I’m not sure what my first exposure to Ricky Jay was. The furthest back I can remember is Mark Singer’s 1993 profile of Jay for The New Yorker, and while I’m sure I must have seen or heard of him at least once before then—because that would have made me excited that Ricky Jay was in The New Yorker—I’ve got no recollection of what that might have been.
It’s possible, I suppose, that I didn’t read that profile in 1993, but twelve years later, when it was republished in Singer’s marvelous essay collection Character Studies. If that’s the case, I had definitely seen Jay in a bunch of movies by then, and I had dated a woman in the late 1990s who actually owned a copy of his first book, the legendary Cards as Weapons. I do remember that, by 1998, I was very excited to be interviewing him over the telephone about a new edition of Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women that was coming out that fall. But, in that pre-YouTube era, I don’t think I had ever seen him perform any magic—certainly not live, and almost certainly not on television. That didn’t happen until many years later.
Anyway, the reason I mention all this in a newsletter for writers is that, in addition to being the greatest magician of his time, Ricky Jay was also the greatest scholar of the history of magic and other unusual performing arts. If you ever read any of his historical essays, you can see that he brought not just an academic precision to the subjects he wrote about, but a genuine passion to know all about them. As he once told Singer during one of their many conversations:
“I just finished a piece for Jay’s Journal on performing dogs who stole the acts of other dogs… Next, I want to do a piece about crucifixion acts—you know, real crucifixions that were done as entertainment. The idea for this came to me one Easter Sunday. Bob Lund, from the American Museum of Magic, has just sent me a little book on Billy Rose’s Theatre that contained one sentence he knew would interest me—about a woman who swung nude from a cross to the strains of Ravel’s Boléro. Her name was Faith Bacon.”
Ricky Jay’s literary career was inseparable from his performing career—in a very real sense, he dedicated himself to learning everything he possibly could about magic, and then sharing that knowledge with the world… after a fashion. He didn’t want to inform you; or, rather, he only wanted to inform you about some things, and then only up to a point. Beyond that point, he wanted to fill audiences with a sense of awe, in the classic sense of the word, which has a baseline of wonder and amazement but also a strong undercurrent of confusion and even dread of the uncanny.
I came of age when Penn and Teller were first making a splash on network television, so I’ve always understood that magic is about manipulation and misdirection. No matter how many times Penn and Teller would how you how certain tricks work, though, there would always be one more trick that would confound you. With Ricky Jay, everything would confound you. You would know, intellectually, that there was some sleight-of-hand involved, but damned if you could figure out what it was… and the simple fact that he was that good was powerful enough.
How did he get that good? Constant practice. One of his earliest tricks, as detailed in Cards as Weapons, was that he could throw a playing card and pierce a watermelon at ten paces., then hit that same spot with card after card. You don’t get to do that unless you’re willing to spend hundreds, perhaps even thousands of hours throwing cards, over and over, fine tuning your movements to get the force just right.
And that’s how it is with writing. You keep putting words on the page, over and over, until you get them right. Until you find the form that can convey what it is you want to say in a way that has the capability to lodge itself in someone else’s head. But technique is only a part of it. The other part is finding the stories that will lodge themselves in your head. “After this life I’ve lived, I have no idea what is strange and weird and what isn’t,” Jay told Singer. “I don’t know who else waxes poetic about the virtues of skeleton men, fasting impostors, and cannonball catchers. And, to be honest, I don’t really care. I just think they’re wonderful. I really do.”
So Jay dedicated himself to that subject matter, and was able to construct a life around that dedication. Many tried to imitate him, but you can tell the difference between someone who’s dedicated their life to the pursuit of the amazing, and someone who’s spotted something that impresses people and rushes to come out with their own version of it.
Perhaps, if we stick to our stories long enough, we’ll be able to piece together writing lives with the clarity and purpose of Ricky Jay’s—a life in which the writing wasn’t a sideline, but one of several facets to a consistent expression of self, of “being what you’ve become” as I’ve written in previous newsletters. I hope you’ll read the New Yorker profile, and then maybe track down the documentary film Deceptive Practice. You’ll learn how Jay was able to shape his life around his creative vision… and maybe get some ideas about how you can do it as well.