Our lives almost never go the way we plan. Things very rarely turn out exactly the way we imagined they would. In the end, everything usually turns out fine and we’re happy with the eventual turnout. But unmet expectations breed disappointment.
We really wanted that house. That promotion. That second chance.
It’s completely normal to bond with our “what ifs.” But only for a short time, I’m told.
They say you’re not supposed to spend the rest of your life imagining what “might have happened.” It can start to mess with your head, if you’re not careful. When you allow yourself only to exist in an alternate reality that will never come to be, you sort of forget how to exist in this reality. And that’s not good.
However, there may be a way to imagine how your life may have turned out differently and how that different timeline may have impacted you. And that’s through storytelling.
I once wrote an entire book telling the story of what “might have happened” if a certain part of my life had gone a different way. Looking back on it now, I realize I really needed to write that story. It helped me cope with my new reality. It eventually helped me come to terms with the fact that my life had already changed the way I hadn’t wanted it to and there was nothing I could do to undo that truth.
Was I deeply affected by what had and hadn’t happened? Of course I was. I’m only human. Of course I allowed myself time to grieve in the only way I knew how — by creating a virtual Minecraft paradise complete with a tree house village and proceeding to burn down the entire thing “accidentally.” (Hey, as long as it’s not hurting anyone, you cope the way you need to cope.)
But it could have gone on and on for weeks, even months or years. I could have continued to feel plagued by darkness and trapped in an endless loop of wanting to remember and begging my brain to forget. But I didn’t. Because I sat down shortly after burning down that virtual forest and I started writing a book.
Both of these mechanisms for processing the emotions associated with grief — fire that can’t actually hurt anyone and a fictional story — would be considered healthy ways to deal, I suppose. But the book ended up serving as the long-term solution to my problem.
I couldn’t stop asking myself “what if.” I couldn’t stop wondering about it, couldn’t get the various possibilities out of my mind. So I picked one and wrote a story about it. I no longer had to imagine what might have happened, because I’d already done that. I’d created an alternate reality right there on those pages. It wasn’t true, it would never happen for real. But in my mind, it had happened somewhere to someone else. And that’s how I got through it.
Instead of letting our “what ifs” poison us and drag us down, maybe we’d be much better off using them for good. Some of the greatest stories ever written start out as ideas born of tragedy. Not all of them — not everyone’s stories are as dark as mine and yes, I do often envy them for this.
People who transform their pain into art are much more likely to be able to move beyond the darkest points in their lives and emerge from the lowest valleys stronger and brighter than they were before.
Various events in our lives change us, and leave us wondering what “might have happened.” We can use that to our advantage. If you possess the untamable urge to tell stories, then this will almost be an instinctive response to the things that happen to you in the real world.
That’s not a bad thing. Just because you tell fictional stories does not mean you’re incapable of tuning in to reality. In fact, having the luxury of being able to escape to a different reality, even temporarily, may benefit you in the long-term more than anyone else might realize.
It’s like a superpower, almost. Being able to see things that never happened. Then being able to return to the present and accepting those things as the fictional stories they are.
Don’t let your “what ifs” go to waste. It may not be healthy to dwell too heavily on them. But you CAN make cool things out of them. Use your imagination for good, as it is meant to be used. Take the experiences in your own life and turn them into stories other people can enjoy. You’ll benefit first and foremost, and hopefully so will they.
Don’t just ask yourself “what if.” Let yourself write about it. Give that story an ending, call it done, and put it away. Take a deep breath. Move on. You’ll be glad you did.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.