Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Risk-Taking Behaviour

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In the risk-taking department, I’m a bit further ahead with my fiction than in my real life. About an hour and a half before I first sat down to write this post, I was sitting on a horse. Very uncomfortably. Chanting to myself between gritted teeth, I am having fun I am having fun I will not fall off and the horse will not rear up and toss me in the air and then stomp on my head and split it open with its heavy heavy hooves when I hit the ground.

Derek had signed us up for a “half-day trail ride” at a horse ranch outside Calgary. We were spending some time out west before embarking on an Alaskan cruise with my family, and thought we’d take in some local colour.

First, my breathing became shallow and ragged when we signed the “we-will-not-sue-you-if-your-horses-kill-us” waiver. Then there was an awkward moment when the stern German woman with whom Derek had arranged the tour on the phone clapped her hands and said to him, “So you and your wife are experienced riders, very good!” We both went pale. Derek had gone on exactly one easy trail ride when he was a kid, and my only experience consisted of once being placed upon a sleepy, unmoving pony as a small child at the Brooklin Spring Fair, getting my picture taken, and being lifted off. We told the German horse lady she was mistaken, and she frowned at us. “YOU told me on the phone, ‘I have been riding all of my life, and so has my wife.’” Derek shook his head. “Um, no, I actually said, ‘I haven’t done much riding in my life, and neither has my wife.’” She put her hands on her hips. “Well,” she said, “we’ll have to change her horse, then.”

Over the years, I’ve learned that I need to take more risks in my fiction to keep it from falling flat. I once did a reading that I thought went pretty well, but afterwards, an editor I knew and respected said something along the lines of, “Yes, it was fine, funny and all that, but why should we care? Nothing really happened.” I thought to myself, Crap, he’s got a point. Some time later, a writer whose work I love told me he thought my fiction would be better if I opened myself up more—he could tell that I was holding back, and I should stop playing it so safe. And I knew exactly what he meant. I hadn’t been able to pinpoint the feeling myself, but I’d been skimming the murky surface of it. I was noticing things that made me squirm in my writing, but not letting myself swim with them just yet. What I needed was to dive in, but in my fiction as in my life, I’d always been more of a toe-dipper.

While a cheerful young ranch hand was finding a new horse for me, presumably one slower and more docile than my original match (“Oh, you don’t want to ride Tony. Not if you’ve never ridden before. Tony doesn’t like people.”), the German woman’s non-German cowboy husband gave us a quick pre-riding lesson and some hearty encouragement. I liked him. He was nice.

Then I was introduced to Smoke, who would be my horse for the ride. I petted him and fed him a treat in the hopes of enamouring him to me. “You’re not going to kill me, are you, Smoke?” I whispered, and I could swear he shrugged.

Initially, I delighted myself with how easily I got up and into the saddle. I was also exceedingly proud that I didn’t have to ask the group even once to stop for a pee break. I silently praised my empty bladder (which had likely dried up in fear) for not creating the need for me to dismount and ask, “Is there a washroom around here? Or maybe a Johnny-on-the-Spot? I’m not fussy.” And despite some painful chafing, I actually fared okay for the first forty-five minutes or so of the ride, even when Smoke started to gallop a bit and did not seem to be responding to my feeble commands. (Which brought on these words, in an angry German accent: “Pull back on the REINS, Jessica! You have to TAKE CONTROL!”)

I can remember exactly where I was when I decided to take the plunge with unsafe writing. I was standing in the small, scrubby backyard of our last home, a damp basement were mushrooms grew out of the kitchen walls and the landlord let our hydro bill lapse several times. It was not a good apartment, but this was a good moment. I wanted to write a story that made me feel uncomfortable. Even better, the panic and squeamishness actually excited me—I wanted to run toward them, not away like usual. Soon after, I wrote “Our Many-Splendoured Humanity” (first published in Taddle Creek and now in And Also Sharks) in an attempt to explore my own shameful feelings about class, which I would occasionally sense rearing their ugly little heads. The ignorant protagonist Deb certainly isn’t me, thank God. But with her, I could poke at—and poke fun of—the stuff that makes me queasy about myself, and hopefully exorcize those feelings by bringing them to life on the page.

After we had been riding for what seemed like a million years, we stopped so our guides could move a fence out of the way. Then we started onto a steep trail with mud and loose rocks (“If the horse stumbles, don’t worry.”), and there were brambles and branches that I had to push out of the way with the hand that wasn’t desperately clutching the reins, and I became increasingly more terrified. This was not what I had bargained for. I’d been thinking scenery, romance. Plus there were pudding cups in my saddle bag. I was pleased that I’d stayed upright for almost an hour—and now, apparently, we were headed for “rougher terrain”. No, no. When we reached a clearing, I cleared my throat and said I was done. The nice cowboy told me, “But you were doing so well!” And the German lady said, “I suppose it’s a good thing you’re turning around now, because in ten minutes we’d be in the mountains and there would be NO TURNING BACK.”

Clearly, I’d made the right decision. The young farm hand, tasked with taking Derek and me on the Slow Trot of Shame back to the ranch, even sweetly pointed out how relaxed I was with Smoke on the return ride. Which was still another forty-five minutes, so was feeling pretty proud of myself for all the riding I’d done. And Derek (who’d also been yelled at during the ride—“Your reins are too long!" "Stop using your iPhone!”) was getting tired and bored and equally uncomfortable, so I didn’t feel bad for pulling our equestrian plug.

Most people would not even include horseback riding in their list of risk-taking behaviours, and would instead consider it a pleasurable recreational activity. But I am a clumsy city girl who enjoys her amenities and is ill at ease in nature. So get me up high in an unpadded seat on a large, unpredictable animal and I am definitely not in my element. But I’m happy to say that while my fear of falling on my face stops me from taking many risks in my real life, my fear of my stories falling flat spurs me (ha, get it? spurs?) to take risks as a writer. The willingness to put myself in uncharted and unnerving fictional territory, and to wallow there for a while, is the sort of bravery I can get behind. I know that when I’m anxious about writing something, that’s a good sign. And since figuring this out, there has been no turning back.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jessica Westhead

Jessica Westhead's short stories have appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the United States. "Unique and Life-Changing Items," which appears in And Also Sharks, was shortlisted for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards. Her first novel, Pulpy & Midge, was nominated for the ReLit Award. Westhead lives in Toronto.

Go to Jessica Westhead’s Author Page