Tuesday, February 3, 2009


"What if what we dreamed was real, and all that we are now is just a dream?"

The question caught me slightly off guard. I stood in the doorway to my son's room and set the clothes hamper down on the floor. "So am I just a dream?"

He looked at me for a moment. "No."

"Maybe this is a dream, and in reality I'm something really scary." I held up my hands and spread out my curled fingers. "Maybe I've got big claws and growl."

He smiled and rolled over on his bed, offering his back in response to my suggestion. As I turned to go, he said, "But, what if we're wrong?"

"About what?"

"About life."

I kept walking. "That's too deep for me." Especially at bedtime.

I don't how it happened. At some point in the evening, from the time I put my son to bed and the time I shuffled laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, a span of only ten minutes, something happened. My eight-year-old had been replaced with somebody else.

There are times when our children ask questions that lead us to wonder just exactly who is smarter than whom. Tonight was one of them. I swear I had a futuristic image of my son in rimless glasses and a turtleneck, teaching philosophy to a bunch of pimple-faced students. Even now, typing away at my computer, I'm shaking my head at the wonder of it all.

But his question, like many other questions in life, reminds me of a critical issue for writers: What if what we believe about life turns out to be all wrong? And from that single question many stories are born. It's the question that plagues a woman when she finds the lump on her breast while standing under the steaming hot spray of the shower head. It's the question that confronts a husband when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him. It's the question that haunts a child when he learns that his blood and tissue don't match that of his parents.

What if...

While it seems logical for a mystery or a crime novel ("It wasn't supposed to end like this," the soon-to-be dead man exclaims) the same question is asked in many literary books. It was a central question that resonated throughout Steinbeck's East of Eden. It was the realization of how wrong his life had been that finally changed Ebenezer Scrooge's heart. It's the issue that creates conflict, and ultimately leads us through a story to a resolution.

Sometimes it takes a child to remind us what's important in telling a story.


  1. Children are these wonderful, innocent blank slates. I learn so much from mine. Thank goddess I have them to remind me what is important - even when they infuriate me.

    Your son and mine - both philosophers. Peace, Linda

  2. Terrific post, Stephen. And what a terrific kid. I look forward to those conversations with my little one. I have a feeling they'll come all too soon.

  3. Quite the philosopher already! Love their questions. Sometimes I'll ask my sons to describe something for me that I'm trying to write because of the simple, unprejudiced way they are able to see things.