Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic described it as an Art and a Science.* Whether or not one add to his definition otherwise, or disagrees with his idea for a mechanism for magic, etc, I think he’s spot on here. There are at least a million ways to do magic, but first and foremost magic is a craft–a skill based in practice and results-based experimentation, oblivious to the type of magic one practices.
The best way to determine whether magic is real is to experiment a little bit. Try some spell work, write down your results, keep track of what happens. Just like any other skill set, it will take some practice. If you don’t get results the first time, keep trying. Remember the first time you tried to ride a bike, or your first attempt at baking a cake? It probably wasn’t good — but you tried again, didn’t you?
Often, people show up at Wiccan and Pagan events and announce “I’m a NATURAL WITCH, oh yes I am, look at me!” but they can’t cast their way out of a paper bag because they haven’t put any effort into learning about it. Like any other ability, practice is what makes you good. Learn, study, research, and grow. Skill is a combination of study and experience blended together.
I have a good friend and alchemist that describes magic as “getting the most results from the least work”. I don’t entirely agree with him (IMO: sometimes magic is just a different kind of work), but I agree with the sentiment. Doing magic is about doing what works (specifically what works best). Magic is an additional toolbox full of tools with which we can achieve agency* in those instances where agency could not ordinarily and mundanely be achieved (or when ordinary and mundane need some help). Or, as Maya Deren put it in Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, “Magic is an individual action, undertaken because the cosmos is not believed to be benevolent by nature, or, at least, not benevolent enough to that person.” Whether it be the Christian Eucharist or Wiccan ritual or a Hoodoo spell, magic at its simplest (by my definition) is the interaction with Nature and with the Cosmos (via deity, the elements, Nature, or the self, etc) to coax the manifestation of what is in our heart with the will of our minds and the actions of our bodies.
Regardless of what sort of magic one is practicing, the most important part of practicing magic is practice. It doesn’t matter how “naturally talented” at any skill (or not) someone might be, there is always room for improvement. Its been my experience that, at its most basic, a good magical practice is based in pragmatism–in doing what works. When Crowley defined magic, he called it an art AND a science. I think the “art” part of it is pretty obvious (art being defined quite nicely by Google as ” the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”), but there seems to be a tendency to forget about the “Science” half of magic.
Science is a system of obtaining knowledge using the process of observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. While magic isn’t really a science , I think there is something to be said for making magic with science in mind As a pragmatic witch, I believe in doing what works…but first you have to know what works. And that is where science comes in. Science (or, more aptly, the people engaging in science) uses research and observation to formulate hypotheses, experimentation and observation to support hypotheses (via statistical confirmation), and a record of everything to track and duplicate experiments. To track what works in one’s practice, I recommend keeping a journal of some sort (perhaps as a separate grimoire or as a separate section of a BoS) that acts as a lab book would, recording not just the words and components for spellwork, rituals and/or divination, but variations in how the ritual was carried out and the eventual results as well.
*Specifically, the “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”
**Agency is a philosophical/sociological/psychological idea tied into the concept that humans have the “capacity to make choices and to impose those choices on the world“