When Cory asked me to come up with a post about a writing lesson I’ve learned in the past year, I was stumped. I mean, I don’t have a publishing success story to share. No book of mine can be found on a shelf anywhere. I’m just…me. I write. I go to school. I like to watch football and bad reality television. I’ve got kids.
So what, right?
Well, it turns out So What actually is my lesson.
It’s a lesson I owe to my school advisor. See, he’s kind of our campus wild card, both
intimidating and eccentric. He rarely smiles. He repeats things. He likes cat memes and black
licorice. He’s also known for a particular question that he likes to ask during dissertation
defenses. According to school lore, after listening to a doctoral candidate present the research
they’ve toiled over for years, my advisor will sit back, clear his throat, and shout out:
So What is a scary question! I’m okay with “how” and “when” and “where” and “who,” but So
What means “why did you even bother?” In academic research, this translates into transcending
theory and finding real-world relevance, but I think there’s a parallel process to be found in
writing. Stringing 75,000 pretty words together into something with a beginning, middle, and
end isn’t enough. It just isn’t. A story has to resonate. It has to matter. In some way, somehow, it
must be relevant.
Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but it wasn’t for me. I have an analytical mind. I mean, I
have an undergraduate degree in theoretical linguistics, of all things. Clearly, I like to understand
things just for the sake of understanding them. And, in truth, I don’t always care about relevance.
I have no problem becoming thoroughly absorbed in the fanciness of…just saying stuff. But
writing a novel isn’t like finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s not just that you
did it, it’s what you did that counts.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve tried to embrace the So What spirit in my writing. I won’t
lie. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to push past my comfort zone. I’ve had to let go of fanciness
and allow my words become messy and painful and scary and uncontrolled. I’ve had to stop
worrying about how I’m going to clean up my own mess or who’ll want to read it or whether
it will make me look clever or smart. But the process has been invaluable, because somewhere
along the way…I found my voice.
That’s a good feeling.
So when I reflect back on the year, I see many things that haven’t changed. I still go to school.
I’m still a mom. I still like to watch football and bad reality television. But I also see that I’ve
grown as a writer.
For that and for everything, I am humbled and grateful.