Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Writer's What-If

Sometimes I think I’m more interested in the hypothetical than in reality.

Case in point: when I was a child, I went through a phase during which I mowed through reams of grid paper, drawing up blueprint after blueprint. I can still vaguely recollect designing an elaborate building intended to be a residential summer camp for children. There was also a fantastic artist’s loft, a multi-storey mansion complete with secret passages, and a weirdly pragmatic office building. I loved creating the designs, but I never felt the urge to bring them to life. The dream of a career in architecture or interior design did not grip me. I just enjoyed looking at how spaces might work and ruminating on how people would exist – together or individually – in the environments I’d thought up.

When I was very young, I also did something that I am told is painfully common in girls: I dreamed up designs for wedding dresses. Of course, I grew up and got one of my own (it was lovely), but I found that my manic single-minded attention to the planning of this event in my life was motivated by a strange sense of obligation rather than any true interest on my part. When I get stressed out, I tend to deliver monologues to any unfortunate person who makes the mistake of asking me how I am. In retrospect, I believe that it was this quirk that was responsible for most of my Bridezilla moments.

Whether that’s true or not, one thing is certain: when I now read a romance that culminates in a wedding, I am profoundly uninterested in the event itself. I wonder if, perhaps, my husband and I had slipped off to the Justice of the Peace instead and kept the idea of a traditional wedding lodged in my head as a purely hypothetical experience, would I still be interested in reading fictional versions? All I can say is that I was not always so uninterested in depictions of the “big day” as I am now.

So I’m sitting here pondering this (hypothetical) insight into myself, and it occurs to me that this may explain my choice in professions. As a novelist, I can create environments, worlds, people, families, scenarios, employment situations, friendships – whatever I like, without any commitment. I can roll around in an ocean of What-Ifs to my heart’s content. And when I’m done playing in one sandbox, I can walk away and go create another.

Consider the phenomenon that is fiction writing. Generally, the process begins with a What-If that has niggled its way into the author’s brain like a badger. What if there was a door to another world in the back of a wardrobe? What if a boy discovered he was really a wizard? What if a governess fell in love with her employer, only to discover his mad wife was locked in the attic? What if there was a chocolate factory that really was as magical inside as any child could possibly imagine it?

Once the question has been asked, the author begins construction. This part of the process can take many forms. Some writers prefer outlines and character sketches and copious background research. Others prefer starting at the beginning and then stopping once they’ve reached the end. Some even start in the middle and work in bits and bobs until the whole is gradually fused together. It doesn’t matter much how this step is accomplished, since the end product is the same.

There are buildings and towns and planets that didn’t exist before. There are people with families, friends, loves, hates, pets, and pet peeves who have been hypothesized into existence. A world is created, designed, populated, and observed – and then the novelist presents his or her grand What-If, complete with all the trappings of a fully indulged imagination, to the reader.

I wonder if this means that the novelist by definition must then be the sort of person who cannot commit to one particular lifetime – the sort of person who feels compelled to try out all the possibilities without ever settling down to one path. Instead of living these possibilities, bouncing around their real lives aimlessly until they are introducing themselves at parties as magician-physicist-pilot-archeologists and living in their mothers’ basements, they can allow these wild conjectures to come to life through their writing alone. So many authors have day jobs – I suspect that coworkers might be surprised to learn that quiet, helpful Mary in Accounting goes home and writes BDSM vampire novels in her free time, or that George in Shipping has a healthy fan base for his epic sci-fi alien war games series.

Would Stephen King actually like to live one of his novels? Doubtful. He strikes me as the sort of rational person who appreciates the merits of not being slashed to ribbons. He is simply indulging, developing, and sharing his What-Ifs with the rest of the world. The reality is not necessary (thank goodness).

Perhaps fiction writers are gypsies in a world of possibilities and What-Ifs. Novelists must have talent, determination, and passion for their work in order to successfully bring those possibilities to life through pen and paper.

The most critical element by far is that they must enjoy the journey.

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