I started my first bucket list before they were called that. My first list, begun in 1990, was entitled “50 Things to Do Before I Die,” although I don’t think it ever topped 35 or so, despite my adding to it sporadically throughout my high school years. I enjoy making goals, and I sure as heck like to daydream, but the fact that I could never make it to 50 suggests that I was always too busy just doing the things, rather than taking the time to write them down.
I can’t recall all the items now. Some that come to mind are ludicrous in their vague ambition: “Achieve complete freedom of thought and action.” Others were more appropriately lofty – “Get a play produced on Broadway,” “Publish a role-playing game,” – and some were admirable but poorly researched – “Win the Pulitzer Prize” would only work if “Become an American citizen” was on there too (it wasn’t).
A few goals reflected the adolescent filter through which I saw the world, although “Have a frank conversation with sex about a lesbian” was, to my credit, far less skeezy than it could have been. But most of the goals were wholesome and artistic, if unrefined. “Direct a totally bonkers production of Hamlet” was not the sort of pitch I’d deliver to the Stratford Festival, but it was enough to stoke a young director’s imagination over the next 25 years while other, more practical, goals took precedence.
“Write a novel in France” was on the list. I’d visited France twice by 1990, once with my Dad as part of a consolation prize for the recent divorce, and against with a junior high coach tour. I found both trips inspiring, but not always in a literary way; the first time, on the cusp of puberty, I spent most of the trip ogling French women, while the second trip was a perfect storm of peer-group pecking-order politics and free-wheeling Pythonesque private jokes. I wrote a couple of short stories inspired by the medieval towns of St. Malo and Mont-St.-Michel, but I resolved to go back someday and really apply myself, turn the centuries of art and history and culture into something fresh and personal and great.
I had my chance just after high school, when my Mom arranged for me to spend three months studying French at an international school in Reims. I faced a lot of distractions, starting with homesickness and real sickness (not on the scale of my recent pneumonia, but enough for a melodramatic 18-year-old to convince himself he’d end up buried in Pere Lachaise, between Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde). Obviously, the language school took precedence, or at least it was supposed to. But I was also firmly in playwriting mode by then, so whatever creative energy I was able to leech out of France went directly into plays, not novels.
I tried. I had two false starts. The first was a horror novel called Geist, inspired by the Gothic architecture and graveyards of Paris. I wrote the prologue and a few chapter outlines and got bored, or frustrated, or distracted. Attempt number two had more highbrow literary ambitions, but it didn’t even receive a title, and I’m not sure I even got past the opening line, which was something like: “Anthony Taittinger stared into the mirror and imagined the skeleton beneath his skin.” I think it was going to be about middle-aged expats finding romance in Paris – not something that would inspire many 18-year-olds, but I’d read Sartre and Camus, and I felt mature enough to give my future mid-life crisis a fictional practice run.
(By the way, “Taittinger” is the name of a famous winery in the Champagne region. My protagonist felt more like vinegar. Irony!)
I returned from that trip satisfied with my output, but convinced that I was not a novelist. In the years since, I’ve had another couple of false starts, including a fantasy novel with a dubious premise that made it all the way to Chapter 6 or 7. For a playwright, long solitary projects are discouraging; with plays, the light at the end of the tunnel is as bright and dazzling as a stage full of happy actors, but a novel has only the dim light of an editor’s laptop screen to urge you onward.
Yet here I am. The “50 Things” list has mostly been checked off. I’ve had RPGs published. I’ve never done Broadway, but last year I did Toronto. I’ve had frank conversations with lesbians on all sorts of subjects. And anyone who saw my production of Hamlet would agree with the me of 1990: it was totally bonkers.
I’m not sure why I would cling to the romantic conceit of writing a novel in France – except, well, here I am. I don’t feel as if I owe my younger self anything, yet I share his curiosity – what will it feel like? Probably neither as romantic nor as lonely as I picture it. November approaches, and with it National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a much-more-than-national coalition of masochist marathon-writers who provide each other online tips and high-fives as they knock back coffee and pound out pages. And while I missed my dreamt-of rendezvous with my muse upon my favourite bench in Paris, I do have an idea for a novel – more than an idea, a plan – and it’s not half bad.
I don’t want to say too much yet, but I don’t like to tease, either, so I’ll treat this as my declaration of commitment: during this year in France, I shall write the first draft of Muse of Shadows, a YA Gothic fantasy about a group of young authors from diverse times and places who must come together and learn to harness their creative powers to overcome a foe as old as myth. I’ll post more about it soon, and once the writing begins in earnest, I’ll post some samples through MessyMorphosis (though not on the public blog – more incentive to subscribe!).
I hope there are some cheerleaders among you. Wish me luck!