Friday, February 24, 2006

The Invisible Clipboard

In our naive attempts to write the great Canadian (American?) novel, we think our text is going to be pristine and pure, that no one has ever done it before, that this is straight from the horse's mouth.

Chances are, somebody has already done it. And better.

Let me show you my opener for my um, magnum opus, The Hat People:

The year was rife with signs, entire series of strange occurrences and unlucky portents, events so ominous that the superstitious in Toronto's great European community took immediate alarm and even the less skittish native Protestants began to entertain secret misgivings.

On the westward commute, on the QEW to Hamilton, a new object had appeared in the heavens, an L-shaped chunk of what appeared to be a Corinthian column, larger than the moon and out of all proportion to earthly size. Hardly anyone noticed, in the lengthening days of February that an eclipse had occurred at about the same time, appearing to have the sun setting at five-thirty p.m. instead of a quarter to six. Only on the eleven o'clock news did our commuters learn that the fiery column, replete with its lower chunk of plinth, was an unexplained phenomenon by the local observatory and someone must have been sleeping at the switch, since the accompanying eclipse hadn't been predicted either. A satellite did pick up the torus, and all agreed, that from some angles, it did look like a hat. Torontonians shrugged and waited for other events.

Something was happening to the money. The paper banknote seemed to change colour every day, while at the Royal Canadian Mint, die makers were already tooling up to turn old American-style quarters and dimes into huge coins resembling Mexican pesos.

Three Conservative political campaigns fell as they rose, giving Bay Street a shudder, and in one Ukrainian Catholic Church, the very pillar of a conservative people, a priest went mad. In the midst of high mass, when the great onion-topped cathedral was crowded to its very doors, the Reverend Moisei Papryka, leaped to the altar, and shouting blasphemies, proceeded to lay violent hands on the Sacred Host, understood by all to be the body and blood of Christ.

Now here is how Dostoevsky handled something like my poor attempt:

Somehow it happened--no one knows quite how, or why--that the incidence of robbery and violence has doubled. Arsonists' fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor's mansion is becoming involved in adventures of and increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many ears before, in order to pay his master's gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes--not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. "Strange characters appear--a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into peasant costumes...

A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing". It seems that a number of people have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order: a Trickster-demon springs out of nowhere, and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Europides, The Bacchae, want only to sow disruption, madness and death. "We shall proclaim destruction," Peter Verkhovensy tells his idol Stavrogin, "because, --because...the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.”

The Possessed, Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily "tragic" work began to appear in serial form in l871, and strangely, did my own work in 1972. I took it to my old professor of English, himself a published novelist. I hardly expected his response. "You are Dickens”, said the overly kind teacher, "You are Balzac." I should have known he was damning with loud praise because he did go on to say that my The Hat People didn't have much of a plot, huge holes in the story and that I'd better pick a plot, like Bernard Malamud did in The Fixer, and write to it. The sentiment was echoed some time later, when I met Susan Sonntag in Copenhagen, who remarked, after I laid out my book to her, "What, you wrote without plotting? No wonder your book was rejected. You can't just write and write and not structure."

But I just kept writing and writing. I found plotting boring. I thought the novel would come to me almost whole out of my subconscious, like Shakespeare's writing process, first draft, complete, hardly any corrections. And every time.

Needless to say, I was not Shakespeare or even Harold Robbins--not even close. Come on.

Yet I had a young writer's arrogance. So I finished the book, all 50,000 words of it, sent it out, same response.

"You wrote too much and didn't structure enough. Go to the masters, go to Dostoevsky. It's probably what you're bumping up against

Aping Dostoevsky. And I didn't even know it. And maybe Dickens too, though A Tale of Two cities is a different kind of book And who was I to believe my teacher, who had said, fingers crossed, that I may be a Dickens.

How ambitious we are at thirty and a bit beyond.

"Do not write much before thirty, the canny and successful John Braine used to warn. And he was so right.

How the demon had possessed me. How he had taught me to be selfish about the writing. How he facilitated the wrecking of my marriage, the near-abandonment of my children.

And now the proof is in the puddin'

The book she is writ.

Sometimes I think I should have left writing to writers, gone the way of the bureaucrat and made a pile of money.

But the bureaucrat must be an organized controlled person, have good work habits and possess fine handwriting. I was not particularly organized. I had really crummy handwriting. But then I read another author, a distant countryman, one Nicholas Gogol (Yes.). And in Diary of a Madman, a bureaucrat too, is not inured against compulsive behaviour and even madness stemming from his pigeon-grey craft in his pigeon-gray office.

I had made my choice. Yet the book was found wanting. I had invested years, laboured mightily, and had produced a mouse that roared in the face of Dostoevsky. This was doubly corroborated as the rejection letters came in.

But finally, an encouraging one. "An interesting story, the tragicomedy of a culturally displaced person trying to hold it together in Toronto. You do set up scenes well. I would say work it over and try us again with it, though I'm not sure it's Anansi's kind of book to begin with."

I worked it over. He said "Do no more work on this."

I applied to the Ontario Arts Council, hoping to get a grant for the book. It worked I got the grant.

Different attitude from the editor once he found out.

"This is where it starts." He had uttered the magic words. I was in. But only because of the promise of money, the money to print the book, the publicity, all the government emoluments. So that's how it works, I told myself. It's the money.

But it wasn't enough money, apparently and soon I was back in the street, manuscript in hand, the editor's comforting words still in my ears. "I have to admit I liked the book, the paranoia, the social paranoia. And you had set up your scenes so well."

"Have to be honest with you. It's finding the money to print the book. There just wasn't enough.”

Whatever. I put the book out at my own expense. The Uxbridge library soon found some money and issued the book. It was a kind of victory.

And yet and yet? Was I really aping Dostoevksy, who knew so much about social dislocation, nihilism and the dark spirit of an age? Maybe I'd had too good an English course and later, too good a Russian course.

Oh well, imitation is flattery, yet it wasn't conscious imitation.

Probably because Dostoevsky was part-Ukrainian, a culturally displaced person because of the great diaspora and I had felt something going by.


Erik Ivan James said...

You emit such meaningul messages in your blog posts, yet I am too unsophisticated to understand them for their full value. From this one I received: It is much easier to publish if one has money; at this point in the writing history of man we are all likely imitators, at least unintended imitation and; we continue to seek our own abuse if we continue to write. (?)

ivan said...

When I don't write or blog, I pace the floor, check the window screens, kick paint cans around and work feverishly at my navel-gazing project.
In short, I go fairly crazy.
It is the writing that is keeping me sane and more or less off the bottle.
I suppose writing is a kind of gift. You hear things, I hear things. We rush to get it down.
No, I don't think the gods are jealous when we take up the magic keyboard. There is, after all, the parable of the talents.
I had the luck to go to a rather supportive school where we were all spoiled rotten and told that we were very good at the writing craft. Teachers, some of them, are kindly men and women and maybe, in my case anyway, I may have put too much stock in their advice as to my future.
We are certainly committed to all of this. Bernita's blog explodes with comments from all sorts of writers and even here, people are calling in and writing in.
Blogging, it seems, does begin to eliminate the middleman, the publisher and this seems just the beginning.
Tell you something. When I was writing my first novel, The Black Icon, I was writing for my life. The project was all I had. Mess up the project and you mess up your life (I was still in my middle twenties). I did screw up the first draft of my manuscript, too long and too unplotted, but the luck of a good teacher had me soon structuring more and cutting more until I had something resembling a
fair Russian novel (That's what other teachers termed it anyway).
Had I not had the luck of good teachers, certainly at the post-graduate level, I would have screwed the book, and very likely, screwed my life. Who wants to work at Life Insurance when the ghost (to misquote Nietzsche) is whispering for you to go out and take up your life's calling.
So while it probably would have been better (even Dostoevsky says it!) to take up engineering or something, I for one, am stuck with this.
Keep writing, Eric Ivan James.
Like Bernita says somewhere, it's all we've got right now.

Bernita said...

Creativity is positive.
It is not abuse.

ivan said...

Gee, Bernita,
I'd like to read some of your steamier sex scenes in your time-travel romances. You mention this in your blog today, while, of course not writing sex qua sex, but only to further the plot. Yeah.
Good chance it might put me into the position of a Tom Waitts routine.
"Staying by myself. All by myself.
"Nothing else to do (Read the novel?)
"Took advantage of myself."

Bernita said...

You malign me, Ivan.
The scenes must serve the plot AS WELL.

ivan said...

Sorry Bernita,
The plot as well. Of course.
I am awed by your encyclopaedic
knowledge of Elizabethan history ( also l middle age history?) and am looking forward to your tome.

Chuckercanuck said...

If you want your movie to sell, you need plot-driven AND gratuitous sex. A sad requirement of the art.

Shesawriter said...

Plot driven and gratuitous sex. Yeah, that about sums it up. :-( Unfortunately.


ivan said...

Hi Tanya.
Hi Chucker.
My what a menagerie.
And informative things to say.

ivan said...

Hey Chucker,
I saw some clowns out of Fellini
at the closing of the Olympic ceremonies.
I never could get Fellini. Like my New Zealand correspondent might say, "Fellini sucks the Kahuna."

Chuckercanuck said...

In college, we'd go to the rep house and watch whatever was playing. The fun was the surprise and the cheap, real butter popcorn.

The cinema du parc is housed in the basement of stalinist complex at the foot of mt.royal. La Cite.

Walked into Satyracon. Oh my. Not exactly a good date flick. But better than a Japanamation rape-fest.

Fellini is less suicidal than Bergman, less life-draining than Wenders - but he never made a buddy-movie. That's a major negative.

I saw Antonononioneonio's "Blow Up" - that won't leave me. I learned that you could film the wind evocatively.

ivan said...

This is extremely helpful.
You can't ignore film on a creative writing site.

Chuckercanuck said...

And Blow Up comes from one of those fine South American writers.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow! Blow Up! One of my college era Big Influences (tm)

But first, sad news that Bob MacDonald died. A real rough, tough, hard-boiled Toronto newspaper guys. I always thought a story with his byline was a real treat. Perhaps Ivan can add more.

This is a downer. Blow Up later.


ivan said...

Bob MacDonald.
Do believe I met him briefly.
Old school, far right.
Damn. The're all falling like flies,and most of them are younger than I am. I think I met Bob at the old Toronto Telegram, shortly before I got fired. A month later The Telegram got "fired" as the accountants closed the paper down.
That should have taught me not to fight with Bassetts, complaining they were doing accounting and not newspapering. Losing money? Kill a paper. "kill YOU, you little loudmouth." They did.
Then they committed hara-kiri.

What a way to do journalism.

Had slightly better luck at the SUN, the little paper that grew out of the ashes of the Telegram.
Did a major piece on divorce, or "The Big Split". (Even got a Donato cartoon with my story).
Later, I got my own Dear John.
Fok. Some people have all the luck.
You are tainted by your own material?
In my paranoia, I imagine some Leftists got to MacDonald, but I'm sure he died of natural causes.

ivan said...

I have just come back from my accountant and feel sillier than the Dustin Hoffman character insisting he's straight in TOOTSIE.
I think I got reamed.

Awkard place now to add my two cents to Blow Up.
While I admire Argentine writer
Julio Cortazar (he of the short one?)--there I go again--I am somehow reminded of a Rodney Dangerfield routine.

"Cops pulled me over for having sex in the back seat of my car."
"Did they arrest the other person too?"
Dangerfield: "There was no other person!"

All that being said, I worry about a writer fantasizing over some gorgeous woman jerking off the office boy out in the street while a man is in a car watching. Or did I get it all wrong?
And yet, there is some debt in Cortazar to Edgar Allen Poe, that master of taking ordinary reality and then blowing it all up in elements of the fantastical and diabolic.
Should tell Bernita, if she doen't know it already that Poe invented the detective story and almost all of our modernism, probably affected even Ginsberg, though T.S. Eliot seems to lend Ginsberg a hand here and there.

Think I'll take Borges, who reportedly said one day that Cortazar tries so hard to show you he is clever, that he becomes tiresome.
Like even this old fraud?

R.J. Baker said...

Ah, Poe and Dostoevsky. If you were going to ape someone, you picked the best. Most writers of today wish to write the next DaVinci code - not exactly aiming high literary wise, but it was an entertaining read. If asked, I could barely tell you what it was about about, but Poe, Dickens, Hemmingway, Chandler, Faulkner, etc. I read and reread every several years.
Each reading becomes more enjoyable and more meaningful as I age.
What is wrong with emulating the best? If you aim high and miss, don't you still reach a higher level than aiming low?

ivan said...

This is a balm to the old spirit.
Hope things are going better for you.
There are a number of ways, of course to skin a cat, and I'm sure that very soon, you'll find a way.

Chuckercanuck said...

If I could, I would try to write another DaVinci code. Why not? There's art and then there's that 100 acre hobby farm in the perfect landscape, with a wine cellar stocked to your newly-acquired tastes.

But to return to Ivan's post, I have a question for the struggling and/or conquering writers here:

Did the big D spend nights of anguish thinking to himself, "I'll never be Chaucer?"

Was he aware of how superior he was in craft and human insight?

Can the veneration of the greats become an impediment to our own efforts? Does it matter that we are not the big D?

ivan said...

Chucker, so apposite:
"Did the big D spend nights of anguish, thinking to himself,'I'm not Chaucer?'"
No probably not.
Dostoevsky was one of a kind, and totally lovable, an uncommon quality among geniuses. Maybe it's because he was married twice, the first wife leaving him for his twitch and tendency to spaz out.

ivan said...

Hey, Doubting Thomas,
You're a Toronto Sun reader (whoops, it's Calgary Sun, isn't it). Headline here in Toronto:
"Da Vinci Code of Dishonour?"
LONDON (AP)---It's the latest twist for the mega-selling conspiracy thriller THE DA VINCI CODE: a lawsuit agains teh book's publisher for breach of copyright that could taint the novel and delay the much-anticipated movie version.
Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, outhors of the 1982 nonfiction book THE HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL are suing publisher Random HOuse Inc. over the allegation that parts of their work formed the basis of the Dan Brown novel...
What have we chanced on here?

Anonymous said...

Ivan, saw the article, also saw a recent TV program hosted by the guy that played Baldrick, Tony something or other, that debunked the main points of the book. The book is as fact based as Alice in Wonderland. In this enlightened age people still take the DaVinci Code as fact, fall for Nigerian scams, and vote for Liberals.

The author of this book is in the same league as the people that brought you Bre-X. My fantasies tend more toward Douglas Adams stories, but you raise the possibility of Bernita's steamy scenes as the new stuff of fantasy. Hmmm...

Keeping the spirit of doubt alive
Since 1955.
(Nothing significant about 1955, it just rhymes with alive.)

ivan said...

There is certainly truth in your observation.
I am thinking of othe dubious achievements in the past. "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross" by Allegro?
Yet if you can be that successful on peyote, I want some.
And to verge on sacrilige, what daddy wouldn't want to make it with the Whore of Babylon?

Bernita said...

Crucifixions are not new, neither is evading them.
It's sometimes an Oak Island treasure hunt, sometimes a screaming skull.
Knights Templates are fun, if they didn't get so muttery and dreary.
Concentrate on what you you do, not on how someone did it better. There's always someone better.
In consideration for one-handed typists though, I don't think I should post my "steamy sex scenes" even if there's better ones out there.

ivan said...

What with the complimentary salutes I'd been getting from you I felt, in a rollicking mood, that I should really have nice templates on this site.
Not surprised you are interested in Oak Island, spooky ancient and waterlogged place, and then the ponies all around too. All the damn elements, somehow.
Well, I'm a pretty good paperhanger when it comes to writing bad cheques to my creditors--somehing in common with Dostoevsky {or was it Balzac, he of the Ukrainian girlfriend)-- and I did notice that I was writing bad cheques with one hand. If I can hang paper with one hand, I should be pretty good at reading some sex scenes.
''''Actually,thinking of investing in a webcam, but I don't want to scare anybody; certainly not with my face.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Merv the Perv.
To better business now:
One of your corresponds observed that your blogs, put end-to-end, make up something like a novel.
Can't think of his name offhand (it was a recent comment about shooting up with coffee or something) but the little fragment of fiction he had disguised as a comment really impressed me).
But then like any other guy with a lot of time on his hands, I do believe I saw a Canadian movie that seemed to have the same associtions, except that the junkie was on real junk and not just liquid Mother Parkers.
Still, your correspondent seemed one motherparker of a writer.
Hate guys like that--there I go again, thinking one more person can write better fiction than me.
But then I'm long-legged, I suppose. You sure do have an intriguing site. I think you have already written to appreciate the contribution of your correspondents, as has Sandra Ruttan.
Bernita, I think we are one of a kind. We're sort of superficially bright and we hate, really hate stupid people especially bureaucrats and LCBO bottle clerks, making forty dollars an hour while not being able to understand the slightest nuance or simplest joke. As in the Canadian song, "How come jerks don't know they're jerks?" Some girl sang it; forget her name.
So thanks for writing in.
Your hang-up cartoons are so clever, so insightful. Love them.
Like your blogs as well.
Thanks for visiting, and the door is open.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Ivan, for all the nice words.
You are quite disgustingly brilliant, you know, not "superficially bright."
The thing is, Ivan, the poor clerk doesn't expect a joke, and one can't expect them to follow our trains of thought as they de-rail. Their minds in these casual situations aren't focused on airy perseflage;on the other hand they might be quite erudite in a different millieu.

ivan said...


For The Trees said...

Ah, wrote:

To better business now:
One of your corresponds observed that your blogs, put end-to-end, make up something like a novel.
Can't think of his name offhand (it was a recent comment about shooting up with coffee or something) but the little fragment of fiction he had disguised as a comment really impressed me).
But then like any other guy with a lot of time on his hands, I do believe I saw a Canadian movie that seemed to have the same associtions, except that the junkie was on real junk and not just liquid Mother Parkers.
Still, your correspondent seemed one motherparker of a writer.
Hate guys like that--there I go again, thinking one more person can write better fiction than me.

I thank you. I am quite new to this pat-on-the-back kind of commentary. I really, REALLY like it. I'm saving these comments about me and printing them out in large type, then pinning them up on my door-sized bulletin board so I can look at something uplifting when I'm in the emotional-mental toilet.

I, too, write because it's all I can do. I fight a constant war with my ex-wife, whom I caretake (she can't walk anymore) and try to fit keyboarding in between the battles. In some ways it's like dealing with poop in two different forms.

If I weren't on so many psychotropic drugs I'd be an alcoholic of the worst order. Still, I piddle along. And I write. It's all I have left, to keep me sane.

"Now, Edward, you musn't be telling lies to the nice people."

"Aw, Mummy, I like telling lies. Besides, it's all they've got, my lies."

"But it's lying, Son."

"So's the President."

"Don't be splitting hairs with me, Young Man."

"Just telling it like it is, Mummy."

"Get to bed now. It's almost ten."

"Yes, Mummy."

ivan said...

For the trees:
You sell one more movie, gonna kill ya dead.
Hate talented people.
Wanna break their fingers.

Scott in Montreal said...

The Big D was never easy for me. In fact, after two failed attempts at Crime and Punishment, I still don't know what happened after about p. 120.

Strange how effectively the images have stuck with me though.

Baby in the house and TV on so much I can't even hear the little voice in my head reading the stuff my eyes bring in from this screen. So reading is out for now. Last thing was Alias Grace a couple of years ago. Good stuff. Atwood is the type to make you thirst to read more. Sometimes just for her cracker-jack use of language.

If I had a story...

That's always the problem. Plotting. I create a character and don't want anything bad to happen to him. My fantasies are of things going happily and well. Can't write about that; it's too damn bland. But what does that say about my own reality (or perception thereof)? Oh dear.

ivan said...

Hi Scott,
I thought you were going to hit me with another meme, but I guess people know now that Ivan is more often obscene than heard.
Yeah, Margaret Atwood. Had contact with her when she was prez of Writers Union of Canada. She was very helpful.
I am especially impressed by almost-Canadian Joyce Carol Oates.
There is no way I can be better than Joyce Carol Oates unless I strap on a vagina--a radical procedure at best. Some women are so natural at fiction that there are times when I want to give up.
Oh well. Start again in Russian? Even here, it would be a second language (third?).
My voice, where is my voice?
Bob Dylan: She'll take your voice and leave you howlin' at the moon.
That's what it is: The wicked witch turned me into a newt.
I got betta.

Erik Ivan James said...

To some He gave brains. To some He gave physical beauty. To a few He gave both. To the rest, He put on a collar and leash that the others might drag us along.

qismah said...


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