Since becoming a writer, many have asked me the source of my inspiration, what it is that compels me to write. The answer is always different, depending on my mood, what’s foremost in my mind that day, or what is currently inspiring me. Though the answers are almost always different, they are all true. If I had to pin point the reason I write to just one thing, just one impetus that moves my fingers, I’d have to say it’s the ‘what ifs’.
When I was a child, what ifs got me into trouble with daddy. He would tell me to do something a certain way, and I’d asked, “What if I did it this way instead?”
I mean, I didn’t think it; I would actually ask him. That never went well. Daddy didn’t like it when you didn’t blindly listen to him. He had told me a story once, when I was about nine years old, that didn’t really hit me and make sense until I was much older. He said that he used to, after he married my mother, go to his father to ask for advice. One day, his father told him he wasn’t going to give him anymore advice. My father asked him why, and Papa said, “You come and ask me what to do, then you go and do whatever you damn well please. I’m tired of wasting my breath on you.”
When my father had told me this story, at nine years old, all I can remember is thinking, “Daddy is tired of me and feels like he’s wasting his breath just talking to me.”
While this might very well have been true, considering the relationship my father and I have and had, it wasn’t at all what he was trying to teach me.
This reminds me of a time my mother told me she had become accustomed to using the phrases, “I’m sick and tired of you leaving your shoes on the floor. I’m sick and tired of you not cleaning up after yourself. I’m sick and tired of you always spilling things.”
She tells me that, at about four years of age, and after having said this to me, I put my hands on my hips and screamed, “Well, I’m sick and tired of you too!”
She realized, says she, that all I had heard of anything she’d been saying was that she was sick and tired of me.
I think these two examples make it clear that parents should be careful what they say to their children. Fragile egos and developing psyches hear only what they think you mean and not what you really say. These words from my parents, though I’m older and hopefully wiser and I understand them from a different perspective now, still sting me now and again.
So that right there is a big what if. What if my parents had carefully guarded their words so I didn’t misunderstand? What if I had grown up with love and affection and understanding?
What if we had been poor in pocket but rich in heart and not the other way around?
That’s how I started writing. I would take something about my life that I didn’t like and ask myself, “What if it were different?” Then I would write the difference, tell the story the way I wanted it to be, wished it could have been. For some kids it’s daydreaming; for me it was writing.
Later on in my life, as a teenager and young adult, I started a whole new type of ‘what if’ writing. This time, instead of writing about what things would be like if they were better, I started obsessing about what if things were worse. “What if daddy had killed me instead of just hitting me? What if the house had burned down instead of just the toast burning? What if my sister had died in that car accident, instead of just totaling the car?”
These types of what ifs would come back to haunt me later in my life.
As adults, I think many of us live with the what ifs of our lives.
- What if I had taken that job?
- What if I hadn’t married him? What if I had?
- What if I stepped off this curb in front of oncoming traffic?
- What if that driver hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of that car after drinking?
- What if I hadn’t gotten pregnant?
- What if I had only said no?
- What if…
We hold these what ifs inside us and they shape us, subtlety or completely, making us into who we are, and not always for the worse, but not always for the better. There’s not one person alive who can say they have absolutely zero regrets, no matter how small they might be: What if I had gotten a grape soda instead of an orange one? Or how big they might be: What if I hadn’t cheated on her?
Because the what ifs of life are so significant in shaping our behavior as human beings, I learned very early on in my life that understanding why what ifs shape us and how we respond to them or carry them with us is important to understanding human behavior. When we reach a point of decision, we have multiple paths in front of us to walk. When we step forward, the choice made, all the other paths disappear until the next point of decision.
As my writing matured into adulthood, I still wrote the ‘what ifs’ that came to me into my storylines, but they were no longer the what ifs of my own life. I had moved beyond the need to tell only my story, realizing that a good story, the best story, is universal. When I write fiction now, I write it from the perspective of standing at that crossroads with a decision to make, the character steps forward and walks down one path, and I write that path. The next time I pick up a novel to write, I come back to that crossroads and walk down a different path.
As I come to terms with my own what if in life, I find I am much better able to write about other people, because I’m not entangled with my own limited perspective. Only when I am willing to explore all the what ifs without my own personal hang-ups can I write about things effectively. If I’m afraid to travel down a particular what if path, I limit choices.
Trust me, it’s much easier to play the what if game before you take that first step down the path than to play after you’ve come to the end of that path. This I know all too well.
So I’ve learned to play what ifs with my own life and the lives of the people I write, and I am now comfortable and even sometimes comforted by my ability to look at the what ifs in life, touch them, turn them around, examine them, caress them, embrace them, and then set them aside, instead of having to carry them around as so much baggage with me everywhere I go.
I’m glad I’m able to do that.
There are days, though, when I still sit and wonder what I would be doing if I were not a writer. That is one what if I simply can’t fathom.