Creativity – Walt Lees

Re-reading the earlier post on Alex Elmsley’s thoughts on invention reminded me of an excellent piece by Walt Lees. It was originally published about 25 years ago in PABULAR magazine. I reproduced this article elsewhere about a year ago (with permission from Martin Breese). I hope he won’t mind me doing the same again here.

I myself am not terribly creative – but Walt Lees’ thoughts in this area really do chime with mine. More importantly I feel they gel nicely with Elmsley’s thoughts as well…

ICONOCLASMS 4 by Walt Lees

One of the most frequently expressed beliefs in magical literature, is that the way to invent new tricks is to think of an effect and then to find a way of accomplishing it.

No doubt many tricks have been worked out in this way. The question is, is it the best way? Is this how the best ideas come into being?

Frankly, I doubt it. Is it not better to start with a method and work forward to the effect?

Consider this. A magician who dreams of accomplishing a specific effect will, if he is of a sufficiently industrious nature, research out all the known magical principles that may or may not help that dream become a reality. If he is lucky he may even find one that is suitable but at ‘the end of the day’ all he will have is a rehash of an existing trick. A known effect in a slightly disguised form.

A typical case history of such a concoction might run as follows:

Stage one. Magician decides that it would be a good idea to make an ashtray float in the air.

Stage two. Magician studies all known methods of making an inanimate object appear to float such as threads, zombie gimmicks, magnetic repulsion etc.

Stage three. Magician decides that the most practical method from his point of view is an adaptation of the zombie principle.

Stage four. Magician spends some months perfecting his idea.

Stage five. Magician can now feature the Zombie using an ashtray instead of a silver ball. In other words a straightforward rehash. An old effect, using an old method and simply substituting one object for another.

In the above instance nothing new has been added to magical knowledge. The effect of an object floating has not been enhanced.

Could the layman care less whether the magician levitates an ashtray or a silver ball or for that matter a chamber pot?

The invention of magic is a creative process more akin to composing music or painting a picture. One starts with the germ of an idea and develops it along different lines seeing where it leads.

I have met some of the most inventive people in magic and sometimes I have been very lucky to actually witness the creative process at work.

Nearly always the pattern has gone along the following lines:

Stage one. The inventor has noticed or stumbled across some small thing, which fires his imagination. It could be anything. A new move with cards or coins, or an object on sale in a department store, or the way the foam rises on a glass of stout. . . almost anything.

Stage two. The inventor plays around with his new-found toy, trying it this way and that and seeing what uses it can be put to. He also calls upon his memory for any other principles that could be used in conjunction with it. Gradually one or two possibilities begin to gel in his mind.

Stage three. At length through this maze of half thought out ideas several effects begin to take shape; nebulous at first but slowly colaguating as he goes on experimenting.

Stage four. At length a definite possible effect materialises. The inventor pursues it until it becomes clear and sharply defined.

Stage five. Having got an effect for his newly discovered method, the inventor concentrates all his energies on ironing out the handling and developing the presentation until he has a brand new piece of magic.

Magic invented in this way is always fresh. Cynics could argue that the inventor may end up with a trick that he does not want. But on the other hand does anybody know what they want until they have got it?


One Response to Creativity – Walt Lees

  1. KiKeNiCo says:

    “[…]research out all the known magical principles that may or may not help that dream become a reality. If he is lucky he may even find one that is suitable but at ‘the end of the day’ all he will have is a rehash of an existing trick.[…]”

    While this is true most of the time, I think it’s due more to the magician than to the train of thought itself. Given an initial idea or overall effect, the path to make it work must be mainly a creative one, being research an addon, but not the ultimate way, thus avoiding rehasing tricks.

    This other way you mention, while forcing a more creative approach, it demands some serious work to avoid falling in half assed or just plain bad effects created just to exploit some move or “brilliant” idea, which sadly is what almost always happen; it’s harder this way, and we magicians are some lazy bastards…

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