Choosing the Story

There’s always this moment after I finish a creative project when I feel lost. It doesn’t matter if it was a short story, a video, a novel. It’s like I’ve just pushed a boulder up a hill, and set it free to careen down the other side. I’m in this great, high place, feeling the wind in my hair and the sun on my forehead. I could relax.

But I like pushing boulders up hills so I start looking back at that jumbled pile below me, and get kind of lost trying to pick out which one will be next.

It didn’t used to feel like such a big deal. Pick a story, any story! But one thing that writing stories teaches you is that they take time. One of those little 10-minute lake videos takes dozens of hours to put together. A flash story can consume days, a longer story weeks. And a novel? Don’t even ask. I’m not the sort to toss down 50,000 words in a couple of months. My last novel (107,000 words, after some serious cutting) took two years for the rough draft, and then there’s the rewrites and rewrites and polish.

Launching into any story is a commitment. Beginning a novel-length project means choosing what world to I want to live in, to give most of my energy to, for the next two years, at least.

So which boulder is next? I have to clear the deck with a few more lake ecology videos. And, dang, there are a lot of short stories nibbling on my shoulders. But which novel comes next? I’m only looking at the stories from my family’s past, here, yet there are a lot to choose from.

The question isn’t just which one is most interesting. It’s also which one am I skilled enough to take on? One quarter of my family comes from Alabama, and if I had those stories written well they would be so appropriate in this moment. But am I ready, for instance, to write a novel about my 3x great grandfather and the path that led him to owning slaves? Maybe not quite yet. Nor the story about my 3x great grandmother who led the caravan from South Carolina to Alabama in 1819, just her, her five children, an overseer and his family, and 300 slaves.

Those stories need to be told, and told well. So maybe I work up to it. Quickly. That is a big pile of boulders.

I decided to look closer to home (Seattle) and closer to the present (1910’s) and to people I knew (my grandmother) for my next big project. It’s a love story, a coming-of-age story, set in 1915-1920, full of fraught father-daughter relationships, and travel, and a young woman demanding freedom and independence, and then being forced to grow up enough to handle it.

Okay! Bring it on.