I saw a video interview with Ray Bradbury a long time ago in which he said almost everything he has written has been inspired by asking “what if.” Bradbury wrote novels and stories but a lot of his writing advice
applies to poetry too.
The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone. (from a 2010 interview with Sam Weller, published in The Paris Review)
Bradbury told about an encounter he had as a boy in 1932 with a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico. Wreathed in static electricity, Mr. Electrico touched the young Bradbury on the nose and said, “Live forever!” Ray returned to the carnival the next day for advice about magic. Mr. Electrico introduced him to the other performers in the carnival and told Bradbury that he was a reincarnation of his best friend who died in World War I.
What if he could live forever or he was reincarnated or if there could be a truly magical carnival? Bradbury later wrote, “a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day.” That carnival came back to him along with all the “what ifs” of his boyhood and became his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes
. What if a magician at a carnival could grant your greatest wish? “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” says one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
I used to ask my teenaged students to write a what-if poem after we had read a few Bradbury stories. One of the model poems I use that they always seemed to like was an old one – “What if you slept” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I never told them before the poem or the writing how old Coleridge or the poem was because not only is that irrelevant to the lesson but because the poem doesn’t seem old at all – especially coming from the opium addict that wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
||Coleridge by John Chubb – from the collection of the Blake Museum
Coleridge’s life is interesting – and sad. Born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England in 1772, he wrote that he was falling into a deep depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth in 1795. That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge’s life.
They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain.
That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he’d had since he was a kid, and it became “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798).
It’s a difficult poem to read today though the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills an albatross is full of sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.
The poem brought him some fame and money but within a few years of writing it he became addicted to opium, which killed his creativity and ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.
His friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, “His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged.” What if he had not become addicted to opium?
If you try writing a what-if poem and would like to share it, post it as a comment to this post. (All comments must be approved before they appear.)