Me and My Magic 8 Ball - Umberto Tosi

The other day, stuck between paragraphs, I dusted off a vintage Magic 8 Ball I had picked up at a yard sale, gave it a shake and asked: "Will I finish writing this book soon, if ever?"

"No doubt about it!" Came a viscous, bobbing, red-lettered response in its little round window.

The thing about oracles, as I learnt when I got into doing the I Ching back in the 1970s, is that the questions are more important than the answers, just don't ask the same question twice. Never one to pass up an opportunity to distract myself, I kept going - trending towards the ridiculous to see if I could get Mr. 8 Ball to melt down. "Why this? Why that? Why do I write, anyway?"

Foiling 8-Ball is harder than one might think, using conventional wisdom. Really, it's foiling oneself. The standard Magic 8-Ball (developed in the 1950s and inspired by a World War II, Three Stooges skit) has 20 possible responses floating in its mystic liquid of possibilities. They run from "It is certain," to "very doubtful," with ambiguous shadings in between - e.g., "reply hazy; try again," and "better not tell you now." That doesn't sound like a lot of choices. But the possible number of combinations grows exponentially with each question. At the same time, the terse, ambiguous wording provides oodles of opportunities for active imaginations to read meanings into the responses. Figuring the odds on any given path of suggestions leads down a yellow brick road of probability theory, high math and statistical analysis based upon Bayes Theorem, the kind of stuff applied to marketing, economics and warfare.

And, as I discovered, with writing you get a bonus - a 21st answer - a mystery wild card courtesy of the black box creative process in my head. It's a zen thing - misdirecting the ego to get out of your own way.

My inamorata, surreal imagist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, tells her drawing students to interrogate their works-in-progress as a means of breaking away from preconceived notions. In that spirit I put my 8-Ball down and asked my story what it's about. It prompted me to "check with the boy at the table."

I had been working on a series of short stories set in the noirish Hollywood of the 1940s and early '50s, peopled with bit actors and other small time movie studio people I remember from growing up in Los Angeles. I envision threading these together into a narrative collection - an episodic novel of sorts. I had spent much of my boyhood, son of a single mom singer in a palm-lined, red-tile-roofed bungalow court - a world populated with hopeful, quirky characters - including musicians and refugees from World War 2 Europe.

The instalment at hand revolves around a nightclub singer who dubs vocals as needed for non-singing actors in feature films. She's involved with a Hollywood blacklisted composer who is pushing an original musical score through a guild surrogate who is clearly ripping him off. The singer and the composer rendezvous at Don the Beachcombers, a landmark Hollywood rum-drink-Tiki bar and bistro often frequented by Tinsel Town celebrities.

The singer's seven-year-old boy showed up in the latest revision of the piece, sipping a grenadine Roy Rogers through a straw, and taking in his mother's banter while annoying her by bumping his scrawny legs against the booth seat. That earnest boy keeps appearing in lots of my tales in one form or another. You might say he was me, but he's more than that, said the 8 Ball as I put it back on my desk. He's an emissary. Doesn't speak our language very well - or maybe knows stuff not easily expressed, which is why he stutters.

This time around, he made me gaze into the 8 Ball and realise something I had only half-considered without much examination. I realised how profoundly my construct of reality was shaped by those brief years my half-depressed, dreamy talented mother, lost in Hollywood, dragged her little boy around to movie matinees with her - never trusting babysitters. Here is where my outsider narrative was conceived taking for granted his permanent visitor's visa to a world made by and for others - those already in place. Here is bit-part player me, scribbling notes on the sidelines, with an apt set of skills and Zelig-like ability to blend necessary for studious, but carefully not-too-visible journalism.

This lad changes names and costumes in my various stories, but I see the thread now. He's "Winslow" the boy who take ups with a coyote in the Hollywood Hills after an earthquake in "My Dog's Name." He's little Theo who sets off into a snowy Christmastime Chicago in "Onion Station" - a story that appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review" - and ends up in an entirely different story and different life. He's the pre-teen boy who nearly burns down his parochial school fleeing a playground bully in "Gunning for the Holy Ghost."

Perhaps this experience isn't news to other creative souls, but it hit home to me in this instance. Sometimes, indeed maybe most of the time, the personal discoveries alone make writing worth the effort. That's even true for unpublished fragments, provided I ask the right questions. Please feel free to ask any questions of the Magic 8 Ball or the author below, except for how I got inside the oracular globe pictured here. We illusionists are sworn to secrecy about our tricks.
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (   


Umberto, what a delightful post as usual! Those of us who write often feel guided by forces we do not fully understand, and you are not the only one who has a magic ball or similar (I have a pendulum that swings rather accurately for me)! What a delightful insight into the role of the boy, but isn't that how the best creative magic works, by unleashing something within us that we have been seeking forever? All the best with your writing.
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Bill Kirton said…
As fascinating and rich as ever, Umberto. I'd never heard of a Magic 8 ball and, of course, I now want one. But I also want hat exotic childhood - and that's not for sale. Although I guess maybe I already have my version of it - except that, to me, it's not exotic. Thanks for making my brain start working this morning.
This is such a fun post. I'm sure I remember one of my sons having one of these. I think they may have featured in a Simpsons episode too, which was probably how my sons heard of them in the first place!
I love the idea you've put yourself into your stories in this form. I always think there is part of me in each of my characters but this is a different matter.

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