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Two Words . . . and Down the Rabbit Hole

by Kira Obolensky, Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting and Fiction.

In this blog post, I thought I’d share with you two words that work as a powerful phrase for me as a writer.

It’s not a mantra (do it!). And it’s not a magic spell (Open Sesame)—although the phrase does have a bit of the same potential, if backed up with perseverance, imagination and a certain amount of intrepidness.

I believe that without these words we would not have the post it, the window shade or the hot dog. Not to mention any number of great works of literature.

These words always jumpstart my creative process. They then become the words that are repeated again and again as I build a narrative. I’ve created opportunity and curiosity for myself with these words. I open myself up to possibility with these words.

Those two words are…What if?

I so prefer it to And then. Or, because of this then that.

Of course, what if isn’t just a question. In fact, I rarely inflect when I say the words because usually what is spilling out is the completion of the statement. What if there were a piece of paper that actually had a piece of tape built into it? What if my novel uses time like a collage?

The What If Process for Idea Generation

I really don’t want to be prescriptive here because writing has little to do with formula and most everything to do with imagination, craft and perseverance. But say you have an idea, how might the what if process work?

For me, the most pressing idea now (if only because it’s due in a couple of months) is a commission for a play about gender equity among flight attendants. I’ve done my research and have a basic grasp of the legal struggle involved. I’ve interviewed the woman who spearheaded the legal battle. I’ve got a lot of notes. But I don’t yet have the stuff of which plays are made.

And I really don’t want this play to be about a legal struggle. If I ask the what if question, even in the most basic of ways–what if this play isn’t about the legal process?–I find quite suddenly that the play can be something that’s about the people, the emotions, the situations. It can be funny. The play has been opened up to different possibilities. Of course, I still have to write it.

That’s the macro what if. The micro what if can happen on a beat by beat basis. What if this character says that? What if she walks into the room with a cast bronze zucchini? What if the play is funny? What if this happens next? Or what would happen if…What if the gun was sold? What would happen then?

And soon, believe it or not, a play, a novel, a story, starts being built.

The What If Process for Life

I like the what if question because it’s like a cloak you can put on momentarily. It’s a “try on” question that allows me to play something out in my head. And I’m a big fan of the what if prompt in the rest of my life. I ask it countless times a day, cooking, driving, but the best use of the words is when something feels a little like it’s coming out of left field. The what if shouldn’t signal the obvious or mundane.

A few years ago, I was sitting around drinking wine with a group of artist friends. We’d collaborated together and taught a class together and really thought it was energizing to be in the room with people from different disciplines. We were feeling a little like we wanted to bring our creative energies to other people—not just students, not merely other artists. It was probably me who asked the question: What if we as writers and artists could do this with other people outside of the arts? What if we could have access to creative people in the sciences, would our ideas be better or different? What if artists and writers were part of a bigger conversation?

The Gymnasium is now celebrating its fourth year of existence (and funding…). We started with a what if question and we continue to ask ourselves a whole bunch of what if questions, including “What if we could begin to contribute in some way to the issues facing us in the 21st century?” One of the things we do as a group is to organize innovation workshops in which we challenge our participants–artists and creative people OUTSIDE of the arts– to collaborate, generate, play and ask the what if question in the context of a topic. Our first innovation workshop (called a Tink Tank) was around the topic of Air. We didn’t want to present a problem, but rather thought of Air as being potentially interesting to our participants, a world sailor, a poet, a wind engineer, a psychoanalyst, a linguist, a neuroscientist, a community activist, an architect, an organic chemist.

One of the What If’s that came from that workshop was this one: What if we had a new language to describe air qualities? Would we pay more attention to air?

What followed were more what ifs. What if we had a contest for other creative people to help us create a crowd-sourced dictionary? (See image for contest information! Deadline end of September! Cash prizes!)

And, now, dear readers, I’m going to leave you all to your own what if’s. Just fill in the blank: What if______________________________?


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