One Question: Conjuring Awe

Magician Nate Staniforth discusses how to find wonder in magic again.

By Jennifer Bleyer, published March 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 30, 2018

Photo by Andy Stoll

Magician Nate Staniforth travels the country amazing audiences with his sleight-of-hand, and he contends that the real trick to magic, like all great art and life in general, is not in the technique, but in the wow. Staniforth, 35, is the author of Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern World. 

Q:  We tend to think that the key to magic is illusion, but you say it's wonder. Why is wonder so elusive, and how can we access it? 

It's hard to be alive, and one of the ways people deal with that is by diminishing their sense of the scale and scope of the world. It's easy to ignore stuff you don't understand. It's easy to go through a day numbed by your routines. If you shrink the world down to the limits of your own understanding and experience, any reminder that that's a construction you have erected can be a shock to the system. 

I've dealt with that shrunken view myself. After years of touring as a professional magician, I was finding less and less magic in my job and more and more grind—which is a liability in any profession, but when your job is to create magic for others, it's essential to feel it yourself. So I took a trip to the other side of the world to find the magicians of cultures there—the street performers and snake charmers and traditional Indian yogis. What I found, though, was that the process of traveling, the adventures I had and people I met, was far more amazing than the magic I saw. The reminder that the world and universe are bigger than you know is disorienting and clarifying, because you realize that whatever you think you know about the way things are is inadequate. It's one thing to understand that intellectually. It's another to feel it in your bones. 

Magic and travel share an ability to deliver a cataclysmic blow to our sense of familiarity with the world around us and force us to really notice it again. But you don't have to go to India or see a magic trick to experience this. You can find wonder wherever you are if you pay attention. It's more a matter of how you look than where you look. If your goal is to bring awe into your ordinary life, start by recognizing that it's not ordinary if you don't want it to be. You can very quickly be pulled from the story you tell yourself about the world to confront the real thing.