GUEST POST: THE “WHAT IF” QUESTION

Honey BrownI’d like to thank author Honey Brown for contributing this guest post about the big “what if?” question. Honey Brown lives in country Victoria with her husband and two children. She is the author of four books: Red QueenThe Good DaughterAfter the Darkness and Dark HorseRed Queen was published to critical acclaim in 2009 and won an Aurealis Award, and The Good Daughter was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2011. After the Darkness was selected for the Women’s Weekly Great Read and for Get Reading 2012’s 50 Books You Can’t Put Down campaign. Her fifth novel, Through the Cracks, has just been launched.

The ‘what if’ question is where it all begins for me as a writer. It’s the spark that lights my creative drive. And it’s not always one idea, or spark, that gets me rolling; it can come from a couple of different flare-ups. For my latest book, Through The Cracks, I remember wondering what it would be like to discover you’re a missing child (having grown-up unaware of the fact). I also thought about the famous missing children cases, and how society would react to one of those children being found alive. In addition, I read newspaper reports about the Royal Commission into church abuse, and I simply asked myself – What if I’d been lied to, manipulated and sexually abused?

It might seem like a strange and distressing question to ask of oneself, but I believe it’s my job as an a writer to push beyond the barriers our hearts and minds sometimes put up, and explore the tougher topics and issues. I make it my business not to baulk at shocking things, or be too quick to judge what is right or wrong, I try not to fall too quickly into outrage, and I steer well clear of pity. Every element of being human is explored in literature and the arts, and childhood trauma and sexual abuse shouldn’t be exempt from that. I’d argue that it’s one of the most important topics to cover, because it is so prevalent. We need stories written about it. We need creative minds delving deep, demystifying sexual abuse and pulling back the cloak of shame.

Just like some people lace up hiking boots and set off into challenging geographical environments, I trek into psychological ones. If not for my dyslexia I might look outwards in my attempt to find answers, I might reach for text books and take in the word of experts – settle into a more academic study of the way the human brain works – but when your own mind struggles to hold onto textbook information, researching this way doesn’t equate to useful or meaningful insight. I look inside myself for the answers to my questions. I tap into my experiences and I unflinchingly examine things that have happened in my life.

It’s one of those delicious ironies that creating good fiction involves telling the truth. The “fictional” part of a novel is in the conjuring up a situation – the serial killer’s clifftop art gallery, the brothers holed-up in the bush from a virus, the woman and her horse trapped on a mountain with a dangerous stranger – whereas characters, their personalities and responses, are all about reality. If a character acts unrealistically, we lose interest. If they’re so strange that we can’t relate to them, then we have no emotional investment in the story. We’re able to suspend our disbelief in all other aspects of storytelling, but the characters within these stories need to be seen to be drawing from that core pool of human reactions and emotions if they’re to ring true. In this way, a writer doesn’t need to go too far to research the emotions and responses human beings are capable of; it’s simply a case of pushing aside the niceties, the vanity and political correctness, and getting down to that layer of raw, base emotion.

Bad writing isn’t creating emotionless wooden characters though, it’s not poorly constructed sentences or plot holes, it’s not even overblown prose; the biggest mistake a writer can make is to create without a sense of adventure. Blockbuster novels don’t deserved to be panned, not if they’ve come from a place of exploration and imagination. The worst novels drip with self-awareness. They have no ‘what if’ question within their pages. Maintaining a high level of adventure throughout the course of writing a novel can be hard, but if you’ve at least started with an inquisitive spirit, you can go back and reread the beginning to remind you, and hopefully reignite the spark.

Every story told is essentially a ‘what if’ scenario playing out. Anyone can indulge in a bit of ‘what if’ thinking. Children are the true masters of it. I witness children’s imaginations ignite every time they lay eyes on me, because I’m in a wheelchair. Looking at me, their faces come alive with why, how and ‘what if’. In that moment, they are open to all ideas and emotions. I’m always delighted with how far their minds can leap – they visualise dramatic accidents, rocket powered wheelchairs and super-powered legs, and they don’t just imagine the fanciful things, they also see the practical drawbacks of being in a chair, the limitations and the possibilities. They stand there in front of me as realists and visionaries. They’re full of wonder. It’s a lovely thing. To write fiction you have to hold onto your childhood wonder, rediscover it. You have to spend your days gazing thoughtfully at the things that perplex you, and asking yourself, why, how, and what if