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:
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!!