Last month, the new Broadway musical If/Then came to San Francisco, and one Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I took the BART train into the city to see it. Legendary vocal powerhouse Idina Menzel is the star of the show, which in itself was enough to convince us to buy tickets—but I was also intrigued by the premise of the story.
The central question that winds its way throughout the entirety of If/Then is “What if…?” The musical explores the two divergent paths a woman’s life might take based on a single decision made at the show’s beginning: whether she goes to a concert with one friend, or to a political demonstration with a different friend. It might seem like a small decision, and yet the two paths veering off from this one everyday, spur-of-the-moment choice lead her in altogether different life directions.
In real life, of course, we have of way of knowing “what if…?” We make our choices, and life takes us where it will. We deal with the consequences of our actions, large and small, the good and the bad.
However, this question of “what if…?” is something that drives me as a writer. Numerous story ideas have been sparked to life when I observe something in the world around me and ask myself, “What if..?” Another version of this question is, “What would it be like to be that person, to go through that experience, to feel those emotions, to live that life?” Asking the question, “What if…?” unlocks our imaginations, and thus also fuels our empathy and understanding for others. And that, I believe, is the central purpose of reading, writing, and creating art: fostering empathy and connection among human beings past, present and future.
By asking, “What if…?” you can also spur your creativity by challenging yourself to stretch as a writer and try something new. For example, asking myself, “What if I tried telling a story in reverse chronology, from the end to the beginning?” sparked an idea for the unique braided-narrative structure of my latest novel.
In the beautiful and thought-provoking book a picture is worth... (Arch Street Press) young people tell their own stories in their own words. Woven into their narratives is the implicit question, "What if...?" Their futures are wide-open roads brimming with possibility. You can feel the energy behind this "What if?" question when reading this book. As the young writers reflect insightfully and powerfully on their past experiences, we can't help but wonder -- with hope and excitement -- what is next for each of these brave, strong young people.
I loved this chapter epigraph midway through the book, a quote by Paulo Freire:
"For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other."In other words: "What if...?" Let us all continue to ask and dream and create with this question guiding us through our imaginative lives.