Five Questions for Writers and other Creative Types

The other day I was looking through one of my writing notebooks and I was struck by how many questions there were in it. There was at least one curly little ? on almost every single page, and on some pages there were many.  Questions about the plot, about what the characters should do next, about other ways the story might go, about why I’m writing this thing and what I’m trying to say.  question

It occurred to me then, looking at all those pesky interrogative marks scattered like tiny thumbscrews across the pages, how utterly vital questions are to any creative endeavour. How they’re always quietly (or annoyingly) driving the work forward, prompting one to ponder, delve, rethink, push a little harder, venture out of the comfort zone, change course …
So I decided it might be a worthwhile exercise to choose the five most useful, recurring, indispensable questions that come up for me again and again during the writing process. Limiting myself to only five was part of the creative challenge of the exercise.
Rather than tenets or rules to live by, these then are my top five questions to create by:
What if…?
What else?
What’s going on right now?
With the exception of scientists and three-year-olds, most of us probably don’t ask enough “why” questions in a day. If you’ve ever been driven nuts by a kid who keeps repeating that pesky monosyllable after every “final” answer, you’ve felt the power of Why?
            No wonder Why? annoys us: it forces us to do something our easily-distracted squirrel minds would rather avoid: to keep thinking. It’s the question that drives us on beyond our unexamined assumptions and easy certainties. Why? is how I find out who my characters are and what they’re likely to do. 
            While you’re at it, try asking some of the people in your life a “why” question more often. Not as a complaint or a rebuke, just to see what they think about something a little deeper than what needs to go on this week’s grocery list. (Have you ever noticed how rarely adults ask one another Why? unless they’re angry? I wonder why…)

Why? can burrow beneath the superficial skin of daily life and reveals the hidden or forgotten depths in those you think you know, including yourself.  

“What if trees had eyes?” my son wondered the other day as we were walking to the park. That kicked my sluggish mind into gear, as “what if” questions always do.  It’s fitting that we were on our way to a playground at the time, because that’s what What if? does: it turns the real world into an infinite playground for the imagination. It’s the world’s cheapest and most effective de-aging solution.
          Okay, I’ll play: what if trees did have eyes? Eyes but no mouths or arms, so they could watch whatever was going on around them but be unable to do anything about it. Would a lumberjack see terror in a Douglas fir’s baby blues as he approached with his chainsaw? Or maybe trees really do have eyes. After all, they’re photosensitive beings: they take in light through every leaf, and use it to grow. What if we thought of a tree’s leaves as its “eyes”? Hey, there may be a metaphor here, or a haiku:
summer sun at noon
with every one of its leaves 
the elm tree looks up.

… or maybe even the seed of a whole story. Thanks, son.

Related to “what if” is the less well-known but equally powerful “what else?” The discoveries and connections I’ll make in a day, the deepening of what’s already on the page, will come about thanks to the mental nudging of “what else” and its refusal to be satisfied with the easy plot device or the pre-packaged solution. “What else,” to me, can mean many things. What else is going on in this scene? What else does the reader need to know to make sense of this? What else do these words imply? What else do I have to say? Maybe nothing, but I won’t know for sure if I don’t ask.


This question can propel me in two different directions: both deeper into the work and out of it, back into the unwritten world. Both are important for writing. Whenever either I or the work-in-progress seem to have lost focus, that’s the time to pause and ask what’s really happening at this very moment.
In terms of the writing, it’s a way of regrounding myself in the sensory, the immediate, the palpable urgencies of whatever place or situation my characters are in here and now. The question compels me to step inside the story and look around, to see, touch, hear, taste and smell this imaginary world I’m building out of words. And doing that reengages me with the story and the beings in it, and often shows me the way to go forward, from right now into the very next thing that should happen.
             But “What’s going on right now?” is also useful in one’s own life outside the page. I think a lot of people never finish (or begin) that novel they’ve always planned to write because they can’t stay put long enough in right now. It’s where everything happens, of course, but most of us avoid it whenever possible: it’s much easier to live in the past or dream of the great work we’re going to do tomorrow, yes, definitely tomorrow, because today we just don’t feel like it…
            There are times, of course, when it is best to let the work sit for a while and do something else (for five minutes, an hour, a day, a year…?). And asking myself what’s going on right now can help me understand when that’s the right thing to do. The question regrounds me in my own here and now, reminding me that the flesh is mortal and one can only accomplish so much in a day. So get up and stretch, the dog is whining to be let out, go play with the kids, take your long-suffering spouse to dinner at a fancy restaurant. The miraculous thing is that while you’re doing that, your mind will still be working, dreaming, forging unexpected links and taking audacious leaps across synapses, and then, just when you’ve completely forgotten about that problem you sweated over for hours, the answer comes, as if out of nowhere. (When really it comes from all the stuff going on inside you that’s not accessible to the prefrontal cortex. You’re not in control of everything, you know). 
This one is the wet rag, the snarky teenager, the sober second opinion. I use “really?” a lot in the margins of my students’ stories, whenever the writing seems to make an easy assumption about something that should be questioned. 
          “Cast a cold eye on life, on death,” Yeats wrote, and it’s good advice for anyone riding the exhilarating windhorse of creativity. He could have added, “cast a cold eye on your deathless creations, too.” That’s what Really? is for. I’m sure I’ve just penned the most magnificent pages the world will ever have the great fortune to read, but the next morning, once the high has worn off, I had better take another look. Once you’ve won the Booker you will never need to doubt your own brilliance again, but until then…
              Still, like the other four, this is a dangerous question. It can easily be overused or asked at the wrong stage in one’s creative process, since it comes from the Critic-Within, that jaded gremlin who will choke off one’s imaginative flow if given too much time and power over the work.
          And like “What’s going on right now?”, the cold eye of “Really?” can be usefully turned on the unwritten world too, and cast at every glossy sales pitch, every last word on the subject, every politician who spins us a golden tale of better days ahead. And once we’ve asked it, we might find ourselves returning full circle to that other question that comes in handy whenever we’re told, by ourselves or others, That’s Just the Way Things Are:
One more thing: don’t forget to say thanks once in a while. To God, or the muse, or the right cerebral cortex of the human brain, or whatever mystical or biological source you believe your great ideas ultimately come from. No one creates anything in a vacuum. Whether there’s an Author behind it all or not, it seems pretty clear to me that this universe is an unfinished, always astonishing act of creativity. Just look at a lilac bush, or a giraffe. The universe came up with stars, galaxies, planets, life, and then it really got going and dreamed up a being that could create universes inside its own head, share them with others, and change the way things are. That’s creativity, and it’s in everyone, and belongs to everyone, so here’s one more question:

            What are you doing with it? 

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