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What If?

Newsletter banner for Gretchen Cherington

Dear Friends,

Now deeper into my shoulder rehab I'm in the phase of advances and setbacks. The advances, of course, are thrilling — to achieve another 15 degrees of range — or to graduate from bearing 1 pound of weight to 2, then 3. All those numbers are great but I've had setbacks too. A minor wrench that healed in a day; then same place but the pain lasted a week; now the greatest going on 10 days. Recovery is not linear, more like a couple steps ahead and a step back. Frustrating for my uber-active self.

So too do we have advances and setbacks in our writing (aka any creative endeavor). The story for my third book has been percolating in my head for twenty years. Some scenes are written. Some research has been done. All good.

But then I'm introduced to Lary Brooks' What If? questions in his book Story Engineering, by my new teacher Jennifer Lauck. I'd used what if questions with corporate clients. What if you tried this? What if you tried that? We'd brainstorm a whole set of these questions and usually at least one of them would spark a recognition from a CEO that a change might be needed.

So, what if the two protagonists in this story were the perpetrators of the crime, instead of their relatives as I'd long intended? Jennifer posed the question and entirely threw my plan up in the air!

But that's why we go to teachers, right? Because they see things we can't see. And in this case, the answer to that what if question was YES, a reader would find this more immediate; it would place the story in the center of conflict; it would require a stronger examination of their motivations; it would likely change their arc of progress through the story.

Darn! That would also require me to go back to basics. Just like with my shoulder when I have to back off of what I've been doing to find that little place where I can still build strength and movement without triggering shutdown of a muscle.

Maybe therein also lies our work — dropping back to find a new place of tension that amplifies a story --all by by simply asking What If?

So why should it matter if I'm not quite as far along as I thought I was one month ago?

It shouldn't....except that having taken so long to write my first two books, I can't take that long again.

But I've given myself most of 2024 to explore point of view, character motivations, antagonistic forces, and a variety of other elements of story, before committing to around eighty thousand words.

So, deep breath, all these steps forward and half-steps back are part of the journey, right?


Foreword Reviews Q&A

Matt Sutherland asked some great questions about The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the Fall Guy as well as a tough question about my dad. I hope you'll take a look. You can find my answers here.


From My Stack

Safiya Sinclair

How to Say Babylon: A Memoir

If you haven’t read this, please do! I am certain How to Say Babylon will remain among my favorite memoirs of 2024, and may become a classic. It deserves all the amazing accolades it’s getting and she had me with her cover. If you’re writing memoir, read this one. If you like reading memoir, read this one. Or if you're, like me, an avid reader in multiple genres, read this one.

A Jamaican-born poet, Sinclair writes that the countryside of her island "has always belonged to (my) father", himself a Rastafarian, who made the Reggae scene in Jamaica and the UK just after the generation of Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. He was also a strict and demanding father who followed the most conservative of the Rastafarian sects, believing the man dominated the household, while Safiya's beautiful mother expanded her children’s perspectives past the limitations of their many rental houses, by introducing her and her siblings to books. And by encouraging them to write.

And could Safiya ever write. From the early years to her late teens she became an accomplished poet, noticed throughout the Caribbean at conventions and through publication in literary journals. Her intelligence led her to a full ride at a private school, where rich, white students belittled her for her dreadlocks and her strange way of talking, while she easily beat them with her grades.

Now a prize-winning author living in the US, with a niece to consider, she says, "I am trying to write it all down, the story of our lives, trying to change the fate of the next Sinclair girl in the retelling. With each word, I will recourse the river of my making. With each word, I will change that Rastawoman's fate."

Sinclair's original and poetic voice speaks truth to power not only in her family but in our world, articulating beautifully concentrated passages on race, gender, art, family, and the kind of forgiveness that just might expand her father’s mind. Highly recommended!

Book Cover for Day by Michael Cunningham
Rick Rubin

The Creative Act: A Way of Being

My daughter and I have had long and deep conversations about what it is to be "creatives." Along with her day job, she's a songwriter, scriptwriter, guitar player and drummer; also a free-hand chef; rescue dog whisperer; and athlete. While I'm no longer as busy as she is, we both recognize the creative essence in our bones.

So I was intrigued by Rick Rubin after seeing a 60 Minutes episode about him (my daughter knew him of course already, cuz, well, she lives in L.A.!)

The other day I hopped two blocks to Print: A Bookstore and have now cracked its spine. It's like taking a long slow walk with a good friend, or one's daughter. I'm loving it. More on this one in the future!


"There was nothing broken the sea couldn't fix, my mother always said."

Safiya Sinclair

True for me. From the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Indian and the Agean, from Casco and Penobscot Bays in Maine to Fiscardo Harbor on the island of Cephalonia (Greece), to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef, large bodies of water provide solace, perspective, joy, and forgiveness. May February bring you each of these as we continue to navigate our ever complicated world.

With love,

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