The Tyranny Of Notebooks

By Roberto Mansilla - Saturday, May 15, 2021

With much wit, a good friend of mine talks about “The tyranny of pocket notebooks”. The scene is a typical one from pre-pandemic days: a group of magicians friends showing each other stuff, asking for references, feedback, opinions, and possible solutions… Suddenly, someone says something fitting and another one exclaims: “Oh...that's good!" so he takes out their pocket notebook and notes down the idea. Sometimes, the one who writes it down does it quietly, without saying a word; but by doing so, the first one knows that his idea has been accepted into the prestigious category of “notebook-worthy.” And there it is: The “tyranny of pocket notebooks”. Making us feel that we acted for them, so we can earn a place among their pages; feeling snubbed when the other doesn’t even bother on grabbing a pen, enjoying quietly when he does. 

magic notebooks

For me–possibly for many of you as well–pocket notebooks are no less important than cards when I go out.

  • Keys?
  • Check.
  • Cellphone?
  • Check.
  • Cards?
  • Check.
  • Pocket notebook? 
  • Check. 

Now, I’m ready to go.  

I own them of all shapes and sizes. From wide-ruled to college-ruled up to blank pages or graph paper journals… I use them effortlessly. There’s no greater feeling than opening a brand new one or ordering yet another coffee ‘cause I’m writing down everything that comes to mind, trying to keep up with my train of thought.

On the first pages of each pocket notebook, there may be a new trick, or its origin…on the final ones –or the next notebook– I’d described how that trick was received and how that debut went for me. It is there, inside its pages, where I hold possible names for my books and conferences, topics for columns and essays, the lists of effects for this or that show, the cherished conversations with my masters. You might’ve guessed by now that some things DO NOT go on my pocket notebooks. No grocery lists, no to-do lists, that’s for loose papers or Post-Its. Whatever I need to keep safe and alive, what is related to magic... all of those things are handwritten on my notebooks. 

All of it, a never-ending notebook. Of course, it runs out of pages, but the topics that I develop there go on and on through the next ones. That’s why–when I'm about to finish one and I can foresee the length of that idea going further–rather leave a couple of blank pages and jump right onto the next notebook. 

Nowadays, for instance, I’ve been persistently looking for the definition of Presentation. Seriously, what is that we all seem to know so well but, somehow, we can’t define within a clear concept? How can we establish a meaning of Presentation that is not merely based on its function? For example, if we take the premise: “A presentation is what makes a trick entertaining”, that’s not defining nor describing the subject well enough. Neither are the attempts of conceptualization where the focus is on specific parts of it, such as “the patter” or “the script”. We can all agree on them being key elements of a Presentation but not the Presentation itself. Four notebooks–with some final blank pages–after, I’m still meditating on this issue.

notebooks for magic

Having that sequence of notebooks doesn’t come without troubles… there’s this thing about making some type of classification system that I haven’t figured out yet. How can I go back to one specific notebook? How can I know where's something that I’m looking for? Momentarily, with this new habit being a visual activity, I turn to my good memory. Let’s say I want to go over a Card Stab, I’d say: "Well, I think I was using the green or brown one for that." I’d get them from my archives and then, I’d read them carefully, one page at a time. Is not a very reliable system, I’m aware, but, at least, it gives me some sort of comfort to know, better to assume, that if I wrote it, my brain already registered it. And somewhere, somehow, it’ll come back to me, even as a new idea. It does represent a major problem when I need that thought ASAP. On that matter, I’ve tried with Post-Its, markers, labels; I’ve made catalogs and inventories; I even tried to make copies of notebook’s pages, making separate folders for each one… None of it has worked. Mainly, due to a lack of discipline on my part. 

Currently, it’s being of great help gluing white labels at the back of the notebooks where I handwrite the major subjects of each one. On the last one I wrote: “Card Across – Estudio”; “Fenómeno v. Efecto”; “Tamariz”; “Mezcla Falsa Triunfo”; “Sesión con Gabi”; “TRUCOS: Remote Control / Lazy Memorized Deck; Carta Clavada; La Cifra; Benzais.”

That way, if I’m thinking about something, in particular, I take a look at the back covers and I have quick access to those notes. When I open them up, not only do I find what I was looking for but much more. It’s also a journey of time traveling. I open that blue pocket notebook: It’s 2019, there I am, gathered with magicians and friends after a performance; Nadia’s there too, she’s pregnant with our firstborn, Teo, who will be born three days later. 

Then, I take the green spiral notebook and I travel to another country, another café. I’m at “Café Restaurant Brighton”, at the top of a hill in Valparaiso, Chile; I can still recall the black and white tiles on the entrance and its glass front door. I’m there with Juan Esteban Varela and Pablo Zanatta, we’ve been discussing the Himber Ring and the chances for it to appear (as Fred Kaps did) linked to the stem of a cup but basing the trick on the Rashomon Principle. Juan Esteban pitched me an idea and I’m writing it down. Pablo is mocking harmlessly, but Juan Esteban feels glad and relieved. 

"Lucky me!" he says to me, "I was afraid you weren’t writing something down. This thing about the pocket notebooks! It’s a curse!"   I’m telling you all about this because from now on, through this space that my friends of Vanishing Inc. have given me, I’ll be talking about this small pleasure (pocket notebooks) within THE pleasure (magic). I’ll share with you the notebooks of some of the greatest magicians and influential thinkers of magic, how they use their notebooks and what are their thoughts about them. And, of course, as time goes by, I hope we can incorporate your notebooks too.  

Reader comments:


Sunday, 16 May 2021 02:10 AM - Reply to this comment

Great article!
About the classification issue, what I usually do is skip the first two or three pages to use them later as the notebook index. To that end, I try not to cramp too many topics on the same page. Sometimes that causes that several pages are left half empty or so, but it works for me.


Sunday, 16 May 2021 14:56 PM

That's a good idea Santiago: to skip the first two or three pages. And yes, I always do the same: not to write about too many topics on the same page. Just one for page.


Monday, 17 May 2021 00:19 AM - Reply to this comment

Incredible article! Thank you so much for this! I often struggle with figuring out how and what to write in my notebook and this seems super helpful. Whether in a comment or another post, would you mind explaining a bit on how you take notes for lectures, jam sessions, and for the occasional idea? Along with this could you go a bit more in detail on how you organize them? In terms of sections in the notebooks? Or is it just random?
Once again this post was super helpful and I'm definitely gonna start using my notebooks way more often! Thanks!


Monday, 17 May 2021 12:43 PM - Reply to this comment

Hi Ethan!
Thanks for your comment!
Regarding what to write I will say: whatever you want or need. Don't worry about being neat. (Next post will be on Jim Steinmeyer's notebooks and the important on not worrying about being messy.

You ask: how you take notes for lectures, jam sessions, and for the occasional idea?
I try to make the list of tricks as the lecture goes and put what I found interesting. If was a good lecture I will write it again later in more detail. But I just write (most of the time in a messy way.

You ask: Along with this could you go a bit more in detail on how you organize them? In terms of sections in the notebooks? Or is it just random?

Just random. Now I begin to put a letter on top of the page ("T" of Truco; "P" of Presentación, "I" of Idea...). Finally, as I said in the post, I glue white labels at the back of the notebooks where I handwrite the major subjects of each one.

Hope this helps.
We will talk about Giobbi's notebook and as you may imagine he has a system for this.
PS: Did you ever heard about "Bullet Journal"? Maybe this could help you.


Monday, 17 May 2021 21:53 PM

Thanks so much for the amazing tips and answers! This is super helpful! I can't wait for the next post and I'll definitely take a look at Bullet Journal! Looking forward to Jim Steinmeyer's notebooks and Giobbi's notebooks as well as many others!


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