It is such an honor for me to host Sharon Mentyka. I first met Sharon through the (sadly now-defunct) Whidbey Island Writers MFA program. Her first book was B in the World, a sweet story of a gender non-conforming child; her newest is Chasing at the Surface (WestWinds Press), just out last week. Welcome, Sharon!
What is it, exactly, that makes a story one that needs to be told? You know that one I mean, the one that keeps poking its head up to the top of the story-heap. Now, I’m a pretty good at multitasking, and grateful I can keep more than one story going simultaneous. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’d never wind up with much to my published name. I have folders full of stories—all printed out, labeled and filed—and more still almost-finished ones on my laptop. But they’re drafts, all of them. Each and every one will require a commitment of time and energy to bring it to a place where it’s ready to share with the world. So which ones get the attention?
My debut middle grade novel, Chasing at the Surface, just out this month from WestWinds Press, is a good example. Chasing at the Surface tells the story of a 12-year old girl whose mother leaves home unexpectedly just as a pod of whales become trapped in an inlet near her home in the Pacific Northwest. It’s story of trust, forgiveness and the complicated meaning of family and home.
Its genesis goes back to when I’d just enrolled in an MFA program at the Whidbey Writers Workshop. In the early years, the program held its 10-day residencies at Camp Casey, an old fort just outside the little town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington that rents space to community groups. Think soldiers’ quarters with expansive views of Puget Sound. Like me, most of the students in our program had day jobs and families. We carved out our writing time by rising at 5:00 am to complete assignments before heading out to the workaday world. Our semi-annual 10-day residencies gave us the gift of precious, uninterrupted time to focus on our writing. With a fabulous faculty—that, at the time, included Kirby Larson!—we felt sharp and smart and we pulled mightily for each other.
Waking up at Camp Casey meant visiting with the deer, the birds and the whales. The camp sits right on the bluffs, so with time and patience, there’s a good chance you might spot a pod frolicking out in the strait, in spite of the fact that a nearby air base frequently has their pilots out practicing landing and takeoff maneuvers. But there they were, visiting during our writing residencies. It was magical. The experience set the foundation for Chasing at the Surface, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
But like any story, graduate school ended. And transitions, as writers know, are always one of the hardest parts to smooth out. There comes the inevitable moment when you need to decide what story to tackle next. I’m a seasoned enough writer now to know that committing to working on a new story is like deciding to move-in with a boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve been dating. Sure, you’ve spent overnights at their place or yours, but moving in together is a whole different ballgame. It means getting used to their morning habits, sharing the laundry basket (not to mention laundry duty) and discovering all sorts of reasons why maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Sure, you love them, you really do. You’ve already invested a lot of time in the relationship. You want to make it all work, but what if you discover something beyond your wildest imagination, some quirk you never dreamed they would possess? How committed are you?
So here are a few questions to think about when selecting that next new piece of writing—or any creative project for that matter. Because you’ll likely be spending more time with that anyone for the next year or two, with the possible exception of your pet. Ask yourself—why you are writing this particular story? What’s its value to you, and what’s its potential value to your readers? You’d better have more than one or two flimsy answers for this one because it’s going to take a lot of blood, sweat, tears and time to bring to life. Push aside any reasons that the story you’re thinking of is part of a trend or has some potential to move your reputation to a higher level or category. These are not reasons to write any story. Ask yourself if you’ll be able to write on your own timeline, in your own way. Or if you decide to pass, will you feel regret if you never complete it? Because in the end, the only real reason I can see for picking your next project is that the whales are calling to you. And you just can’t tell them no.
Sharon Mentyka is a writer, designer and educator with an MFA from the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Her stories and essays, for both children and adults, have appeared in numerous literary magazines including ColumbiaKids, Cricket and Soundings Review. B IN THE WORLD, an illustrated children’s chapter book about a gender non-conforming child was published in 2014. CHASING AT THE SURFACE, her debut middle grade novel inspired by a 30-day visit of orca whales to an enclosed inlet in the Pacific Northwest, is out this month from WestWinds Press. An active member of SCBWI-Western Washington and a contributor to the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign, Sharon also tutors and teaches writing workshops to middle and high school students.