Monday, October 7, 2013

Capturing the Alps: how to know which story to tell

In my creative writing class, a student recently asked me, "How do I know which story I should write?" It was a beautifully sincere question, and a question, I assured her, that writers have been asking for millenia. 

"What story should I tell tonight?" the doting grandpa asks his grandchildren.

"The one about the pig!" one child shouts.

"The one with the kangaroo in the barn!" another suggests.

"The one where grandma burned the pie!" a third volunteers.

Grandpa has to make a choice. What started as a simple moment of entertainment just got complicated. 

I keep on my phone a running list of story ideas. Currently I have 58 story ideas on my list--and those are only the ones I've written down. Will I write all 58 of those stories? If I answer yes, I better quit blogging and get to work. But the more obvious answer is: no. I will write maybe 3 or 4 (maybe more, if I'm insanely productive) of those stories from my current list. 

But, as my student asked, how do you decide which story is THE story to tell?

I liken this decision-making process to an experience I had several years ago when I was in the south of Germany. One day we went for a drive along winding, hilly roads until, quite suddenly (or so gradually we were unaware of the change), we were surrounded on all sides by the Alps. 

The Alps are of such magnificence that they surpass articulation. No camera can capture and no words adequately describe their grandeur. I nearly drove the car off the road several times because my eyes refused to move away from the peaks, the view was that enthralling. Finally I pulled the car onto the gravelly shoulder, got out, and stood, mouth agape and nearly panting in my awe-struck stupor, staring at the scenery surrounding me. 

And that is how you choose which story is THE story.

It should always be the story that keeps drawing your eye. The story that enthralls you, moves you, captivates you. The story that makes you stop, get out, and stare.

If the Alps becomes our standard for story selection, the greater challenge then comes, not in choosing which story to write, but in doing justice to the story that you have chosen. Every story I've finished, along with the elation and the sense of accomplishment, comes with a sense of disappointment that I had, in a strange way, failed the story that began in its abstract world of perfection and ended in the concrete world of my limitation.

But we never give up trying to capture. We are all, by nature, story tellers. It comes as easily as humming a tune or thinking in color. Yet you cannot write the story you think some perceived audience or market wants to read. You write the story from which your eye can't look away and which steals your breath, the story that vibrates the artist-chord within you. And you write it with tenacity, using all the power of your creative capabilities, because that's what it's gonna take to capture those Alps. And rest assured, the view is always worth the effort.


  1. What an apt word picture! I agree with you, Anna. Capturing the Alps is hard, but the effort always shows up in the artist's work.
    (I would SO love to see the Alps someday.)

    1. Thanks, Danni - I've always been more of a mountain girl rather than, oh, I don't know, a beach girl. And what mountains these are! Definitely something for the bucket list.


Please, say hi and tell me your thoughts. I'd love to hear from you!