Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Joy of Hating (Musicals)

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I’m pretty sure that most people who know me would say I am a nice person. I have always been this way. And I’m generally pleased to have this reputation, but occasionally it dismays me.

A couple of months ago, I was having dinner with my friend Grace, and she told me that she believes that very few people in the world are actually all good or all bad. She said most of us have varying degrees of goodness and badness, and will act one way or another at different times in their lives and in different situations and with different people. I nodded and said, “Yeah, I’m totally like that.” She paused, then shook her head slowly. “No, I’d say you’re actually one of the mostly all-good ones.” And I was flattered that she thought that, sure. But I also opened and closed my mouth in a fishlike way, and muttered, “I have my dark moments.” Then I said, “Hmm, but not really.”

Another time, my friend Shawn remarked, “You’re always so positive. Do you ever get mad? I want to see you shouting, ‘F**k, sh*t, piss!’ and being mad.” To which I just shrugged and grinned, and continued drinking my half-full pint.

I yearn to be edgy and angry and even slightly controversial, while still being likeable overall. Or better still—to be liked because I am edgy and angry and controversial! And I think I’ve found my way in, because I recently realized that I hate musicals.

That’s right, you heard me. I love plays, and I love music. But musicals make me want to puke.

I enjoy live theatre very much, especially when I go with my father, a retired English teacher who knows most of the scripts by heart. We prefer plays in which frustrated men who are unhappy at their jobs hurl multiple obscenities at each other—Glengarry Glen Ross, Death of a Salesman, Twelve Angry Men.

I also enjoy concerts, especially when accompanied by Derek (Stars! Great Lake Swimmers!) or my mother (Simon & Garfunkel! James Taylor!). I like to dance as well, and to generally rock out. Music is a bit of all right, in my books.

But combine stage acting with music, as in having the actors sing their lines instead of speaking them, and I become enraged. “Why don’t you just talk?!” I want to scream at them. It’s ridiculous, and unnatural. People don’t sing their dialogue in real life.

At musicals, while the rest of the audience is clapping and hooting and bopping along, I’m hunched in my seat with that sick feeling you get when something isn’t right with your body. A bone breaks through the skin in a compound fracture—It shouldn’t be that way, you think.

When you’re a nice person like I am, hating something is liberating. I first got the idea for this post when I found myself sneering at a poster on the subway for Billy Elliot. All at once, I noticed my clenched jaw and balled fists and barely contained snarl, and got excited. I haven’t even seen this one (though I thought the movie version was delightful), but something about the way the kid on the poster was kicking up his heels and flailing his arms, his smiling mouth slightly agape as if he were about to sing, was making me furious. And I loved it.

I hated more things and had more dark moments when I was a teenager, and rebelled the best way a writer knows how: I wrote violent horror stories with lots of swears in them.

The most R-rated of these was “Fun,” about a teenage boy who kills and chops up his abusive father with an axe. Only slightly less gory was “Mr. Mearle the Oat Man,”** about a father who believes that a children’s cereal mascot is speaking to him through TV commercials and telling him to murder his family, à la The Shining, sort of. (I was reading a lot of Stephen King back then.)

**I scanned this 4-page excerpt from a vintage dot-matrix (1990!) copy of “Mr. Mearle”—read if you dare! (Click on each page for a closer look, and you can also further enlarge the page by clicking on the 4-arrows icon that will appear.)

My increasingly alarmed mother would say to me, “Why don’t you write nice stories?” My father was a bit freaked out by “Fun,” but otherwise got a kick out of the swears.

My first novel, Pulpy & Midge, was about a guy (Pulpy) who is nice to a fault. At one point, his wife Midge says to him, “Pulpy, there’s being nice and there’s being nice.” Meaning, of course, that it’s possible to be too nice.

Nobody wants to be too nice. That’s not me, no way. I have been snarky to my family and snippy with my friends on numerous occasions. I’ve been rude to strangers many times in my life, though usually only in response to their rudeness, so I’m not sure if that qualifies.

For the most part, though, I’m grateful to be in the orbit of so many lovely and hilarious and sweet people, and I don’t truck with jerks, so there’s not much need for the meanness that I vow to you lurks within me.

And I hate musicals, which has to count for something.

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