Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Your Very Own Pocket Cruise Ship Magician

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During the Alaskan cruise I recently took with my family, I became fascinated by the onboard magician. I went to two of his performances, and was spellbound. Which I guess is the point.

In a more informal show where he revealed how some of his tricks worked, he told the audience, “People are skeptical, and I make them believe.”

I liked this cruise ship magician’s style. (Let’s call him Mystical Bill.) I wanted to magically shrink him down so I could carry him with me wherever I went. And then I realized that this was possible—as all magic is—because I already have my very own pocket cruise ship magician, AKA, my subconscious! (Let’s call it Little Mystical Bill.)

Most of us are, at one time or another, skeptical of our own ability to do astounding things. As writers, we’ll sneer at a newly minted story section, tell ourselves it’s going nowhere, and give up on it far too easily. But if we can suspend our own disbelief in ourselves, and let our subconscious do its conjuring, well then—abracadabra, as they say in the biz.

Mystical Bill went on to tell us an anecdote about his training: “When I was younger, I was invited to participate in the Magic Olympics.” (Who knew??) “An older and more experienced magician there told me, ‘You have the most potential of anyone here. But you need to simplify your act. You can’t make mistakes in front of an audience. Your act must be foolproof.’ So what did I do? I just practised the hardest tricks until I had them down cold.”

Right on, Mystical Bill.

As I see it, the trick with writing is—and forgive me for stating the obvious here, but I’m mostly trying to drill this into my own head—you have to get it down. Move your pen across the pages of your notebook. If you need an extra push, give yourself writing exercises, with time limits (a clock countdown can be a great incentive, and after each five- or ten-minute increment, you get a bonus sense of accomplishment). Just get something down, so Little Mystical Bill has something to work with.

To short-circuit the evil insta-judging instinct, close your notebook when you’re done. Set that piece aside for a while. Do not read it over immediately—wait a few days or a week or, even better, a month. In the meantime, write more new stuff and repeat. While you’re sleeping or strolling or making dinner or listening to music or doing any number of other non-writing actions, Little Mystical Bill will be waving his wand over your rough material, pulling multi-coloured scarves and doves out of it, and generally getting down to his amazing mystical business.

The thing you start with is not going to be the best thing you’ve ever written. Or maybe it will be! But you’ll never know unless you get it down in the first place. More often than not, though, it will be mostly crap with a promising gleam to it. (There will be time later to polish that crap! That’s what revision is for.) But as Mystical Bill said, “People ask me, ‘Do you get stage fright?’ and ‘Do you insure your hands?’ I say no to both.” The secret is practice. And having a little faith in your own pocket cruise ship magician.

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