Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Storm of History behind The Drifts, Part 3

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The Storm of History behind The Drifts, Part 3

Once I was invited to present at the “The Hunger Artist: Food and the Arts” conference at U of TO next month (August 2010), I decided to use the presentation/paper to explore my own creative process in a scholarly context. I'm a geek that way. Maybe I could come up with a better answer to “How did you come to write The Drifts?” Those stories from my aunts come to mind around brown cake, biscuits & gravy, grits and so on. I remember how each of my people dressed (most are gone now) but clothes don’t feed my imagination the way brown cake does. There was never a cookbook out on the counter but threw it all together anyway. We spent hours talking, laughing and sharing stories. Days sometimes. My aunts were freaking fun.

And so now, when I think of these dishes and their ingredients I am transported to times, places and events. Technically, I missed the teens, twenties, thirties and forties in rural, cotton-picking Arkansas. Artistically, it is now my lived experience. You know Walter Benjamin, Gary Indiana, Susan Sontag and a whole bunch of others agree that when we go, we become story. We all end as story. Interesting, huh? Those stories don't just resurrect and redeem, they shove history along. Whereas a chotsky freezes history, story moves it along. As we melted butter & sugar, beat flour & milk and sipped coffee from the percolator, I was re-located. Now, when I reflect on those times, I am re-located again. My limited experience, especially with time spent in Arkansas as a kid, and as an adult, has been re-located and expanded.

And so I got to wondering what it is about those moments making brown cake, for instance, that seemed to contain all of those memory images which informed The Drifts. Now I know that Benjamin plundered Freud, Warburg, Panofsky and Nietzsche to gather a concept of history as one of materialism, as a flow of memory images; of melted butter & sugar, flour & milk and sipped coffee. These memory images are traces of lived presence.

Freud, Uta Hagen (iconic acting master), Warburg, Panofsky and Nietzsche – not to mention Paul Klee – understood that we attach physical sensation, memory, images and story to objects, to events, to sound, to smell. These articulations are goldmines for artists, no matter the medium. When we're writing, how about one pass through a mss just for smell? I cannot think of that yellow cake, or melt sugar & butter without being zapped back into the thirties or forties, or even earlier, in spite of never having had physically lived those years. Yet, my beautiful Sarah, sweet, sweet Ale and kind, bitter Doodle salvaged these pieces of debris for me, none of us hardly knowing the food would feed me, and others, long after the meal was over. I want to take this ‘food’ thing one step further.

I realized that the brown cake, for example, has been kicked up as debris in my own ‘storm of progress.’ It, the flour, the stories, the butter, the sugar – have all been piled at my own feet. Further, that that debris pile at the feet of Angelus Novus is where Art is forged and created. Our debris piles are the site of artistic creation. An articulation of this pile and where it comes from is what I’m going to offer at ‘The Hunger Artist’ conference.

I don’t know if I am any closer to being able to articulate ‘why’ I wrote The Drifts but because of my research, I can see a bit better where the writing comes from for me. It is the debris pile upon, and in, which I stand.

REMINDER: I'll be reading at Another Story tonight with wine, cheese and gnosh starting at 6pm. Come on over! Shelagh's got a really fab bookshop over there. If you're a book lover, come, listen, browse, sip and enjoy. See you there.

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.

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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