The Perils of What if
If I had to guess, I’d say the most frequent question asked of me as a writer is, “Where do you get your ideas?” This question always puzzled me until daughter number four, my youngest, pointed out that not everyone lives in a world of what ifs the way I do.
“Mom, you could look at a cat crossing the road and within minutes you’ll have invented a dysfunctional family for the cat and a conflict situation involving the neighbor’s dog. Then you’ll wonder out loud what would happen if the poor animal discovered its owner’s body belly up in the den.”
“I wouldn’t. In my opinion there are enough mystery series involving cats.”
“You know what I mean,” she says, assuming an expression that makes me think she is the mom and I am not. “Other people do not glimpse a puff of smoke rising into the sky and then conclude Charlotte is under attack by aliens who have already set fire to Tryon Street.”
“Sweetie, I do not conclude, I merely wonder. I mean, what if that was the reason for the fire?”
“Sure, you merely wonder, and then your imagination goes into a feeding frenzy slurping up all the what ifs. You end up convincing yourself that the only reason the aliens have selected the Queen City for the focus of their trip across the galaxy is that they are here to beam up one or all of your children.”
I roll my eyes, but I can’t argue. Tiggy is right. I do tend to let my imagination take over, as if it’s hooked to a giant quantum computer that explores all the possibilities, especially the more outlandish ones. Two years ago when she traveled to India—alone I might add—I didn’t hear from her for twenty-four whole hours. By the time she finally phoned home, I was certain my Tiggy was in the clutches of slave traders who had packed her into a cargo container for shipment to some undisclosed location where they need small Americans with attitude. Of course, I was already packing for my flight to New Delhi and planning how I was going to rip the kidnapers to shreds. I even made a mental note to shop for an outfit I could wear on Good Morning America.
Other moms, the blissfully unaware kind, might say to their children, “Sure, honey, you can climb that tree.” But my brood would hear something like this: “I’d rather you didn’t, but I wouldn’t want to be a mother hen or spoil your fun. Go ahead and climb the tree. Be sure to wear your bike helmet, your kneepads, and a parachute. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a rope. And while you’re up there you’ll have a good view, so look around and make sure there are no sociopaths skulking around the neighborhood.”
My children are grown now, but I still have a tendency—a small one, you understand—to point out possible outcomes of their actions. I mean, what if one of them took a job in Wyoming or one of those other big square states? And then the boss was lambasted over the head with a fishbowl and found dead in the men’s room. And my child became a suspect because she’d had an argument with him over the office feng shui and she hated his fish. What then? Hmmm. This could work.
So it is not surprising that my offspring believe the line between real life and plotting fiction is all too easily blurred in my case. We’ve finally reached a compromise. The next time one of my children announces plans to do something I just know is dangerous, I will react with all the emotion of a snail on tranquilizers. From now on my imagination and ideas will be reserved for writing. Really.