A Loyal Servant

There is a question that is both the most useful and most useless to a writer. Many stories have begun with the writer wondering, “What if?” What if there was a colony of Martians waiting for us when we landed? What if the president fell in love with me? What if I could fly?

If the “What if?” proves fertile it is like a match lighting a chain reaction of questions and answers for your imagination. The imagination is always seeking empty space to fill, and the more fertile that open space, the quicker the imagination fills it. The imagination craves to seek its own answers, following the trail of questions lit by that initial question onward toward what pleases it most. In this way, The Unknown is the imagination’s playground, for only there, in that boundless blank, can the imagination find what it needs most—freedom.

But after the stories are written, the writer is sometimes tempted to ask that question again, only this time of the future. “What if it isn’t published?” “What if no one buys it?” Here the imagination sets to work once more—but on what? Unanswerable questions lead in only one direction, down through a pit that has no bottom. The imagination is just as free as it was in writing the story, only now that freedom is merely the absence of direction.

Your imagination is so powerful you must never set it to a task it cannot finish. Like all tools, the imagination was meant to create, so give it something to build. Never ask it to predict the future. It can’t, but the imagination doesn’t know this. It is a loyal but stupid servant, bound exactly by what you command. And it wants to finish the job, so it will take you to the worst conclusion possible, for only then can it finally stamp a “The End” on this pointless quest.

That end does not actually exist and never will. But you do not need to live even for a moment any doomsday scenario. When your story is through, ask your imagination, “How will I publish it?” and leave the What If’s for your next story.

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