Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

I'm A Notebook Man, Myself

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I'm A Notebook Man, Myself

And I tend towards the cheap. None of those fancy, inlaid journals with the word Journal gold-embossed on the cover. Can’t do it. If I go in for that kind of thing, I’d never write. Ever. I could never write well enough to justify something that fancy. I want to meet my standards, not my notebook’s.

Last month I was leading a writing workshop and, as usual, waving my arms around. In one hand I had The Drifts and in the other, my notebook. I was giving my nickel answer as to where the book came from. The participants could tell that the other thing I was holding was a notebook. One person asked what does this (she held up her own notebook) have to do with that (she pointed at my book)?
— Everything. Everything. This (I shook the book) comes from this (I shook the notebook).
— How?
— Listen. I don’t want to freak you out. Every single morning, practically every single morning since 1994 I have set myself up with coffee, a cheap but good pen and a cheap notebook. After all of these years, I would describe it as writing myself into the day. Waking up is disorienting. With a meaty cup of coffee and the scratch of that pen, I’m on my way.

Whatever comes into my head I write. If I can catch it. My mind clicks on pretty fast but I’ve learned through this practice to let things go. To not be precious about what comes and goes through my consciousness. I look at it more like a river I tap into; the pen being an oar, the notebook, a boat. I’ve learned that what sticks, sticks for a reason. There is value in it for me.

—Do you re-read it? Who reads it?

—Never. Well, I lie. Not never. The last few years, my mind has taken to using that this practice time to work out problems. That’s what minds do. They see a problem and go after it. It’s whole object is to keep the organism alive. It knows the value I place on the practice. As that value has increased, so has, I suppose, its usefulness for particular projects. So, for example, when I couldn’t figure out what was bugging Charlie, in the book, in between footsteps, the practice allowed my mind to really consider the terror Charlie feels; the loss of control, Jane Fonda’s malice and his mama calling him a “grimey little termite”. That’s a long way to say, I re-read more now than I ever have. ‘Re-read’s not the right word. Pluck out. Plucking out pieces is how I use the notebook now.

As to ‘who reads it’? No one else. I may read a bit here and there to my long-suffering husband (even more patient, generous and loving with me now than he was when I met him more than ten years ago). Back then, early on, we established a boundary about privacy. I have gotten a lot of shit over the years from girlfriends and boyfriends about my creative work. And I am over that stuff. They want to be involved in it; they want to know what it is. Instinctively, even early on, that stuff didn’t fly. I am fiercely protective of my work/creative process and have hidden in my apartment from g.f.’s pounding on my door, saying they know I’m inside and how come I can’t just let them in while I work. Oy, vey. The people I used to get up with. Oy. That shit don't happen no mo'. I don't create my own drama now. I tap into other peoples'. I have a fine, hard-earned antennae for discretion, privacy and interference. When I sense my work is becoming a bargaining tool for love, affection or relationship, there’s no contest — I’m out of there.

A word about tools. Keep it cheap, keep it regular. Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down The Bones, Monkey Mind, etc.) taught me this. I have a particular penchant for dollar-store spiral bound notebooks and those blue Bic pens you get 24 for 4 bucks or so. ‘Tho’ it niggles me, I have upgraded a teeny bit. A good friend got me a fancy leather sketch book case. That case feels like a thread to old friends, so, when I can find the right-sized sketchbook, I use those. Here’s why ‘cheap’ is valuable.

When I first started writing in the notebooks, I swear to god, I couldn’t keep writing for one minute. One. That may not seem like a lot but it was to me. I had to practice. And when I got one minute, then I got two. When I got two I went to four. And I just kept adding until, well, this morning I did an hour and a half. No shit, I used to take myself on Thom trips: little writing retreats up on the central coast of Cali. I'd rent a cheap motel room and set myself up for writing practices. I don't know what my record is, but I know I got five hours once. It’s a muscle, we need to practice. No thinking, no corrections, no re-wording, no nothing. Just keep that pen moving. The more I correct, the more I make it perfect, the more precious it becomes. The more precious it becomes the less I want to do it at all. Hunger is important on that level but on another one too. When I’m not hungry for that next word, I stop writing. I’m the same way with jogging. You can tell from my waistline. A bit, then a little more. A little more. I set a goal, achieve it but do not do more. Not that time, not that session. Even though I want to do more, I don’t. That’s how I get more overall.

Writing is dirty, messy and un-freaking comfortable. When it’s good, it’s anything but those things. But we’re talking practice, we aren’t talking publishing. The practice keeps me from being precious. The time limit keeps me hungry. I’m in it for the long haul. With god’s grace, I’ll be back on the couch tomorrow morning.

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.

Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page