Transforming Muse Roulette

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

It’s always been writing. Before I could read, I scribbled doodle-hieroglyphic stories onto rolls of adding-machine paper my father smuggled home from the office. Before I could write, I dictated my own rendition of The Hobbit to my (very patient) mother. My first printed stories were looseleaf-length Encyclopedia Brown-style mysteries. I commandeered the Daisy Wheel printer/typewriter to create pioneering Doctor Who fanfic. Then in high school it was more sci-fi and fantasy, then poetry, then plays. For most of 25 years, it’s been plays, with very rare forays into arts journalism or role-playing game design. Plays, plays, plays.

Why not plays? In high school, writing plays meant directing plays, which meant rehearsal time with cute actresses. They were also just plain easier, or maybe had a more efficient payoff, than anything that involved publishing. I assumed I’d get around to writing a novel eventually—I actually completed a draft, back in high school, but otherwise it’s been false starts and abandoned outlines all the way because, as I said, it’s faster and more rewarding to write plays.

Or is it? Rewarding. I get to admire my handful of awards, and wax nostalgic over countless posters, programs, and archival DVDs. I even had a few plays published, though that was never the point. What was the point? Certainly not money. Surely all artists know the restlessness, the inability to rest on one’s laurels, whatever they may be. I only find each play rewarding so long as it’s my focus, but by the time it hits the boards I’m inevitably on to the next one. It’s not a boast, it’s a curse; I’m habitually unable to settle because I don’t feel like I’m worth much unless I’m always already writing the next big thing.

(These posts help a lot with this neurosis, by the way—like little rides on the carousel while I’m waiting in line for the rollercoaster—so thanks, dear readers, for keeping me slightly saner.)

When I think about writing in Lille this upcoming year, I freeze. I don’t know enough about my situation there yet; we have an apartment confirmed, but I don’t know what sort of workspace I’ll have, or how much “free time” whatever that means. So, for those and other reasons, I’ve held off committing to any single big project. But that’s not to say I haven’t thought—a LOT—about what masterpiece(s) could be born of 10 months in France.

That’s 10 months of sabbatical—technically Sheila’s sabbatical, but for me, it still means 10 months free from teaching, directing, dramaturgy, grant ghostwriting—everything that’s part of my jury-rigged freelancing career but isn’t creative writing. And it’s France! 10 months in a new country, bursting with inspiration.

10 months with no one else’s expectations but my own. Jesus. That’s a lot of pressure.

My first, almost default, thought in any “fresh-start” situation is: back to novels. I keep coming back to it, but the format has an ugly muse for me. When I sit down to plan, it summons the shades of all my former attempts from the Graveyard of Mediocrity and waves them in my face. To compensate, I keep lowering the bar for myself: “Fine, maybe I’ll never finish that GG-winning literary opus, but I bet I can write high fantasy.” Then, five years later: “Fine. World-building is boring to read anyway. YA is the way to go. They’ll publish anything.” And that’s a rotten attitude to start with, especially since I know there’s lots of good YA writing out there, and who’s to say I couldn’t write something that ranked with the best?

If I could resolve to work exclusively upon a book for 10 months, would I come home with a robust first draft, or with 10 new false-starts to add to my graveyard?

Another option involves sticking to the format I know, but doubling down: write a really ambitious play, something I wouldn’t have the time or focus to create at home. And, since I’m away from my theatre community, maybe I wouldn’t feel immediately compromised by practical considerations (again, these are personal, muse-based compromises; everyone in Sydney is wonderful). Freed from constraints, would I come home with my own Angels in America?

I actually applied to Arts Nova Scotia for some subsistence funding to write a new play—not Angels in Canada (nor Angles in France), but a promenade-theatre script along the lines of Punchdrunk Theatre’s big, immersive projects; sadly, they turned down the project. Ç’est la vie, but now, if I still like the idea, it’s up to me to motivate myself—no deadlines, no money on the hook.

And money is always at the back of my mind when I’m playing phone tag with all my different muses. Money is the main reason I keep coming back to Genre Number Three: platform-based erotica. That’s not stories about sex on diving boards; it’s just smutty short fiction you can download on your phone or tablet, so that no one on the bus knows you’re into werewolf porn. According to some sources, it’s possible to make a living on the stuff, if you’re prolific and marketing-savvy. And maybe publishing everything I write in France under a pseudonym would relieve some of this pressure?

Option Number Four is, in many ways, the scariest: don’t write. Sabbatical literally means “ceasing.” If I consciously resolve not to start any major projects, I’ll come back from France relaxed, energized, and bursting with ideas. In theory. In practice, it likely means 10 more posts of this same angsty introspection. I can already predict, when I put it to a vote, that no one’s going to vote for that.

But there are worse fates. I’ll get angsty regardless, whether I’m writing or not. Somewhere along the line—or else right from the adding-machine doodle-stories—writing has become grafted to my sense of self-worth. It would be nice to feel good about myself for 10 months while living in France, for pete’s sake. I just hope the muses get their ducks in a row.


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