My dad tried valiantly to teach me how to drive a stick shift—beyond the point that any human being can be expected to try. Unfortunately, I am gifted with so little mechanical aptitude that it was not meant to be. But I remember the sounds of failure all too well: The awful grinding as I failed to shift gears at a stop sign. My father’s gasping intake of breath as he no doubt pondered the damage I was doing to his truck. The blast of the trucker’s horn behind me as we officially stalled out.
Stalling out in a writing project can be just as demoralizing. Fortunately, there’s a tool that’s served me well: the question “What if?”
It’s also a fantastic go-to when a writer has stalled. When I’m working with a classroom, we start with discussion and group activities—but then comes the time for them to put their heads down and write. I like to circulate during that time, peeking over shoulders to see what progress students are making. I’m not there to blast the trucker’s horn for those who have stalled out, but rather to take on the role of my patient father, who always somehow managed to talk me through the steps needed to get the car moving again.
I’m there to play “What if?” with them. I ask them to tell me what they know about their story so far, and then brainstorm a range of possible “What if?” directions their story could head next. After a few head shakings, there’s usually a breakthrough moment—a nod, a smile—and then their pencil races across the paper.
My bigger goal is, of course, to model for young writers how to use the “What if?” trick to get out of a writing stall for themselves. Unlike driving a stick shift, it’s a skill almost any student can learn!