I spend half my life playing in the imaginary land of ‘what if?’ What if a girl who doesn’t care about her looks suddenly loses all her hair and becomes obsessed with her appearance (The Art of Getting Stared At)? What if a woman who doesn’t trust her intuition must rely on it to save the life of a child (What Lainey Sees)? What if a girl who doesn’t like being the centre of attention must go on stage in front of thousands to have a shot at achieving her wildest dream (Stepping Out)?
‘What if’ is story oxygen. But the phrase is also part of my DNA. I probably came out of the womb crying ‘what if.’ You might say this is catastrophizing. I prefer to think of it as exercising my writing muscles while preparing for all eventualities.
Case in point: while gardening several weeks ago, a small twig (about the size of a paper clip) made its way into my boot. When I discovered it, I tossed it away. Later that night, the bottom of my foot began to hurt. The skin wasn’t punctured, but to be safe I put on some Polysporin before bed. The pain was back the next day, sporadically coming and going, and increasing as night fell. I checked my foot again; there was nothing. The same thing happened on day three: sporadic pain when I walked, especially if I was in bare feet or going uphill. By the end of that day, I’d started my trek through the land of ‘what if?’ What if that twig had minutely punctured the skin releasing some kind of invisible spore that was infecting my blood stream? What if some kind of deadly pathogen was coursing through my veins and heading straight for my heart? Or my head? What if I lingered in a coma and died right before Christmas, thereby ruining future Christmases for my children. Scratch the lingering coma and ruined future holidays. What if had some kind of muscle damage on the bottom of my foot? What if I had to get rid of my treadmill desk? Write sitting down? What if it got so bad that, eventually, I couldn’t walk? What if we had to sell the house because of all the stairs? What if Mr. Petrol Head decided we should move to Mexico and live in one- level hacienda and what if we met a doctor who specialised in treating rare and unusual afflictions and he cured me and what if I wrote the whole thing into a book which was made into a screenplay starring Jamie Lee Curtis Julianne Moore and what if it was nominated for an Academy Award. For the screenplay that I wrote.
I wish I could say this didn’t happen. I really do. I wish I could say that I took an oversized, extra- strength magnifying glass to the bottom of my foot immediately after it began to hurt to see if, perhaps, there was something I’d missed. Because that’s what practical, down-to-earth, clear-thinking adults do (to give myself credit, I would have done it had it been one of my kids). Instead I detoured to ‘what if’ land because that’s where I live most of the time.
I don’t know if it was intuition or my embarrassment at the thought of going to the doctor with an invisible foot boo-boo but on day four I pulled out my grandmother’s old magnifying glass, turned on a spotlight and took an up-close-and-personal look at the bottom of my foot. I discovered a tiny, microscopic, flit-of-a-thing (the size of a child’s eyelash) lodged into the pad of my foot. It was white-blonde, nearly invisible, and had probably been part of the twig before it claimed part of my foot.
Along with claiming several days of my creative ‘what if’ energy.
To give myself credit, the ‘what if’ factor works the other way too. I stumbled down the basement stairs the other day while carrying a basket of dirty laundry. I ended up with a bad sprain. My ‘what if’ litany afterwards was largely one of gratitude: what if I’d broken my ankle? My leg? Hit my head? Blah, blah, coma . . . blah, blah ruined Christmases forever. I was incredibly lucky and I knew it. Mixed in with my gratitude was a trace of self-reproach: that basket was too full and too heavy and you knew it.
I find it interesting that it’s my right foot that’s badly sprained – the same one that had the boo-boo that could have totally ruined my life. Symbolic, don’t you think? So I won’t be visiting the land of ‘what if’ for a while. I’m taking a side trip to the town of ‘making meaning out of the mundane.’
Because writers are good meaning makers.