work is printed on very expensive but cheaply produced booklets.  If this is an issue for you, invest in the Monster Mentalism DVD series and call it a day.  More on those in a second.  If you don't mind that as much, then I'll list some of his best booklets for billet technique.

The Monster Mentalism DVDs are a compilation of the best material Docc has published over the course of his career.  The peek in E'Voque alone is one of those, "I can't believe I didn't think of that," moments and has a lot of applications outside of just the presented effect.  Same with the way he uses a center tear in disc 1.  You'll find plenty of peeks and switches to keep you busy for a long time yet.

Beyond that, he has a couple of booklets you may want to look into.  My first pick is The Rosini Secret as it provides a billet reading method that can be done in almost any context or venue and provides a vast list of convincers and other pieces of advice that have specific as well as more general application.

Also consider The Whispering Buddha, the Book of Numbers series, and The Dark Cloak.  I include them because they either offer new techniques or apply old principles to new and interesting presentations.

Hopefully, this will provide you with some good material to work with.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Beginner's Guide to Mentalism

Mentalism is like so many other things like singing and writing: everyone thinks they can do it and they're usually wrong.  To that effect, I've decided to assemble this little beginner's guide to mentalism for the newbie.  It took me some time to figure out what to include and what not to, but I've organized everything into a sequence as best I can.  The intent is to keep things simple and straightforward, giving you a clear progression through those first steps into a new skill.

I'm going to note right away that the first two on this list are an either/or situation.  It depends entirely on your background.

Mark Wilson's Complete Course in Magic
If you're a magician and want to break into mentalism, this is good for introducing you to certain mental magic concepts, particularly in some of the card effects and the Mental Magic section (duh!).  The wealth of material available makes for a good jumping point while still providing plenty of fodder to keep you busy into the foreseeable future.  Of course, I should point out that if you're a magician and do not already possess a copy of Mark Wilson's, you're doing it wrong.

Magic for Dummies
If you're new to magic, this is probably going to be one of the best places to start.  There's plenty of fundamentals, time-tested effects, and some rudimentary performance theory.  A pretty good bargain.  If you're so inclined, you can acquire Mark Wilson's at a later date.  The important thing is to establish a strong foundation in sleight of hand.  Investing the time and energy into this now will make the journey later on much smoother. 

Self-Working Mental Magic
As regular readers probably remember, I have a lot of very positive things to say about this book.  And I hope my recommendation will be enough to cancel the stigma that seems to follow self-working effects.  Especially when new magicians get a grasp on sleight of hand, they start to imagine that self-working magic is beneath them.  For more info, please refer to my earlier review of the book.

So the previous choices gave you material to work with.  Now you need to know how to use it.  This is quite possibly the best of Bob Cassidy's output, and he's put out some pretty good material.  Performance theory, showmanship, routining, character building, and more are all covered here.  There's also an appendix called 39 Steps that lists 39 different books that Bob considers essential to any working mentalist's library.  Fundamentals is a must-have.  This is not negotiable.

Practical Mental Effects/13 Steps to Mentalism
The reason you want to hold off on a large book of mentalism effects until this point is to prevent information overload.  That was a mistake I made.  I bought 13 Steps before I was ready for it and kneecapped my progress because I was trying to absorb too much information at one time.  The choice between Anneman's Practical Mental Effects and Corinda's 13 Steps to Mentalism is a neverending debate and for the longest time I championed the former.  However, in more recent times I understand that both are equally strong texts, if a bit dry in writing, and though some would call their material dated it's still very strong and time tested.  Do not underestimate this material.  Pick up one of these books and save the other for later.

Nail Writer/Swami/Pocket Writing
At this point you should decide whether you want to work with nail writers or pocket writing.  The choice is largely a matter of personal taste.  Though I will say that pocket writing should be attempted only when you plan to regularly wear outfits that have roomy enough pockets.  Slacks, hoodies, sport jackets, that sort of thing are all better suited to pocket writing than your jeans.  If you wear dressy and casual about as often, dabble in both and see which one works better for you.

An Actor Prepares
This was the original text codifying the craft of acting in the modern era and to this day it is still one of the fundamentals.  I've heard a lot of magicians and mentalists alike recite that Robert-Houdin quote about all magicians being actors.  It's like a reflex to them, they've got the syllables down to muscle memory.  But surprisingly few of them know how to act.  Don't make the same mistake.  You've got your material, your performance theory, your utilities, now learn how to really sell it to an audience.

Okay, we have these essential fundamentals, but there are different branches of mentalism based on the nature of effects.  The following items are all optional based on specializations.

Psychokinetic Silverware/PSI Series
When it comes to PK effects, it's hard to do better than Banachek.  These DVDs will give you the essential work on metal bending.  There are a lot of good books and DVDs on the subject now of course, but this remains the best place to start bar none.

Peek Wallet
If you're going to work on mind reading, having one of these is essential.  Many would recommend the Sight Unseen Case, but this has sadly been discontinued.  I made my own peek wallet using the SUC principle and it works very well.  Barring that however, the peek wallets from Outlaw Effects are high quality and effective.

Invisible Elastic Thread/Loops and the Loops Trilogy and The Cloak
Yigal Mesika's invisible elastic thread is incredible as a resource, but tying your own loops is a pain.  You can purchase loops pre-tied, so if you question your own fine dexterity and don't want to spend the time learning to handle the finicky material, it's a good way to go.  Thread and loops both are excellent PK utilities with a huge number of effects and applications.  Justin Miller's Cloak is a great thread setup and the Ellusionist Loops trilogy provides plenty of effects and inspirations.

Quick and Effective Cold Reading
I'm just going to come out and say it.  You will be hard pressed to find a better teacher for cold reading than Richard Webster.  There are other great books on the subject by such giants as Herb Dewie and Bob Cassidy, but Richard is an indisputable master.  If you're not comfortable making the transition into cold reading just yet, instead pick up Richard's Cold Reading for the Magician booklet first to give you a primer into the basic concepts of cold reading.

So there you have it.  A straightforward beginner's guide to starting your education in mentalism.  Among the vast ocean of books, DVDs and gimmicks available, I hope this simplifies things and gives you a stable jumping point.  Truthfully, the material here is enough to last you for a long time to come.