Friday, February 03, 2006

Potted Biographies

Potted biographies.

Favourite device of the journeyman novelist.

Potted biographies. You have your list of characters. They all have histories. You place their histories in little pots you can uncork when you need to refer to why a character actually does something and how he/she does it.

W. Somerset Maughan says, however, that the writer actually ends up painting his own face, potted biographies or no.

I have seen your face, Billy-boy.

I fear that you may have been blown ashore.

Now is that any way to treat a mildly mediocre dead writer? Ecce Homo?

I am given to understand that Maugham disowned his daughter. His vast millions? The inheritance? I don't know.

He was certainly one successful Mofo of a playwright and novelist. And his poor, ignored wife.

As if we ourselves were not guilty, oh how guilty, along with St. Augustine. Some of the things we have done in this dark age, would blanch a saint. Fry him. Her?

Potted biographies.

Really the auras of past lovers, some auras powerful, almost incandescent, the nearly-unrequited lovers strangely with the most nascent power.

It is in the shower that we sort out parallel universes, actually the universes of our past lovers.

Yes, yes, the hip savant would say, "You forgot to masturbate", but I think it's deeper than that.

Just like Augustine, we suffer (enjoy?) the auras of our past lovers.

I am a hell of a lot older than the revered Bishop of Hippo at his death, so my auras are all but overwhelming.

Somebody's face is nuzzling against my thigh. It is Celia, the most powerful of the auras, and I hardly had all that much to do with her sexually. Why the strong, almost magnetic pull? Because like tends to attract like, and though a writer's worst enemy may be another writer, this was a female writer and they are best in the relationship game known as fiction, and she could really get it on. Unpublished, though, but really banging against the wall of my lifeboat as I floated away from my marriage. She was, in fact, fond of U-boat captain outfits, a gorgeous young Faye Dunaway in uniform; we were a little like Bonnie and Clyde. She wanted to fellate me one day, but I was struck by her beauty and went another way.



You had no compunctions with all your cycle sluts and even the one who loved you most.

Yet, for some strange reason, missionary position or nothing.

And even there, the haunting presence of another halo, King Mark, and I was the Tristan in the piece.

Would King Mark have slain me if he'd seen us in the act vulgarly known as sixty-nine?
Would he have just said, Hello then, let's have a cup of tea, shall we?

Or would he have wanted to join in?

Potted biographies.

My own potted biography. The older I get, the more I think of the past, but it is a pastiche of parallel universes.

I am in Denmark. I am in Spain. I am in my ancestral home in checkered Ukraine. Rarely I am in Canada, that Chernobyl of the spirit, where there has been a meltdown and hardly anyone was noticing. With the death of McLuhan, everything died spiritually. "Leave the poor man alone," said McLuhan's wife to the jealous academics. "You are killing him."

They did. And with that, cutting-edge Toronto had to give it all up for Calgary, Alberta. We were all doing it, killing McLuhan. I went to school with Mary McLuhan, Marshall's daughter, and we all ragged on her too. Jealousy.

I look at the fine prose of a web-mate like R. J. Baker and know for sure that a lot of people might be jealous, unpublished author or no. Yeah, yeah, it needs editing, but it is still fine. My rug-cleaner can write better than I can.

One of the paradoxes.

Potted biographies.

Forget plot. Use character. Character is everything. Character is plot.

You write your first draft on the fly, just let one word follow another, forget the sophistication you want to convey, just do it, do it to that last page 300 where you finally write THE END. It is shit, yes, but out of shit grows the flower. Then you go into the second draft, another five hundred pages, two hundred of which you will have to throw away. Still want to be a novelist?

It is a technique (some Satanists would say a Technology ) ninety-nine percent talent, ninety-nine percent hard work and ninety-nine percent imagination. And potted biograhies. Especially your potted biography.

"I was born..."

John Fowles: "I was born the son of middleclass parents, themselves under the shadow of that monstrous dwarf, Victoria...It soon became apparent that I was not equipped by heredity to be the person I wanted to be..."

Now don't that turn your brown eyes blue?

How did he arrive at his book? He has no idea and says so. "I just wrote and wrote, hardly knowing what I was doing."

First draft.

Potted biographies. His own potted biography?

The potted biographies really go into your second draft; that's where you flesh out the characters, that is where things click into place. That is where they do what they do because they have no choice. That is where you do what you do because you had no choice. Your biography, your destiny.

I am still in the shower.

Use your vices, your alcoholism, your lechery, your addiction to tobacco--as rewards. Do not just surrender to your vices, your piggishness. Use your vices as a reward when you finally succumb.

I will not masturbate this morning, surrounded by the aurase of my past lovers..

Jacques Barzun: More people fuck than philosophize.

But then, Jerzy Kosinski: If you must masturbate, do so, but you could try writing about it as a Gongorist trick.

And Philip Roth took the advice, hook, line and stinker.

Produced a book called Whacking Off.

How uncomplicated the male writer.


R.J. Baker said...

To write.

The most extreme form of masturbation.

To believe, to hope, to dream, that words on a page will, in some small way, bring extacy, pain, or longing to writer or reader.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

So how did we do?

Bernita said...

The thing you can do with a G-string, Ivan.
Seriously, have you thought of writing for the erotica market?

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Your expository writing is so righ-on, so loaded, three or four shades of meaning in a sentence or two.
Yeah, we're playing in the key of G this time, G-string.
I don't know where all my recent stuff is coming from, the Lord or the Devil.
"...Serve the devil, or serve the Lord--you gotta serve somebody"--Bob Dylan.
I am positive that he is talking about the thing we call creative writing.
When I was very young, my writer friends would say, "If you can reach just one person..."
If you can turn on just one person?

Bernita said...

And you talk about me...

ivan said...

I note in your blog that a reader seems to think you are too brassy.
Myself, I think I have been too much into Play Dough (Trinity extension student, C+) but old Gaylord said one day that some men are like brass urns; they keep sounding until a hand is placed on them.
You are female. I like your sound.
It is not brassy at all. Just a bright, very bright person.
A hand?....

Erik Ivan James said...

Ivan, this is one of the sites I visit from which to learn. And, each time I arrive, it is soon that I learn the more of what an "unshucked pea" I am.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Hi Almost Namesake. Thank you.
(My father's name was James).
Oh we try. How hard we try.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Oh, this site is right up my alley.

At least with masturbation there are no partner complaints and you work to your own schedule.

From what I've heard, anyway. Not being a guy, I don't do dates with handcream.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...


That's not the half of it. Alexander Pornoy in vingage Portnoy's Complaint, absolutely ravaged the family's grocery bag.
That poor, unsuspecting, innocent pound of liver!

R.J. Baker said...

As Woody Allen said, "Hey, don't knock , masturbation. It's sex with somebody."

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Fifties guy.
Still using that Brylcreem kid stuff.

Scott in Montreal said...

Potted biographies, eh? Sounds like a good tool. Solitude is the necessary garden of all writing; so how did socialite novelists like Richler do it?

Bah. I only wrote this evening because I got tagged with a meme. Now I'm up past my bedtime tagging you good sir.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I used to hang with some commies
and they gave me this inner contradiction thing in some sort of Hegelian Triad.
Inner contradiction. All writers, are, by their true nature, probably revelers and carousers. And kinda show-offs too.
Another inner contradiction. Here I am, doing the Alexander Portnoy thing in humble solitude and someone has to tag me with a meme, a social act.
Can't respond right away. Wolf at door along with landlord and real life story subjects, not potted at all (I do some journalism) who want to argue.
I might be writing the next blog or meme like Oscar--out of a garbage can...Done it before and sold a story to a national newspaper. These days, I content myself with the Era-Banner, a local paper which I imagine owning.
"Dream Big," says Preston Manning.
Anyway, nice to hear from you.

Bernita said...

Ivan, you scintillate.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Exes and O's, Bernita.
I must say you probably have the most widely read literary column in Canada.

Bernita said...

Oh phooey.
That's pure butter.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

"But," she said, "This butter's bitter." So she got some better butter..
I opine one must not scintillate too much. It stunts your growth and impairs your vision.
I am going fairly blind.
No Homer, though.
Let's see if we can summon someting from Coleridge.

"A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw.."

Well, it could be you with a guitar. Lyre? Lute? Tipple?
I must admit I haven't tippled lately.
Maybe that's my problem.
Whoops! This Lava Life or what?

Chuckercanuck said...

She isn't butter, she is margarine. White. Alien. Her every move is a government decree.

I had her once, on a bed of rye toast.

I finished, thinking, "I can't believe this isn't butter."

But it wasn't butter. She churns for no one, not even me.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

That is frigging awesome!

Anonymous said...

Pure butter! Hmmmm...reminds me of Marlon and Maria. The seventy-cent spread...if one can remember back that far. But maybe that is the old goat part of me speaking. Butter nowadays should be the Danish variety. Take a stand, be counted. Even Danish butter cookies in a round tin. Long, long ago, Canadians didn't bury their heads in the sand.


Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Look what these clairvoyeurs are doing to our love.
You think you're writing a novel?
These two Swamis are probably going to feature you and me in a diabolical novel of their own.

Bernita is a young debutante variously kidnapped and captured first by these two guys and then a series of bizarre characters such as Eskimos (whatever I call them, it's libellous), Nazis, Chinese foot fetishists and lesbian assassins.
They will be transported in cages to Tibet, Katmandu, where the royal family is cutting each other up with cleavers, Singapore, Hong-Kong,and finally, Scarborough.
It is here, on the Bluffs that Ivan and Bernita will consummate their love.
BLut then along comes Cliff.
What a story we could create, what a beautiful song we could write.
Tom and Chucker, you have loosed a genie from the bottle!

Bernita said...

~laughing myself sick~

Chuckercanuck said...

Then I have claim on 1.5 wishes:

wish 1 - movie rights.
wish 0.5 - Cliff's last name must be Shore.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Jaysus, I intended to write something serious, but I keep laughing my ass off. The contributions keep coming and coming.
Yeah, you've got film rights.
Don't know if the Shore guy is Cliff, but the guy with the shovel in his head is definitely Doug.
What the %&# is he doing out there anyway?
I took him for a guy with brains, like Douglas.
Yeah, you can have Cliff Shore; we old guys might even take Dinah Shore, or Goldie Hawn,
Or Alanis Morisette: "How 'bout risin' in mornin' and stepping into the toilet...Thank you India."
I know.

R.J. Baker said...

"It is shit, yes, but out of shit grows the flower."

This is the essence; to pound out and wade through the shit, unabashedly. I have yet to be able to do this yet.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Possibly because you are not entirely happy with your opening chapter. I rather liked the beginning of the sea story, though one of your correspondents was right when she said you should discard the very first para and start with the second. I think I would leave out the Thoreau quote too; it's pretty familiar to the U crowd. It's really getting past that first chapter. If you keep getting bogged down, read a similar opening. James A. Mitchener?
Nicholas Monsoratt?
But what I found working best is getting a personal column in a local newspaper. It teaches you to write tighter, kind of best-seller style, hardly a word Humpty-Dumpty wouldn't pay you for. Imagine there's a paper shortage, I suppose.
I will give you a project.
Find a news story in your local paper that catches your fancy or preferences, then write a letter to the editor. Write five, because four will be rejected for sure. Then see yourself in print and wait for the back of your mind to light up. My god, I'm starting to write!
What you have now is just probably a stutter. How is the seminar thing going--already done?
You may clear the stutter by doing the newspaper thing. It still gives me pleasure (and some local clout) to be able to do that.

For the time being, get off the keyboard...but then you have a successful and popular blogsite--a tough thing to do. Then think lettertoed, maybe a column you might want to do, much in the same manner as you now blog. Try to get something out with your name on it just to get a little of that oldfashioned printer's ink in your veins.
You know what they used to tell me?
You're trying too hard to show how good you are. Yep, and I'd trip over my own feet. And then there's the experience of a bad teacher, who can really &^% -up an artist. I had those too, but was saved by the Toronto Star where there were good teachers and not poseurs.
So for a week or two, leave the book alone and think print journalism. Mayby sailing as a topic. Have you heard of GAM, the yachting magazine out of Canada? Don't know if it's still around, but some of my friends got stuff in there, one about a makeshift scow-houseboat called the S.S. Condominium. Ha.There must be dozens of boating magazines in Michigan, certainly nationally.
In a word, go sailing. Trolling for editors. In your chosen hobby.
Or go plinking cans. Fart around for a while.
It will take some weeks to clear the logjam. Might as well take up a temporary project that will get you right there into the magic oftypography.
After the hiatus, you can start working on your book. Now that you will have had your first chapter done as well as you could have--I suppose it would be about eight pages-- start Chaper Two. Just follow your nose. The words will come. Don't worry too much about plot; it's in your head. But the thing is to drink a whole lot of coffee and get eight (five minimum) pages out every weekday.
You have to do this. You must also count words. You are trying to achieve about 50,OOO words, about 350 typed pages, double-spaced...Or you can do it long-hand, but it takes three pages to make up 250 words. The goal is at least 50,OOO words, and that's a tall order. Pad it with shopping lists, football schedules, nonsense, or whatever, but you need 50,OOO words.
Then you can begin your second draft, more filled in, more characters that you want to develop.
If you get stuck, use the first person...I once lost a contract by being undecided on using the first or the third person; worked best in first;tends that way to fill in any big description gaps. Try to avoid mawkishness and sentimentality. Got to start thinking like a pro. Everybody's full of truth, but not everybody's got the chops. De Debbil sometimes plays the best music.
It's first taking a working rest then getting that first chapter up to snuff, and then going on. Sprinting now past, way past that first chapter.
If all this is just too much to swallow, do something mildly occult, like tossing the I-Ching.
You might be surprised what you will find there.
When I started out, mine went:
Ting (pot) is very full. Good fortune.

R.J. Baker said...


Thank you for the sage advice.

I've been thinking of approaching the Detroit Free Press, even if on a freelance basis.

A few months ago I spoke with Matthew Brocolli. He gave me similar advice. I am co-authoring a book about "How to Fail at Small Business Without really Trying". Hopefully, this will clear the log jam. Until then, there's always Scotch and woman chasing...

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Matthew J. Broccoli, huh?
Feel honoured just to have his name in this blog. Prolific!

It's becoming plain to me that biographies sell so much better than novels.
I used to jibe sensitive PhdD's with my smart-alecky attitude, observing them with their tweeds and leather elbow patches. "I see by your outfit that you are a Doctor...Think I'll get an outfit and be a Doctor too."
Got a lot of C-pluses that way.
In fact, they were about to fail me when lo and behold, I sold a better mousetrap story to the Reader's Digest (Canadian edition). It wasn't the Scientific American, but it got me a pass. the title? Instant Grass.
No wonder it sold.

Lisa S. said...


Did you know that Dorothy Parker named her parakeet Onan?

Because he was always spilling his seed.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

On the ground?
Why, that little sot.

--Al Gonquin

R.J. Baker said...

I read Fitzgerald's Love of the Last Tycoon which Mr. Broccoli editted. The notes where so extensive and enlightening that it lead me to find and email him.

That book inspired me to begin my writing career. He was moved to hear it, and spoke to me by phone one Saturday afternoon.

He said that I must be nuts to want to be a writer, and face little or no pay, riducule, and everyything else. He did everything in his power to dissuade me from my chosen path. At the end, he asked me "Why in the world do you want to be a writer?"

I answered, "I have to be."

He replied, "Then maybe you are..." and hung up.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Jesu Cristo!
I wondered at the time who was the Matthew J. Broccoli whose name was on one of the later editions of The Last Tycoon. Now I know for sure. Tough job. Fitzgerald speaking through a female characture, and possibly with Broccoli's editing, convincing.
You know, I've written a lot, but every so often, I come across a book that stops me cold as a scribbler.
Smila's Sense of Snow--Almost Canadian (Michigander?). Danish dude, strangely. Haid& Haig or something by name--certainly my brand!
The guy is about your age, but he wrote a thriller that is still resonating in my mind--but so much bettter than anybody else around.
He has a world-cult following.

Why I introduce all this is becase at this time I'm not sure whether hangng with important writers--or, for that matter, reading important writers is the way to go.
Three paragraphs of Haeg leave me gasping for air. An aboriginal heroine. A death ship. Chaos, bloodhed, near-drowning in 20 below ocean. And final triumph.
Apparently Haeg had a number of careers, including acting until he decided to be a writer.
Where the hell did he learn to write like that?
I've gotta go back to my um, abused childhood as a kind of war orphan to figure that one out.

Ephemeral bit of information:
It became apparent that there was a bootleg copy of my Black Icon out in the libraries. I wrote to Margaret Atwood. "Well,' she wrote, first we've got to find the book. Then we can take action."

I did find the book, but I think it was just the library itself putting a hard cover on it; the original soft had started to wear thin.
First we've got to find the book.

You gotta write the book.

Maybe then hang with important authors?
But then maybe in the hothouse atmosphere, a rose may begin to bloom anyway.

Anonymous said...

Is Broccoli the editor related to Cubby Broccoli who was the producer of Goldfinger, a James Bond film? All this talk of Broccoli will put one into a vegetative state. (Idaho?) (Is that where Bakers come from?) (Or is it PEI?)


R.J. Baker said...

"You gotta write the book."

Other than the recent conference, I don't hangout with famous authors. I live in podunk MI. Far from the hustle and bustle of any literati.

Nothing can happen for me until "the book" is written - I realize.

I'm trying to sift through my emotional garbage for the golden inspiration. It comes in spurts between bouts of drunkeness.

But I push on, onward to the promised land. The conference was a little disorienting. It seems very few writers can make a living writing. This is disturbing to me and gives me pause.

I must write, write, write. Right?

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

You dastard,
Comparing a top adult trade (not, not that!) editor to Mr. Potato Head. An eye for an eye, I say.
You should live in Quebec (at least in the more mucky-mucky parts) where they say "pomme de terre"--apple of the earth instead of plain PEI "Potate".
Why do the French back into things like that? Apple of the earth indeed.
And for umbrella, "Parasol"--"for the sun". And for broadcasting?
Un emission...Well hell,that's partly what the current blog is about.
As for Cubby Broccoli, I think R.J. Barker would know more about that than me. He's up on stuff.

You dissin' my pal Baker?
He ain't no shanty potato field
mudhumper, present company included.
You know why they don't hire Irish security guards in parking lots?
I know you are an abstainer, but the general rule is that a potted
Boyle never watches.
OK Anonymous,maybe a real chucker, like Chuckercanuck would want to weigh in on the potato war we seem to be having over here.
Potato famine?
Hatfields and McCoys?
Grunt like a pig.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

R.J. Baker, yes, that inspiration in between hangovers that gives you the eerie feeling of being able to see around courners. Something there for sure. You walk
the streets like in Last Exit to Brooklyn and you find maybe da toid exit. Or a chapter with a body embedded in floatsam, as in your opener.
Yep. A writer is a person who writes. Nothing new.
You're obviously moved by whatever got you to pen that first chapter...I love that early Sixties
illustration, the people by the pool.
But they are actually by the seashore. Is there a scuba diver trapped in all that crap or seaweed?
Trapped for three years, face mask still on. Missing a friend at school? Whatever
I was once accused of writing too much and not structuring enough.
Forget the structuring for now.
Just write.
There are some great openers, great plots that can be lifted right out of Jules Verne. And no question that Verne is seagoing as hell.

R.J. Baker said...


I greatly appreciate the defense though I take no offense.

When we write we open ourselves wide for folks to ridicule, to insult, to misinterpret. The nature of the beast. The price of admission. The beast I am coming to love and a price I am willing to pay.

Long ago, I went through military training as debased and vile as any experience I have ever encountered. At the end, I asked for, actually demanded, more debasement and humiliating treatment. This, I believe, is what writers need, ay, may demand for their payment.

I have little need or respect for anonimity.

If I fuck up, and I do often, I do it honestly and openly. If I critique or disagree, or spell poorly, I do it as me. I accept what ever this may bring. I always have and always will.

As you may imagine, I do not post my best work - I submit it, what is posted is actually something I am struggling with, or what I am experimenting with.

I hope, some day soon to meet you, with some young Canadian blondes that need guidance with some Scotch close at hand as old as them...

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

In the military. Good. So was I.
That's where you learn your discipline, and I don't mean Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
You got no discipline, you can't finish a novel.
I myself probably wear my novels on my sleeve. Glad you seem to have some sort of ace in the hole.

Canadian blondes? I don't know what Bernita looks like. I don't even care if she is a sisty-ug.
Like the way her mind works. Sassy and direct.
But I am designing my gravestone these days; it's all in my head. I saw your face in a crowded place.
Nor sure of that Blunt guy was up for anything at the Grammys; too early, I suppose.
Hah. Oh Bernita,fly on over.
Bring husband,kids, the family dog.
What the hell (reaching for Scotch) bring 'em on!
Yeah. Michigander and Ontarians have a natural affinity for each other. Windsor, I guess.
One day we'll meet.
If I didn't think you had talent, I wouldn't be all so garrulous.

Anonymous said...

Huh? Defense? Against a pun. I gratuitiously linked Mr. Baker's name with a potato used for baking (i.e. "baker"), and now seem to be bleeding from the spur of the moment. Aieeee!

No, IP, why don't Irish security guards guard parking lots? Just proves there is an Irish joke I have not heard. (Never find the Irish rioting over a cartoon.)

As for me, I will retire to a repast of baked potato with some of Bernita's butter and a grain of salt!


Ivan Prokopchuk said...


Bernita said...

Set your mind at rest, Ivan, my golden one - though I know you are only attracted to my mind - even in these days of fading glory(when I no longer need to fight men off with a stick), if I may say so without the accusation of conceit, I am not a sisty-ug.
And my price is above boobies and rearls.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

For you, I would dive for the finest rearl.

Chuckercanuck said...

Before you plunge into the deep blue, I shall declare:

the potato is a very sexy vegetable. husbands - don't leave your house in the morning in worry-free arrogance - all women need the unwavering comfort of potato.

They will cross rivers of hot frying oil to get some potato.

anonymous -

potted Boyle means he's a lazy drunk with red nose whose shift and sleep generally coincide.
in other words - the luckiest humans to ever have walked the planet.

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