In my Creative Writing class, we’ve been asking ‘so what?’ a lot. You see, we started writing memoir. After a little brainstorming, I had the class jump in and write at least 400 words about a memory of their choice.For many students, it began to get frustrating right after that. They knew what they wanted to write about, but the more they wrote, the more unwieldy it became.
How could we wrangle a memory into something that a reader could navigate?
We ask, “So what?” (Bless you, Nancie Atwell!)*
This is different from Jen Rofe’s wonderful ‘So What’ factor. She’s asking why the reader should care. But I would suggest that first drafts are too early to ask that question. The caring begins with the writer.
So I asked my students why they cared. Why that memory? That moment? What was so important about it? Why did they return to it? Or why did they never want to revisit it?
This question gave the class a way to handle the memory. For some, their ‘so what’ wasn’t obvious at first. But once it was clear, they knew how to structure the memoir. It also gave me something to work with. If I knew their ‘so what’ we could discuss ways to shape the memoir so that a reader could care as much as they did.
Knowing the ‘so what’ is important in memoir. It's just as vital in fiction. When I first start writing a rough draft, I try to pin as many moments to the page as possible. But later, I need to know why scenes burned inside me. What made that scene so powerful to me? Why do I care? What grabs me in that story? When I know that, I can shape the rest of the story with that in mind.
Knowing ‘so what’ is even more important when we revise. A while ago, I wasn’t getting good feedback from my local crit group about two chapters in the middle of Valiant. I wasn’t surprised by it– I knew something was off. So I asked myself ‘so what’? What did I need the chapters to do? What did I care about? Why did I write them? After a while, the only answer I had was: they’re what comes next.
Lamest reason EVER for a chapter’s existence.
Once I knew what was going on, though, I knew how to revise. I condensed the bulk of the writing into one paragraph. The part that had a reason other than ‘it comes next’ was revised to reflect all my initial interest in it.
I’m convinced that we have to know what matters to us before we can make the reader care. The reader cares because we did. It begins with us. Perhaps boring spots in our manuscript (or entire manuscripts that meander!) are due more to mental fuzziness on our part than not using the right words. We’ve lost our focus, and the reader can tell.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that if I care about what I've written, the reader must like it. Readers don't owe me anything. I am saying, however, that if I don't understand why I care about a story– a chapter, a scene– it will be difficult to structure it in a way that captivates any reader.
I love the duality of writing! There are times when we hold the story outside of us and make sure that we've created something a reader can walk into. (It reminds me of welcoming a guest into our home. There's a sense of hospitality to it.) Yet, we also seek to pull that story, that home, from the deepest places within us. For me, asking 'so what' is one way of getting to the center and soul of my story.
What about you? How do you find the heart of your story?
*I have absolutely loved her curriculum, Lessons that Change Writers!