Saturday, March 8, 2014

What If

Fiction writers are “what-iffers." What if the hero falls into a pit of despair. What if he falls in love? What if he falls and breaks a leg? You come to a place in a story where you're stuck about what should happen next and the what-iffing begins. When a story is boring, it’s usually because there hasn't been enough what-iffing.

So also a life. When you don't know how to get out of a rut, that's the time for some what-iffing. What if I go somewhere where no one knows me? What if I ask his name? What if I sell everything, grab a backpack and hit the road.

When we’re very young, we have powerful imaginations. I remember a recurring dream in which I could fly. For a long time, I thought maybe I really could. Flying becomes winning at some sport or getting into the college you want, maybe landing a particular job. I'm not saying those aren't good things hope for, but they're a long way from flying. Over time, life coaxes us off that childhood height where we stood with our arms spread to the wind and, as Louise put it to Thelma, we get what we settle for.

Meg (one of my dreams that did come true) particularly likes a bit of writing advice the novelist Tim O’Brien gave her: “Have people behave in extraordinary ways to illuminate ordinary emotions.” When you come down to it, most of what we want is pretty ordinary. How bold we are in pursuing it is what makes the difference.

We are, each of us, the authors of our own stories. When we feel the plot dragging, it may be time step back and ask "what if.” There are reasons to be reticent about taking some daring leap in life—money, time, other commitments—but often as not, if our lives are boring, our biggest failure may be one of imagination.

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