If “If’s” and “But’s” Were Candies and Nuts

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m thinking of something my father always liked to say: “If ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas. How could he not pay attention to the way possibilities often disappoint us after the farming accident that cost him both of his hands—the accident he could have prevented if only he’d shut down his tractor’s power take-off before trying to clear his picker’s shucking box of corn. That simple safety procedure would have stopped the snapping rollers in the shucking box from spinning, and, therefore, they never would have trapped one hand and then the other, leaving my father to know intimately the reality of “if’s” and “buts.”

A fiction writer’s work is full of such “what if’s.” Here’s the good news. Unlike our real lives, our writing lives allow for do-overs. A fiction writer puts characters on the page and lets them create their own actions, events, and consequences. We look at our characters and the narrative possibilities ahead of them, and we ask ourselves, “What if?” We can ask that question over and over, as many times as we need to, in order to craft a satisfying narrative. Once we’ve put something on the page, we can change it. We can say, “Well, what if my character did this instead of doing that? What might that create?”

This is the grace that comes to the fiction writer—the blessing of being able to rearrange a narrative. Never do we have to settle for our first choice. We can lead a character into one situation and then go back and create another choice for that character, thereby leading them into a completely different situation. Everything is fluid. We can even save our characters from unwise choices if we wish, although that may not necessarily be the best thing for the story or novel. Sometimes the best thing is to let a character—a character like my father, say—make an unwise choice, and by doing so change his life forever.

When it comes to the disappointments that writers often face when their work is rejected, let me tell you this story. Nearly twenty years ago, my agent called to tell me that a senior editor at a major New York publishing house was going to make an offer on my novel. I’d published my first collection of stories with a leading independent publisher, and my agent was trying to sell my debut novel. The news about the senior editor, then, was cause for celebration. A few weeks later, my agent called to tell me the senior editor hadn’t been able to convince the house to make an offer. Needless to say, I was deflated. At that point, it was the most devastating moment in my writing career.

That novel included a section that featured the disappearance of a small boy, an element that clearly came from the story of a little girl’s abduction from a town eight miles from where I grew up, a story that ultimately formed the center of my second novel, The Bright Forever. Had that senior editor been able to publish that first novel (a manuscript that remains unpublished to this day), I probably wouldn’t have written The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. The moral of this story? What first appears to be a disappointment can sometimes turn into a blessing in disguise.

Here’s hoping all of you have blessings galore this holiday season even if you don’t recognize them as such at the time. For the writers out there, keep doing the good work. Let disappointment be what it is—a slight distraction—before you write the next, good thing.



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