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Terrible Tips Tuesday: The Writing Bucket List

May 3, 2010

I’ve never watched the movie “The Bucket List,” but I did read some reviews of it.  Basically it’s about two old guys with cancer (Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson) who make a list of all the things they want to do before they kick the bucket–hence the title.  And supposedly hilarity ensues as they go about doing things on the list.

In early 2008 I invoked my own writing version of the Bucket List.  Not because I had cancer or was planning to die, so much as I had a bout of writer’s malaise.  That’s different than writer’s block, where you can’t think of anything to write.  My problem was that in June 2007 I just hit a wall and lost the will to write.  I had things to write about –I was actually working on one at the time–but I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore.  After about twenty years of writing and frustration, I suppose that was only natural.

For about five months I was retired from writing.  I wrote one final short story, and then quit entirely.  I read a number of Great Books and some not so great.  I watched some TV and so forth.  Finally I got bored and decided to work on a sci-fi story that wasn’t very good.  (The first part was fun because I just made a bunch of shit up but then it kind of tailed off.)  It didn’t really whet my appetite for writing anything else either.

Ultimately it wasn’t until that winter that the Bucket List thought started growing in my mind.  The way I thought about it was, “What do you really WANT to write?”  Not, “What do you think you could sell?” or “What do you think would be popular?”  No, the question was, “What do I want to write?”

And the answer came to me that I really wanted to write a John Irving-style novel like The Cider House Rules or The World According to Garp.  Something that was a good story but also socially relevant.  I’d tried it before with this. And also this.  And a lesser extent with this.  None of them ever really worked out.

In the end, the issue of gay marriage was one I realized was socially relevant and something that bugged me every time I saw a news story on it and it was something I could write about without preaching.  That, in short, was the genesis for my novel Where You Belong.  When I finished it, that was one thing checked off my writing Bucket List.

There is another item on my Bucket List that’s been on it even longer.  Really it’s been on there since we watched Man of la Mancha in Spanish class in 8th Grade.  It occurred to me then that it’d be neat to do a Don Quixote-type story only set it in the modern day with a guy who thinks he’s a superhero instead of a knight errand.  I wrote a version of it, but that was a long time ago and it has not survived.  As I recall it was about a crazy comic book fan who decides that he’s some kind of superhero vigilante.

Then back in 2002 I was going to try it again.  Only this time instead of a crazy comic book fan it was supposed to be the star of an old superhero TV show thinks he’s the character and goes out to fight crime.  Sort of like if Adam West decided he really was Batman and put on the old Batsuit to go out and beat up criminals.  But as I got writing about the TV show I decided to write an entirely different story about how the show came about, which I called The Leading Men.

Then in 2006 I actually read the book Don Quixote and decided to get back to the idea I was going to write four years earlier.  I decided on a darker story where the old guy isn’t some wacky, madcap adventurer but a freaking loon who sows havoc wherever he goes.  The problem I had is that I compressed the time frame down to pretty much one night because it seemed to me much longer than that and he’d be found out.  This didn’t leave me with much material, so that the final story ended up as a novella of about 55,000 words called The Naked World.  (You can buy a Kindle version of it.)

I still don’t feel like I can cross this one off my Bucket List.  At some point maybe I’ll try again, but I’m not sure I’m the right person to write this story since I’m not much of a satirist.  That will actually be the topic of Thursday’s entry.

There’s at least one other item on my Bucket List that I haven’t really done much with.  At some point when I’m bored or hitting another wall, maybe I’ll try my hand at that one.

The point is that if you ever get in that position where you aren’t feeling like writing, maybe it’s time to consider your writing Bucket List and decide what you really want to do.

As mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, Thursday’s entry is about When Good Ideas Go Bad…

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One Comment
  1. Thanks for the run-down on the genesis of Where You Belong.

    I’m going through a similar experience right now with my fourth novel, where I can’t seem to get the juices flowing.

    I think in the James Atlas bio of Saul Bellow, I read Bellow’s comment about writing a novel, which was something like “a year of floundering around, two years in the groove, and a sprint to the finish.” I’m hoping this applies to me, since I’m close to the one year point in my new book.

    With my novels (such as they are), I’ve always tried to create different characters–a control freak, a corporate weasel, a hapless loser. I think this time my problem may be that I’ve tried to write a character who is outside my comfort zone. Maybe the smart thing to do is an Updike–basically write about the same guy over and over.

    Maybe a children’s book….

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