Mining the Journals   3 comments

Some of my journals from the last two years. These are just a few of the hundreds I have filled over the years.

I have been an inveterate diarist since I was in high school, and that’s going back a few years now, let me tell you. I actually have one of my journals from 1974, when I was in Grade 12. It records among other things a trip my friend Richard Campbell and I took from Regina to Banff. Anytime I lose my mind and think about camping as a possible activity, I only have to go back and read that record of those cold soggy nights on the side of a mountain and I quickly come to my senses.

With a few holes, a few missing years, alas, I have a fairly complete record of my life that spans some 40 years recorded in hundreds of notebooks,  containing probably close to 3,000,000 words.

Blake Brooker of One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre and I have talked about doing something with all these journals, some kind of interactive performance piece with them. I think all we’re lacking is any sense of urgency. Since we last talked about it, I’ve probably filled half a dozen more books. The possibilities would seem to be endless for such a piece. Want to know what I was doing on the day you were born? I could probably tell you. (Unless you’re older than me, but you’re probably not!)

These days, I am a regular fixture at Caffe Beano just off 17th Avenue SW in Calgary. I write in my journal there almost every day. When I am traveling, I look for new coffee shops that are conducive to the writing process. Last fall in Statford, I discovered Balzac’s on my first day there and wrote there every day for  three weeks. I guess I’m a creature of habit, which is no small trick when you don’t really have a daily schedule.

David Mamet once wrote a great essay, “Writing in Restaurants,” which gave the title for a collection of essays. There’s something interesting about engaging in a very personal act in a public place, especially one you won’t get arrested for. I don’t pretend to understand the reasons why I am able to be so productive in a coffee shop, so much more so than if I stay at home to do the same thing. You can’t argue with results, and my coffee shop and restaurant output has been consistently prodigious.

Yet, in a way, that’s the easy part. The hard part is having the discipline to go back through them and mine them, as it were, for the gold they may or may not contain. In doing this, one is confronted with one’s past, which at times can be uplifting, while at other times and more often than not,  simply deary, I’ve often noticed that we don’t tend to sit down and write anything when our favourite team wins a big game. But, get our hearts broken and that’s a different story. Unhappy events in our lives tend to send us scurrying back to the comfort of the written word, and so my journals, at any rate, tend to be a little on the dark side.

(If I had never had my heart broken, I might have 3,000 words instead of 3,000,000. That’s just how it goes.)

Along with the minutiae, the quotidian, as it were, we mine these journals for the poems and scenes of plays we may have written down on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, say, or late at night when we simply couldn’t fall asleep. These are a few pages from the notebook I kept in Stratford and wrote mostly while at Balzac’s:

It's a scene from a play someone wrote. Oh yeah! It was me!!


Obviously by now, writing down my deep thoughts on a daily basis is second nature. It’s habitual and probably very therapeutic. But as I say, the hard part is going back through it to see if there’s anything there of interest.

This scene I’ve been looking at today seems like it might have some potential. There are about ten such scenes in this unnamed play that I called at one point “an epic fantasy,” yet there’s no actual title at this point  So these days, cold days in Calgary when one looks for reasons to stay indoors, I am transcribing this raw material into my computer, with a wait and see attitude about what’s there. Is it gold, or fool’s gold? Too early to tell and no way to tell but to go through the process, hoping for the best.

Even though such scenes are written in full sobriety (for some reason I can’t write in bars) there are times when I go back and read them and have little or no recollection of having written them in the first place. What that’s all about, I’m not really sure, other than to say we clearly go into a very different frame of mind when creating, the results of which can be at some level unrecognizable even to ourselves.

And so now, it’s -30 degrees outside, yet I’ve been at this computer far too long. So even on a wretched day like this, I am to Beano to see what words are waiting on the page of my journal for me to draw out.

Thanks for reading! Stay warm!!



3 responses to “Mining the Journals

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  1. If my old journals don’t go up in a puff of smoke one day while I’m still living, I hope before I die I remember to put some kind of disclaimer in them for family members who may peruse them: “This is not everything I thought about you or about anyone! Just a tiny passing percentage, on a cranky and judgmental and impatient day before I got wise and my heart opened and I figured a few things out!” My words written in a pissy moment could deeply hurt someone I love — because people who don’t keep their own journals don’t realize that journals don’t contain a person’s every thought about any person or situation, not by a long shot. They never give the whole picture, and when our own attitudes change and mature we don’t necessarily write about the same subject again, ever, and correct our record. That’s not what a diary is for; too much is left out, but non-diarists don’t necessarily know that.

  2. I am happy to see someone else who’s still hauling around a stack of journals since their high school days. I’ve got journals since I was 15, with some years off, but those are few. Recently I dug the old notebooks out of the storage trunk and stuck them on some shelves where I could get at them more easily. I also flipped through a few. Somewhat akin to yours, I found mine often full of bitching (OK yours were heartache) that unfortunately sounds awfully self-righteous, now … I hate the thought of leaving those behind. As a reader I’d be disgusted by the person who wrote them! Anyway, there is also quite a bit of “deep thought” there; I’m surprised that I was about as smart 30 years ago as I am now. If I am any smarter now, that is. Maybe I haven’t really learned anything in all this time. Ha!

    To go through old journals can be both boring and fascinating. I did mean to mine them for writing ideas, but … got too bored.

    There are about a dozen of them that cover the year my mother was ill and the year after she died. I thought I’d wait till a year after her death and then sift through them for something that might help others through similar experiences, but six years later I still can’t do it, it all comes back and hits hard and I don’t want to deal with it again. Maybe I never will be able to face them.

    Anyway, all this to say … I’m glad to see all your journals. What do you hope will happen to them when you’re long gone?

    • All of my papers including my journals are part of my archival collection at the University of Regina. So it’s rather eerie knowing that someday after I’m gone, and in fact before I’m gone (or so I think) anyone with the inclination could go in and have a look at them. Before that happens, Blake and I want to do a show with them, which I would love to do (and film) at the theatre at the U of R and then put them all in a wheel barrow and go from there to the library and dump them on the floor of the archives. Because of this, their eventual public accessibility, I remind friends and acquaintances not to piss me off or else they’ll be in there in a very negative way!

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