Good, bad, what if?

I am always asking, “What if?”

What if I turn this story in a series of flash pieces? What if I apply to this job at a different library? What if I write an essay about every library I’ve used? What if I put my hair into dreadlocks? What if I just dye it purple? What if I actually get invited to one of the residency/fellowship programs I’m applying to? What if I have to choose between my job and a fellowship?

Some of the answers are easy: It would probably be cool. I might not even get an interview, and I might not like the new library as much as my current library. I need a way to simplify and unify that idea. It would probably look awesome. Ditto. I will go, of course—why would I apply if I didn’t intend to go? I will choose the residency, because I love my job but writing is the thing I want to do with my life.

Other answers aren’t so easy, or I don’t want to think about them: What if my husband died? What if my dog got hit by a car? What if I lost my job? What if we lost our health insurance? What if our house catches on fire while we’re not home? What if I never finish this damn book? Or that other damn book?

Asking, “What if?” has gotten me where I am today. I’ve asked myself, “What if I stop pretending I want to do anything other than write? What if I actually send my stories out to literary magazines? What if I just tell this person I might be in love with him? What if I only read books I want to read and not ones I think I should read?”

Answers: I will write, and the rest will fall into place. Some of them will be published. We get married. I will be happier and more relaxed.

But “What if?” also gets me into trouble. What if, what if, what if. I spin things around in my mind until they careen off the axis and crash into each other and send shrapnel into every part of my body. At least that’s how it feels.

I’m a fiction writer. “What if?” is an integral part of my creative process. But I’m also a human who gets scared and lonely and tired and depressed sometimes, and “What if?” can grow into a nightmare.

At these times I ask myself one more “What if?” question. What if I only think things that are good and necessary—not avoiding hard questions or big problems like misogyny, just thoughts that don’t further growth or joy, or both.

Helpful thought: “Misogyny sucks, but I have to address it. What can I do?”

Unproductive thought: “We will never be rid of racism, sexism, colonialism, any of the -isms.”

Again: What if I only think things that are good and necessary?

The question provides its own answer.


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