Pick a card


When I was a child, I was really into magic. Birthday cash always went to new magic books, gimmicks, and card decks. I performed for friends and family. For the sixth grade talent show, I did a ten minute set of card tricks, coin magic, and vanishing objects. I capped it with an escape from a set of chains that drew gasps and a standing ovation.

And then I just… stopped.

I stopped learning new tricks. I stopped performing. I gradually got rid of all my magical paraphernalia or sold it off at garage sales.

Fast forward four decades.

About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to learn one good card trick. YouTube has tons of them. I found one I liked that didn’t require advanced sleight-of-hand and practiced it every night while I was traveling on business. When I thought I had it down, I performed it for a coworker. It drew exactly the reaction I’d hoped for. Wide-eyes, a gasp. “How did you do that?”

There’s no reaction more gratifying.

I learned a few more and performed them at a party. Fun for everyone. I asked myself, Why did I ever stop doing this? A few nights later, I got my answer.

I was watching another instructional video on YouTube. The trick requires a technique I’d never done. As I watched it for the third or fourth time at reduced speed, a thought surfaced:

I’ll never be able to do this.

And just like that, I was twelve years old, and I was hearing someone tell me all the flaws in my routine. I never really thought about why I stopped, but this gets to the heart of it.

Success hadn’t mattered, applause hadn’t mattered. What mattered was an adult, who should have known better, telling me, You’ll never be good at magic. That stuck. That wedged itself into my mind, and I quit doing something I loved.

That happened a lot. Regardless of the endeavor–guitar, singing, acting, even mathematics–I easily became convinced that I wasn’t any good at it, and that I never would be. I’d get only so far before I’d become discouraged and quit.

I’ve had enough of that.

I purchased videos on a few fundamental techniques of card tricks: false cuts and shuffles, palming methods. I’m watching them, practicing, and learning. Most of all, I’m paying attention to what happens in my mind. Not only am I renewing my love of magic, I’m using it to reprogram those old mental tapes.

Next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I ask you to pick a card.

Photo by Alfred Twj on Unsplash

I Hesitated and Lost

Sixteen months ago, I started writing a novella inspired by the songs “Code Monkey” and “Skullcrusher Mountain,” by Jonathan Coulton. The first is about a computer programmer hopelessly in love with the indifferent receptionist at his office. The second is a love song from a mad scientist to the woman he has kidnapped. What if both songs referred to the same women? What if “Code Monkey” went up to Skullcrusher Mountain to rescue her? And what if a few characters from some of Coulton’s other songs showed up, too?

Because this would basically be “fanfic,” I planned to make it available for free through the Fan Projects page on Coulton’s website. It took four months to write the first draft. I set it aside for another few months before revising it, then revised it a second time with feedback from my critique group, and sent it back to the critique group for another round of feedback. I started polishing the final draft last week and expected to have it ready to release by the end of next month.

Yesterday, I discovered that Jonathan Coulton will collaborate with cartoonist Greg Pak on “Code Monkey Save the World,” a graphic novel based on the characters in his songs.

I felt sick to my stomach. When the urge to vomit passed, I got angry with myself. This accident of timing is entirely my fault.

I had this idea in 2007. Then I told myself it was a stupid idea, even though I knew it would make a fun story. I sat on it.

For almost six years.

My self-sabotage didn’t end once I ultimately decided to write the story. I allowed myself to be distracted during the day-to-day effort of writing, so the first draft took three times as long as it should have. The same thing happened during each subsequent stage. There’s no reason that this story couldn’t have been published long ago, if I had trusted my judgment to begin with, if I had maintained my focus, if I had stuck with it.

What do I do now?

I’m still going to publish it. I don’t have much work left to get it ready. It would be a shame to let all the effort I’ve put into it so far go to waste. It’s a good story. I’m proud of it.

Given that Coulton has a professional project under way, I doubt he’ll want to distribute my little freebie. I’ll ask anyway. If he says yes, great. If he says no, I can still share it with my friends. Either way, the project was worthwhile. I learned a lot about writing. And I had fun with it.

I’ve also learned that I need to trust my judgment about writing projects. I have good ideas and good instincts. The next time I have a Big Idea, I need to listen to the part of me that says, “Wow, that’s awesome,” not the part that says, “That’s stupid, and you’re stupid for thinking it.”

Second, I learned that I need to focus. Writing comes first. Hobbies can wait. So can socializing when it will keep me from the work. Daydreams don’t put words on the page.

Butt in the chair, every day.

Look at the page.

Move the pencil.

Enjoy the work.

I hope these lessons stick.