Al's Axiom #2: Those Who Ask "What if?" Soon Find Out


MAGICIANS HAVE their “Abracadabra” and their “Presto change-o” to engage their magic. What magic words do creatives have? There is such a phrase for those of us who conjure up stories, fine art, scripts, nonfiction, and more. It’s just two words: “What if . . .?”

I know it’s not a complete sentence and so it seems a out of balance, but those two words have kick started thousands of creative minds to conjure up something from nothing. I’ve built a career (such as it is) asking “What if?”. Every story, book, invention, and the like use “What if” as a key to get into the creatives mind. The rest of the creative act is spent answering that question.

Every novel builds on the “What if?” question. What if someone cloned dinosaurs? became Jurassic Park in the mind and hands of Michael Crichton. What if there was a lawyer who took on impossible murder cases and always got his clients off? Earle Stanley Gardner answered that with over 80 Perry Mason novels. Then someone asked, “What if we turn those novels into movies and television shows?”

Henry Ford asked “What if I could make an affordable horseless carriage?” He asked, he acted, and he succeeded in creating one of the most successful products and business in history.

Every writer I know asks, “What if?” At first it’s, “What if I tried my hand at writing?” Then comes the idea which is born of the “What if?” question. Almost every step in the process—from the origin of the idea, to the plotting, to the writing, to choosing a publisher (and the publisher asks, “What if we publish this book?”) comes from “What if?”

Some “What ifs?” can be dangerous and need to be filtered out. “What if I try and fail? What if my work earns nothing but rejection? What if someone laughs at me? What if my work is published and it flops?” All of these are possible, and every author deals with them. Such is life.

The key is choosing which “What ifs?” you want to dwell on. Fear tries to get us to focus on failure. I do know the answer to one “What if?” question. If we ask, “What if I let fear win and never try anything great?” The answer is obvious: nothing happens. 

Here’s another Al’s Axiom for free: “Only those who attempt achieve anything.”

How do you recognize a good “What if?” question? It’s simple. It won’t leave you alone. It haunts your mind. It’s there just before you fall asleep and when you wake up. You never drive alone because the “What if?” is in the seat next to you. Someone is talking to you, but all you hear is “What if? What if? What if?”

Here’s the thing about that magical two-word question: It breeds more “What ifs?” and that’s good. That’s how stories are made, inventions are created, and medical advances made. Ernest Hemingway asked, “What if a fisherman is considered too old to do the work anymore? What if his community considers him a has-been? What if the boy he’s been charged with teaching to fish is taken away? What if he sets out to prove himself? What if he sails out too far and no boats are around to help him? What if he catches the biggest fish of his life? What if does the impossible and lands the fish and ties it to the side of his little boat? What if sharks come and try to eat the fish. What if he returns to his little community with nothing but the stripped carcass of the great fish? What if he feels like a failure again? What if others see what’s left of the great fish and realize the old man can still to the job?”

One “What if?” gives birth to others. Let ‘em breed like rabbits. That’s what leads to creativity.

So, what’s you “What if?”