I want to write a novel about her.
The woman on that waterfall, probably in her fifties when the photograph was taken, was my father’s mother, and I have a great deal to say about her. Far more than enough to fill the pages of a novel. The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that I just can’t seem to muster the–whatever we should call the Whatever-It-Is that is absolutely necessary if you intend to write a novel. You need it up front, long before you begin. You need it months before you touch a pen or a keyboard, weeks before anything other than notes–anything resembling a sentence–appears.
I have experienced it as a cluster of physical sensations and behaviors that I never recognize for what they are: my breath catches in my throat; I smile spontaneously at people I don’t know; I cry midway through hilariously funny movies, and I laugh so inappropriately, and so loud, that I am often asked to leave public places; I have ideas. Oh, my goodness, I have ideas. Thoughts almost literally spill from my mind, too fast for me to catch them. I am alive with ideas, some of which might belong in a novel about a grandmother climbing down a small waterfall, others clearly never will. On long walks around my neighborhood I imagine wonderful new ways to prepare salmon, and I am stunned when I hear myself speaking aloud a lovely sentence that contains a semi-colon–used correctly.
Slowly, this first rush settles. I am disappointed to lose it but by this time have begun to understand what it is. It is my grandmother’s novel.
She has always fascinated me. A schoolgirl, a bride, a mother, and a schoolteacher–all before I knew her–too many of her stories have come to me only second-hand and, as a result, only piecemeal.
And, although I have, perversely, been able to make notes, to write whole sentences, to outline something resembling a plan, I have neither grinned at a stranger nor wept at “The In-Laws.” There is no novel calling to me.
I think back to the past year or so of writing and, after the most recent novel, I filled in the time by pulling chapters from the novels or by combining old blog posts and confidently sending off short stories and essays to literary competitions. This activity allowed me to hide from the fact that I was not writing a novel.
I have run out of familiar choices. Two of my fellow-writers have thrown down the gauntlet, accompanied by a rolling of the eyes that no novelist could ever describe as subtle. “Why don’t you just write a short story?”
Why, indeed, don’t I just write a short story?