Einstein famously said that we cannot solve a problem on the level at which it was created. Problems, of course, come in many forms. Writers must contend with writing problems, such as, “How do I get my character from here to there?” In truth, this sort of problem is not a problem at all but the reason we chose to write. Understanding why and how our characters will go from here to there is called writing and is presumably what draws us to our desk every day. But sometimes the answer of why our characters do the things they do is not always so easily found, and this is when another problem arises, a real problem. This is when we might be tempted to think, “I will never know why my characters do what they need to do,” or, “No one will be interested in what these characters do.” There are a thousand variations on this form of grim fortune telling, but all the problems are really the same, and the operative word when trying to solve them is, “think.”
Which brings me back to Einstein. The level on which the problem of “What if?” was created was your brain. Brains can think anything at all. They are marvelously flexible and totally loyal. They cannot, however, predict the future. Asking your brain to predict the future is like asking your five year-old to drive your car.
So you’ve asked “What if?” and now doubt has entered your castle. You cannot argue with this doubt. That is the level on which the problem was created. Because the doubt is about the future and your brain, which you are using to argue the doubt out of your castle, does not know the future, you will only create more trouble. Do not try and think your way out of doubt.
To be rid of the doubt, remind yourself of this: The question, “What if?” does not exist. It is a phantom of your own creation. You cannot argue with a phantom—arguing with it merely sustains it. Dismiss it and doubt will disappear like smoke. It’s not always pleasant to be reminded that we are the source of all our own suffering, but better us than someone else. No matter how hard I have tried, everyone else seems to keep doing whatever they want to do. At least I can choose what I think or don’t think.
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