I spend a lot of time with my “what if”s.
They say you’re not supposed to do that – the past is in the past, you can only change the future in the present, blah blah blah. But I can’t help it. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and haven’t, I guess, lived long enough to see all the good that’s supposed to come out of them.
This is why I write.
Well, it’s not the only reason. I write because it fills me up; because it’s the only way I really know how to lift other people up when they’re feeling down. But it also helps me cope with all the things in my life I don’t have the power to change (because, as in control of your life as you might be, there are always going to be things you have no power over).
It explains why I prefer writing young adult fiction, probably. I would do all four years of high school over, if I could. I can’t – and I’ve mostly dealt with that. But writing allows me to travel back to that time and let my imagination sprint into action.
What if I wouldn’t have …
What if I could have …
Wow. I should have done …
As writers, we have the power to guide our characters through any and all situations, good and bad. We don’t always have complete control over how they behave – they have minds of their own and become rebellious teenagers fairly quickly, as you know – but we decide the circumstances they must experience, and how they are affected by them. How they are changed by them.
Doing this reminds us that we don’t know the whole story. We go through it with our characters, laughing with them, crying with them, all the time knowing the ending – that everything is going to work out the way it is supposed to. Whether it’s the way that character imagines it or not.
We don’t know the endings to our own stories. We can’t see how every little thing that doesn’t go our way is actually exactly how all the plot points fit together. We think in “if only”s because we can’t flip to that final page to reassure ourselves it’s all going to be okay – not in real life, at least.
Many people treat writing as an escape. I like to think of it as a very twisted form of therapy. It helps me see my world differently – it helps me look less at myself and my actually pretty small problems and more at the big picture, at least what I can hope it turns out to look like.
If only I’d done this … well, I didn’t, and I can’t go back. But Meredith can make a choice different than the one I made in my own life – maybe it will work out better for her. Maybe it won’t. I get to sit down and figure that out. It doesn’t change where my life stands now. But it makes me feel better.
I don’t think it’s possible to stop asking, “what if?” You’re always going to wonder how things might have been. As a writer, you can explore every single alternate universe at your leisure. That’s power. That makes writing fun. That makes all this hard work seem simple, and worthwhile.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.