Revisiting the “So what?” Question

“So what?”

Insidious, persistent, biting, the simple question is a brain-bug infecting every writer I’ve ever met.  It gnaws at our confidence.  It stops our pen mid-stroke.  It’s a plague infecting whole classrooms—whole cultures, even, undermining the generative instinct because it assumes a vacuous answer.  There’s no justification for creative work, it seems.

And it’s the most important question a writer should ask.
Only the crassest teacher scrawls “So what?” in the margins of a student’s work.  Any mentor with half a heart knows that red ink seeps right through the paper and leaves an indelible mark on the writer’s sense of self.  Now that I have twenty years of teaching creative writing under my belt, I know my primary job—if I care about the quality of literature emerging in the world; if I care about the well-being of the humans emerging from my instruction—revolves around the “So what?” question.  There’s a lot at stake.

During the day I coach individuals serious about learning the craft of writing; at night I teach adults in a non-profit continuing education program.  The writers I work with are amateurs.  All have the potential to be successful, meaning they can find deep satisfaction in the writing process.  Only some have the potential to publish, and this fact has less to do with their talent than their willingness to sweat.  As a teacher I consider a writer’s journey toward self-discovery and his or her development of craft inseparable.  I try my darnedest to nurture both.

Which is why, when I begin working with an ambitious and bright-eyed novice who’s setting out to write a novel or an essay or, as usually is the case with my clientele, a memoir, one of the first questions I ask is, “Why?”  This is a kinder, gentler version of “So what?”; it scratches the surface, which is where every excavation begins.

“Because I want my grandchildren to know me.”

“Because it’s good therapy.”

“Because I want to help others going through [treatment for addiction / breast cancer / mental illness / their children’s teenage years].”

“Because the world needs to hear this story.”

Good reasons.  With any piece of writing there exist a dozen motivations, all worth airing.  I want to hear the surface explanation—the story the writer tells him- or herself when facing the blank page.  Here is the public face of “So what?”, the explanation to give your in-laws or a politely interested cocktail party guest (who will likely respond, “Are you published?”).

As honest and important as these first response are, they’re rarely deep enough to sustain someone through the prolonged slog of writing well.  Socially acceptable reasons for being creative are usually thin.  They look self-consciously outward, striving to place the creative urge in a capitalistic context or justify it with the goal of personal betterment.   Nor are they especially instructive.  When a person has carved three hours out of a productive day for writing and enters that empty field of white, he or she needs the guidance of longing to find the way.  Even Strunk and White, those masters of polished prose, advise us to “sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants.  Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one.”

What are the reasons behind our stated reason for writing?  What’s the emerging inner story?  That’s where passion and fear and drive reside—motivation powerful enough for the long haul and rich enough to make the effort worthwhile.  “Follow the ache,” my colleague Cheri Register teaches.  So the second question I ask writers is “What’s at stake?”  This is another excavation of the “So what?” question, one that digs past the perceived product into the dirty work of wrangling with content.  I want to know what the author is seeking in the material.  Where is his or her heart on the line?  What depends on this story’s unfolding?  In other words, I’m less interested in the author’s relationship to the product or the product’s relationship to the audience than the author’s relationship to the subject matter.  Underneath every lasting literary endeavor is a person’s genuine engagement with material.  We have to peel away surface distractions (like the ubiquitous, haunting question, “Who cares?”) and grant ourselves permission to explore.

Answers to the “What’s at stake?” question are useful; they point toward material that matters.  “My life feels so fragmented.  Is it possible to find unity in all my memories?”  “I know my suffering has meaning but I’m not sure what.  I want to find out.”  “I’m curious about how interdependent people are and want to learn how communities work.”  When we explore our personal stake in our material, we fuel the engine that will pull us through the writing and our reader through the reading.  We turn our face away from the audience and look directly at the stuff of our story, with which we can participate in an intimate conversation.  An author’s personal stake determines the story’s honesty.  The more heartfelt the engagement, the richer the truth that emerges.  There’s a direct link between why we write and what we write.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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