The Curse of What if?

The curse of “What if?” is a burden writers have to carry throughout their lives. Under normal circumstances it is a condition that can be managed. Indeed it has its positive sides, being, in most cases vital for a writer’s very existence. Without “What if?” books cannot be written; the germ of an idea cannot be expanded.

In “City of Secrets”, my children’s book, set in an alternative Victorian England, Letty’s friends start to go missing. The Runners, the local constabulary, are not interested in the disappearance of street kids, so she asks the question what if a rich child went missing. And so the story begins.

It isn’t always a character who asks the question. More often than not it is the writer themselves. “Picking up the Pieces” began because I wanted to know what would happen to women in their fifties who suddenly lost their only source of income. Where would they find another job? How would they manage? Would this be a story of hope, or one of despair?
“What if?” is a creative tool−a way of looking at things from a different perspective−of freeing, or stimulating the imagination. What if Cinderella wasn’t the good girl of fairy story and the ugly sisters were the ones who were being discriminated against? What the wolf proves to be a wimp and is totally dominated by Red Riding Hood and her grandmother? The possibilities are endless.

There is, however, a downside to “What if?”

As a writer it is easy, if not mandatory, to look at the black side as well as the light and it is here that “What if?” can become a curse.

On a day to day level, it can mean that if a family member hasn’t turned up at the time they said they would, you’ve imagined the car crash and planned the funeral before the text arrives explaining why they are running late.

As the corona virus spreads the scenarios we create grow darker and darker. We face a word, where to survive, we must self-isolate, cut ourselves off from the people we love, while outside our firmly locked doors a plague rages through what’s left of the population, our industries shut down, so do the systems that keep our society going. The shops are empty. There is no more heat, light, the sewage systems have shut down. Only those with strong immune systems and guns can get what they need.

We’ve all read books like this, or watched the same story unfold on TV. The best-selling book in France at the moment is Camus’ “The Plague” and just this morning I found a thread on Facebook about books where a virus decimates the population of the world.

Why we’re doing this when we should be listening to the advice of doctors and scientists and doing common sense things like washing our hands and not touching our faces, I’m not sure, but there must be something in the human psyche that needs to whip up fear and terror.

The trouble with this response is that it is totally counterproductive, as it triggers anxieties and ramps up stress, which are not good for the immune system, especially so at a time when it needs to be working at maximum strength.

Of course, as writers, the answer to keeping sane in a time of plague is to write about it. There’s no better time to self-isolate and given the surge in interest in apocalyptic literature, if you can get a book out about a rampant virus sweeping through the world, you’re sure to have a best-seller on your, very clean, scrubbed for twenty seconds, hands.  


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for this insightful post. What-if is the writing process starter button, for sure. Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating With the Dead" - one of my favorite writer-on-writing books - posits that writers who succeed are those who travel beyond the pale, but manage to return to make some sense of their experiences. But who knows?

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