Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What I'm Working on Now

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What I'm Working on Now

My nearly 96-year-old Grandma Marion Westhead recently said to me, “I love being old!” She had given me a call to thank me and Derek for mailing her a bunch of almost-expired McDonald’s coupons—“I used them all, ha!”

If McDonald’s were smart, they would make this woman their poster girl. She eats there every day, with her “gang” of fellow seniors. Though they are not very pleased at the moment with their local Micky D’s, which is closed for renovations—“They’re trying to make it look like a bar now! All dark wood and no more tables, just separate booths. We won’t be able to watch people anymore.” Then she said—and I could hear the grin, “We’ll show them. We’ll still make it our own.”

In that same phone conversation, because I don’t have any new fiction on the go and because I am a worrier, I’d been relating my concerns to her about what I would write next. She listened attentively and said things to make me feel better. Then she said, “What you need to do is, you just need to enjoy.” And suddenly this made a lot of sense to me. I also told Grandma that if I could bottle and sell her, I would be rich.

I have decided not to beat myself up anymore when I’m not writing. I’m starting to realize that it’s normal—and necessary—to go through “non-productive” periods. By this I mean stretches of time where I’m not doing much more than writing for a few minutes in the morning. Those few minutes a day are also necessary, though, to stay in practice, and to stay sane. I find that when I go for a too long without writing anything at all (and it only needs to be a bit of notebook scribbling, nothing substantial), I feel sick all over.

But as for those times when I don’t have a story on the go, I’m getting better at trusting that there are more ideas inside my brain, and that I will have the skills to extrude them when I’m ready. I still go apoplectic when I lose those pieces of paper that contained THE BEST IDEA EVER, but then I feel reassured that there are more where that one came from. A couple of years ago, I threw away pages and pages of old writing that had never gone anywhere. This felt incredible because it meant that I had faith that new ideas would come. And they did—soon after that, over the next few months, I wrote about 75 new pages for And Also Sharks. And I started worrying less.

My grandmother is the exact opposite of a worrier. She says, “I don’t have any pain. I have my friends. I still go bowling.” When her eyesight started to fail her a few years ago, instead of letting it get her down, she adapted quite happily by switching from watching television and reading books to listening to books on tape. She loves to fill me in on the twisted plots of the various mysteries and historical romances she gets into. Her “girl at the library” is always setting aside new audiobook titles for her.

When writers have new books out, one question they’re inevitably asked is, “What are you working on next?” (Andrew Pyper wrote a great piece about this for the National Post’s Afterword.) Pondering the Great Writing Unknown can be a cause of huge anxiety, especially for worriers like me. But thanks to Grandma Westhead, this question no longer strikes fear into my heart.

These days, I’m having fun promoting my new book. I’m doing a bit of new writing, but not much. I scribble random bits and pieces in my notebook for 20 minutes most mornings, and that’s enough to make me satisfied that I’ve accomplished something. When I’m ready to really get started on something new—probably more short stories—I know I’ll need to commit to more like one or two hours of daily notebook writing. But for now, I’m working on enjoyment.

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.

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