Winning the What If Game

 

Phoenix Zoo, 1973

Daddy, what if the bridge breaks and the alligators eat me? My dad, brother and me at the Phoenix Zoo alligator exhibit, 1973. (Mom stayed on solid land and snapped the picture.)

All throughout my childhood, my parents had a mantra they’d
say to me when I’d get worked up and worried about the future. “Nothing
happens until it does.” It’s ironic, because they worried about things all
the time and still do. It’s sound wisdom, though, and I make a daily effort to
embrace it. It’s especially salient for fiction writers when it comes to the
“life” portion of “the writing life.”

As writers, we love to play the “what if?” game.
We’re relaxing at the coffee shop or waiting in line at the post office or pulling
into the parking lot at the day job. Then it strikes. What if that guy who just
bought a vanilla latte is secretly in love with the barista? What if the woman
in line ahead of me is about to learn she has an incurable disease? What if the
people sitting in that parked car are plotting to overthrow the government?

It’s how good ideas and compelling fiction are born.

We writers get so practiced at playing this game, that it often
invades our writing pursuits in less-fun ways, too. What if I spend years
writing this novel and nobody reads it? What if I pour my heart into this book
and then somebody else publishes one just like it before mine is complete? What
if my writing sucks?

Sure, all those things could happen. Absolutely. Or not. Nothing happens until it does. Don’t let
the fear of failure paralyze you or even slow you down when it comes to chasing
your dreams. Just write. Write the best damn novel or short story or magazine
article or poem or (insert your dream here) that you can. Study the craft.
Enjoy the process. And see what happens when it does.

Start asking yourself more positive questions. What if I
spend years writing this novel and everybody loves it? What if I work hard on
this novel and people say it’s one of a kind? What if my writing shines?

One of my favorite quotes is from prolific
writer and New York Times bestselling
author Laurence Shames. He said, “Success and failure. We think of them as
opposites, but they’re really not. They’re companions.” He’s spot on. Every
day, I write something. Every day, I fail at it. And, every day, I improve as a
writer. I see my shortcomings. I revise my prose. I succeed.

Here’s a “what if” question for you, one you can
print off and pin on your wall. “What if I work hard on this novel and I learn
something important about writing, about myself and about life?”

What if, indeed. 

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8 thoughts on “Winning the What If Game

  1. Hmm. I think I know someone who might have been inspiration for this blog post. ha ha ha. But such great advice: Nothing happens until it does. Wow. I needed this. And, yes, so much to be learned about self – and life – through the writing process.

    Like

  2. A great way to think about the writing life. You’re absolutely right. What if that dialogue I was just thrashing myself over taught me something wonderful to use tomorrow? Thanks for putting a positive spin on my afternoon!

    Like

  3. Bonnie Wilhelm

    I’ve been playing that game too and have paralyzed myself like you said. I guess I had better start “what if” and a positive thought afterward so I can move forward. Good advice and I appreciate it very much.

    Like

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