I heard a minister deliver a sermon that cautioned believers against these two phrases. His point, for those within his congregation, bore validity: If the family members of a faith spend too much time in worry or regret, then they (we) are displaying a lack of confidence in our Higher Power.
For writers and creators, however, there are no two more powerful phrases. “What ifs” open the door to imagination, whereas “If onlys” encourage reflection. There’s a proud tradition behind both of these phrases yielding creative, dynamic works across genres. Consider Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — a “What If” poem if there ever was one. Scholars and speculators agree that much of the poem may have been induced by chemical means, but even so, without the questioning of reality, such language would not have existed.
For “if only” work, see Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t think a great deal of exposition is needed for this example. From Lenore to Annabel Lee, Poe’s work is rife with the “if onlys” of lost love and longing. This isn’t to say that all creative work must contain angst or fantasy; certainly much great poetry, art, and creation has been produced from the images and occurrences of “average” life (see Billy Collins). However, to exclude the questions mentioned above from the creative process would result in enormous detriment.
As artists, the need for us to pose and answer creative inquiries is great, and perhaps no two questions are more idea-inducing than these. Fellow writers and makers, delve into your what-if and if-only moments. Your Kubla Khan or your Raven may be waiting just around the next question.