The First Rule of Juggling

by Rich on August 12, 2011

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great piece on making comparisons between writers, and Passive Guy highlights the important meat of it. At the core, writers are story tellers and they need to engage their audience. I learned this lesson through the rough and tumble world of juggling.

Early in my adult life, I had dreams of working full time as a juggler. It’s a harmless hobby, a great challenge, and (as I learned soon enough to prevent any life-altering disasters) a terrible way to try to make a living. What it lacks in marketability, though, it makes up in teaching you how to work with an audience. Nobody looks stupider than a juggler losing control to a bunch of hecklers.

At my first juggling convention, I learned an eye-popping lesson while in the audience at the big show. A great duo was on stage performing a passing routine. There tricks were solid, their patter hysterical. One of the jokes they unveiled that night has become juggling lore that persists twenty years later. They had the audience wrapped up. And then, without realizing it, they lost it.

One of them said, “Now this one is a real juggler’s trick.” It was a fiddly little move which was hard to throw correctly. It made his partner’s catch perilous. ┬áThe jugglers in the seats gasped at the sight. And the rest of the audience was lost.

They lost the crowd because the crowd couldn’t tell the trick was special.

Beautiful technique is good to have. If you can pull off amazing feats, they can be a killer ingredient to a show. But if you don’t put them in a package that touches your audience, you’re wasting your energy. Critics care about technique. Other professionals care about technique. Your audience? They want to have a great time.

A few successful jugglers (yes, there are successful jugglers out there, and no, I’m not one) are able to amaze a crowd with stunning technical work. When they do, though, it’s generally wrapped in some kind of gimmick that pulls the trick so far out of a recognizable context that the audience is forced to see the amazing technique. So even the flawless technicians know they have to put on a show to succeed.

Make something perfect and people will nod approvingly. Make it beautiful and they’ll smile. Make something that excites them, and it won’t matter if it’s flawed, they’ll come back to see it again.

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