Mark A. Carter
 

JOURNAL infernal

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter rants about the importance of writing current ideas, by hand, in his journal, with his favorite fountain pen.

People who keep journals are weird. At least everyone I encountered at university who kept a journal was out there. And I mean way out there in the mondo beyondo. I read a few pages of a friend's journal once and was aghast at the banality. She put anything and everything into her journal. Today people merely blog about such nonsense. I saw my friend's journal as an externalization of her neurotic personality.

And I saw the act of journal writing as an obsessive compulsive behavior. For the life of me, I could not understand why a writer would keep a journal. I saw no purpose in it because back then I was a smart-ass and utterly into literary theory as defined by Northrop Frye. Literary theory was the be-all and end-all of my existence. To me, plot was everything. Ideas were everything. Science Fiction was everything. It was the only literature that I considered important. It was my raison d'être. It was the nitty gritty of literature that I was interested in, not the writing of it, and most definitely not the writer and what he recorded in his journal infernal. I didn't give a damn about what the writer felt when he wrote his tome. It was outside of the literature itself, part of the deus ex machina that should remain unseen. Despite creative beginnings, I had no patience for creative writing or creative writers. And I had no reason to keep a journal myself.

My dad, who was a precision grinder at General Motors, kept a daily journal for years spread over a series of little black books. And I wondered what on Earth could be in them. Was it romantic poetry? Was it observations about life? Was he a secret philosopher? He would take me out for car rides on Saturdays, in the guise of running errands, in his two-tone, two door, Buick Skylark. He would always take me to the paint store first and enter by the open service door out back, which I didn't think at all odd, but should have. And I must admit that I was mesmerized by the mechanical paint mixers. So, my dad got no complaints out of me. And then it was out and about around town and into the county to visit people that we never visited when my dad took my mom.

He told me that the men were my uncles and the women were my aunts. And I didn't know the price of beans so I took him at his word. And while I waited in the car, with the windows rolled down, my dad would talk to the people. He would pull something out of the breast pocket of his jacket and hand it over. He would laugh. They would laugh. And the man would hand back something to my dad. And inevitably my dad would pull a little black book out of his right rear pant pocket. He would scribble in it. Then my dad would shake hands with the man and the woman. They would stoop to smile and wave at me sitting like a mouse in the front passenger seat. And I would smile and wave back. The ladies would comment to my dad about how well behaved I was, which pleased him to no end. Then we would drive to the next rendezvous. And when our excursion was over, I always got an ice cream cone for my patience. I was good with that. But, I mean, was I stupid? No, I was just five years old, innocent, and trusting.

As it turned out, dad had for years been supplementing his hourly factory wage by illegally selling Irish Sweepstakes tickets, back in the day before the government got into the gaming business itself. And his little black books were filled with an accounting of addresses, names, payments, and ticket numbers. How disappointing is that? He was a minor bookie working for an American gangster dressed in a navy blue, pinstriped, three piece suit who came up from Buffalo, N.Y. through the Falls on the QEW twice a year to collect. He usually met with my dad downtown at the Mansion House on a designated Friday night. But he visited our home once, just before Christmas, when I was little. My dad handed over the haul. And like some perverse Santa, the made man took rather than gave, except for a buck, which he gave to me. As he passed by me, on his way toward the front door, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Merry Christmas, kid. Keep your nose clean." Then he tossed me a silver dollar. I'll never forget it.

I did technical writing for years at university. But I didn't keep a journal. I wrote papers in Psychology. My favorite was The Effect of Acetylcholine Esterase Inhibition on Synaptic Junctions. I wrote English literature papers. I wrote a Masters thesis entitled The Doomsday Theme in Science Fiction. And I edited the theses of foreign Masters and Ph.D. candidates. My favorite was The Roller Effect in Hydrodynamic Engineering. I couldn't make this stuff up. I registered for a one year M. Phil degree at Waterloo but didn't attend. Instead my life took a left turn. I met a group of unemployed post doctorates and became disillusioned with becoming a professor. And my internal voice said, "Those who can ... do." So, I dropped out of academia altogether to write. Duh? But it was years before I could write creatively as I had as a child. It was as if I had to wait for the gobbledygook to settle.

When desktop computing became available, I jumped at the chance to use it for writing. I tried writing directly with an Apple II, but at 1 MHz it was too slow. And the word processing program called Word Handler™ was so technical to use that it stood in the way of creativity. Yet I did learn it. I used it to write Psychology papers because it was faster and more advanced than the line processor on the university mainframe that we were encouraged to use. Duh? Do you remember the days of no wrap around?

I used an Apple IIc after that. But at 2 MHz it was still too slow for anything larger than a term paper. Plus, it had a nine inch monochrome monitor, which was a step backwards, and the keyboard was too small. The Mac Classic operated at a blazing 16 MHz by comparison, but it was still too slow to leaf through the pages of a book; plus, the screen was still monochrome and too small. But the keyboard and mouse were great. By the time I got my iMac 350 MHz Blueberry, the first computer upon which I realistically could write a novel, frustration and expediency had devolved me, and I wrote long hand with a fountain pen, as I had years before, into a journal of sorts that looked surprisingly like a cardboard binder filled with typewriter paper. I wrote long hand in the morning while I was fresh. And in the afternoon, I transposed script into type on the computer.

I went back to writing with a fountain pen because it was simple. I hadn't used one since grade five when I was taught to write cursively. My pen back then was navy blue with a silver lever built into the side to suck up ink from a bottle. I still love the smell of that ink. And I love the visceral sound of the nib as it scratches over the paper surface. To me, ball point pens run along the paper too fast. The ink varies as it is deposited. And a day's worth of writing with a ball point gives me graphospasm. That's writer's cramp for those of you who only punch buttons. It was sad to hear that cursive writing will no longer be taught in the Ontario Public School system. Anyway, I don't cramp when I write with a fountain pen. It allows me to write naturally and as lazily as I want while depositing a dark, even coat of ink. Plus, it takes the technical aspect out of writing so I can focus on the creative.

The only time that things come to a screeching halt, when writing with a fountain pen, is when the pen runs out of ink. It is especially distressing if it happens when I am deep within my thoughts and the writing is pouring out of me. I have to scramble to take out my depleted cartridge and replace it with a fresh one before I lose my train of thought. My only technical decision is which end of the cartridge goes up. So, keep those fresh cartridges close by. I speak from experience because I have lost my train of thought entirely when forced to dig through the business box in the storage closet for a fresh package of cartridges, and then try to open the blister pack. You might as well just give up and watch television.

My first journal goes back to Mister Sauer's grade 8 homeroom at Queen Mary School. I stenciled the word composition on the cover with an ink marker, and wrote in it every day. Mr. Sauer encouraged us to make the composition book our own. And so, I covered it in white paper and drew a picture, with colored pencils, of the moon with a pinkish atmosphere, and a Gemini capsule reaching it. Oops. I had a model of Gemini sitting on the old kitchen table that I used for a desk in my bedroom. I thought that Gemini was a great design, and I envisioned it going places. I hadn't yet heard about Apollo.

For a writer, keeping a journal is not weird. Right. Sure. You bet. It's a necessity. Months before the narrative pours out of me, I begin to accumulate articles and to jot down ideas. I work out the paradigms and the symbolism. I pick character names and do so with great care because all names have meaning. Somewhere and some when along the way, the notes in that journal take on a life of their own. And, like sun focused through a magnifying glass upon paper, from those initial ideas emerges the flickering flame of a story. It may have started with a single thought, a mood influenced by music or artwork. But it becomes manifest once it is written. And that is the purpose of the journal. These first ideas act as the dots on a page that when connected form a coherent picture.

 
My grade 8 composition book from Mr. Albert Sauer's home room at Queen Mary School

I used to put these ideas into a red cardboard binder filled with blank white pages. That's an inexpensive journal of sorts. And when I was hospitalized in December 2011, I jotted down my thoughts in a small spiral cardboard notebook that was an embarrassment really. But on the eve of my fourth novel, I took the plunge and entered the ranks of weirdoes everywhere. I went on-line and purchased a beautiful, leather, olive colored, handmade, Italian Cavallini Journal. But the Tree of Life Embossed Leather Writing Journal ;or the Genuine Leather Writer's Notebook are equally as sweet.

So, there you go. From now through the completion of this new novel, my leather bound Cavallini journal will not leave my side which means it will be no further away than the love seat and the coffee table where I usually work. When I go out, it will go with me. Why? Ideas come at the strangest times. And if you don't jot them down, they get buried beneath an avalanche of other ideas and the gobbledygook of everyday life until they become irrecoverable. So, whether you want to or not, and whether you buy one or make one, keep a journal. Get your ideas down on paper. Once your head is utterly submersed in your new project, you will see the world through the filter of that project. It is a strange and wonderful place to be only surpassed by when the novel starts to write itself. And yes, Virginia, it actually does, if you are doing things right. It is imperative that the journal makes that magical odyssey with you. So, embrace the journal infernal that you hate to love and love to hate. Don't write the banal. Don't record your grocery list. And don't rip out a single page. Record your thoughts, paradigms, name lists, and whatever. Record your good ideas and your bad ideas. Keep a record of your scratch outs, your poetry, and your doodles. Write down everything to do with your novel because the magic won't last forever. And when you are finished with your current literary work, retire the journal along with all versions of your manuscript. Put them together in a Banker's box, and label it with the name of your tome. Then start another journal infernal.

Read: Eye Candy
Fiction Bubble
Killing Characters
Writer
Writer's Block
Writing Tips

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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