On Writing and Illusions

The other day at a kid’s birthday party, a good friend of mine introduced me to some of his friends as “a writer.” Something about that made me uncomfortable. I downplayed his comment and immediately began backpeddling.

“Oh, I’m not really a writer,” I said, looking down and shuffling my feet.

“What?” my friend said. “You just published your second book!”

“Oh, yeah … that …” I said, hiding an embarassed smirk.

What was it about the word “writer” that made me so uncomfortable? I’ve been thinking about that scene for almost a month now.

When I was a kid, my dad’s company had its yearly company picnic each summer at Frontier City. Frontier City is an Oklahoma City amusement park with a western theme (now owned by Six Flags). As a youngster I was terrified of roller coasters and ferris wheels, so I spent most of my time at Frontier City doing other things. The log ride was always a favorite, as was the haunted mine ride, but the thing I always looked forward to the most was the Frontier City Magic Show.

Magicians have a sacred bond with their audience. It is not just a magician’s job to perform magic; it is their job to “maintain the act,” so to speak. Call it upholding the magician’s code or simply staying in character or whatever you want, but the idea is the same. Nobody wants to see a magician saw a lady in two and then shrug after the applause ends and say, “it’s just a trick. It’s no big deal.” Sure, a few magicians (Penn and Teller, and The Masked Magician, host of Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed Parts I-IV) have revealed the secrets to many of magic’s biggest illusions and there is an audience for that, but it’s not kids. Kids, and people who love magic, don’t want the secrets revealed to them.

When you look at magicians who have taken this to an extreme — say, David Blaine and Criss Angel — it sometimes looks a little silly. “I don’t know how these things happen,” Blaine says as he sticks a lit cigarette through the middle of a quarter. I know how they happen. Blaine bought the same gimmicked quarter that I bought from Heckler’s Magic Shop when I was eight-years-old (I used a crayon instead of a cigarette). But like I said, it would be a much less impressive trick if, while sticking the cigarette through the quarter, Blaine said, “I bought this trick quarter at a magic shop. It cost me five bucks. Tada!”

This same relationship exists between musicians and their fans. I learned this first hand in Spokane, while attending club shows. The night I learned this lesson was the night local heroes Oil Filter played to a sold out, standing room only club crowd. The band never looked better; lights flashed, sweat rolled, and the music resonated. To quote Jack Burton, Oil Filter “shook the pillars of heaven” that night.

Later that night after the show, I learned what a pillar-shaking performance like that pays. 100 people in the club x $3 a head = $300. Half goes to the house (down to $150) which is split between the three performing bands (down to $50) which is split between the band’s five members (down to $10 a person), half of which goes back into the band fund, leaving you with $5/person. Five bucks for packing up all your gear, driving across town to a club, hanging out for three hours waiting to go on and then performing for somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes.

But I can tell you this; the members of Oil Filter didn’t play that night like they were making five dollars each — they played like rock stars. They were gods standing ten-feet-tall, moving the earth foot by foot. There wasn’t a girl there who didn’t want to meet the band, and there wasn’t a guy there who didn’t want to be them.

There’s the myth of being a rock star and the reality of being a rock star. When people show up for a concert, they don’t want to know the reality. The reality is that most everybody you see playing guitar on stage at a club has a day job. The reality is you have a better chance of “being struck by lightning and winning the lottery on the same day than you do of getting a major label record deal.” The reality is that many touring bands are simply hoping to sell enough CDs or t-shirts to make enough to cover the gas money for their tour. Lots of bands sleep on the floors of their fans’ apartments to make it through a tour; others just sleep in the van.

But that’s not what you see though when a band takes the stage, and more importantly, that’s not what they talk about when asked. Of course you hear about the hardships after a band makes it. I’ll never forget Scott Ian (lead guitarist of Anthrax) talking about Metallica eating what he called a “loser lunch.” “It was a slice of bologna in hand, because [they] couldn’t afford white bread,” he said. During interviews at the time, Metallica didn’t talk about “loser lunches,” or living in their practice pad. They talked about taking over the world of heavy metal, which, for many years, they did. In 1983, after performing her first single “Holiday” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Clark asked Madonna what her goals were. “To rule the world,” was her response. A more realistic goal for her was to probably earn enough money to ditch her her roomates and make a living from singing, but hey — gotta set those goals high. For Madonna, Metallica, and lots of others, it paid off.

Somewhere here there is a common theme. The belief in oneself. The ability to allow yourself to say, “I AM a musician,” not just a guy who gets up on stage and plays guitar in a band part time. At some point, a guy’s gotta quit saying, “I’m a guy who does magic tricks,” and admit to others (and himself), “I’m a magician.”

So here’s where it gets weird (or more weird, if you felt the above was already weird).

Let’s say the average musician starts out as a music fan. Most music fans believe in the myth; that is, that rock stars are rich and happy. At some point this music fan becomes a musician, and sudden realities are realized. The musician is not rich, and may or may not be happy. Lots of musicians have quit the business after realizing the dream did not match the reality. Regardless, through personal experience, the musician learns the hard knocks of the music business.

So here is my quandry; like the magician, should the musician spoil the myth for his fans? After waiting outside a concert venue for two hours for an autograph, does a kid really want to know the reality?

I suppose the reason I am uncomfortable referring to myself as a writer or an author is because the reality has not lived up to the myth. In my mind a writer is a guy who lives in a big house up on a hill that overlooks some storybook lake somewhere. His mind is filled with wonderful stories, dying to get out out. He writes for a living, nothing he writes is awful, and all of his works are published.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality — at least not mine. I’m just a guy who writes.

(Hey, I think I just admitted that I am a writer. A breakthrough!)

In the past two years I’ve had articles published in one major label book (Retro Gaming Hacks) and two print magazines (Videogame Collector Magazine and Forever Retro) and self-published two books (Commodork and Invading Spaces). Additionally I’ve written for countless websites, including Digital Press, The Log Book, and J2Games, just to name a few.

When discussing this blog entry (just before hitting “post”), Susan said, “you’re the only person that doesn’t consider you an author.”


“I remember standing tall, telling you
I’m gonna be a Rock ‘n Roll star,
When someone said, ‘Sit down, boy
“You already are’ …” – Motley Crue, Raise Your Hands to Rock

I am a writer.

I am an author.

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1 comment to On Writing and Illusions

  • Susan

    Rob, you are such a prolific writer. If everyone reading this only knew how it’s in your blood and how you write several times a day – not because you have to for someone else, but you just…have to. It may not be your ‘profession’ now, but it has always been your passion.

    You know we’ve discussed several times how lucky someone is to even know what their passion is. You’ve known what your passions are for a long time. It’s just that you’re actually admitting it now, which means you’re just now coming into your own. Once you put it all together, watch out world! Yes, you are a writer, an author, among other things. Be glad you figured it out at only 35. Many accomplished people who left great contributions to the world started much later than that.