Doug Bruns

So What?

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers on March 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Russo's new memoir

Russo’s new memoir

I heard Richard Russo comment last night that the writer of a memoir must ask himself “So what?” Russo, a Mainer, and holder of a Pulitzer for his novel Empire Falls, has a new book out, a memoir, Elsewhere. (I own the book, but haven’t picked it up just yet.) He continued by saying that simply because the writer grew up in a rural environment, escaped to elsewhere, and wrote a book about it does not make, necessarily, for an interesting book. Hence the challenge: So what? I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz‘s comment that, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publication.”

I walked home from Russo asking myself, So what?

Here I am, the next day, sitting at my desk, wondering still, So what? So what does it matter that I sit here day and after day and compose my thoughts and frame my questions? The question, So what? puts the kill to any good writer’s buzz, trust me. This is an honest question–and not just for the thinker in his loft on a snowy Maine afternoon. It is a question the pilgrim of any journey must ask.

Here’s what I think. I think that the very question carries its answer. By asking So what? one has engaged a degree of attention that makes the difference. It’s when we don’t ask that a soul-sucking vacuum is created. Intention verses mindlessness. I have my mother to thank for the question, What are your motivations? There is deep intention in that question and just in asking it one cannot escape the consequences. What are your motivations holds a response to So what?

The publishing writer, Russo, must ask the question So what? He is engaged in an act of commerce, as well as art. That must weigh in his motivation. Certainly, if he doesn’t ask the question his publisher or his editor will. So what?, in this instance, must be answered in a manner that includes dollars and cents. But to the self-publishing writer-blogger, to the diarist, to the lone photographer, to the home musician, to the elderly watercolorist, the laborer, the thinker, the question So what? carries a profound nuance.

Camus: "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world."

Camus: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

Without the weight of commerce associated with it, the question So what? is fraught and imposing. I cannot answer the question of So what? for you. But I can suggest that in the very question you will find a kernel of an answer; that the question alone poses a threat to the mindless action, the thoughtless gesture, the perfunctory exercise of existence. To paraphrase Camus, without asking So what? a person is just a wild beast loosed upon the world.

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  1. Hmmm. I think Russo’s question is a good one for all memoirists, and also for bloggers who write autobiographically. If we choose to write about something from our lives, it is important to us, obviously, but there needs to be some significance for others in order to make it a meaningful topic to write about, i.e. the “So what?” needs to be answered. Readers need to be able to answer that “So what?” question when they read our writing, otherwise our writing is just a lot of introspection, and about as interesting as relating the dream we had to another person over breakfast. It’s fascinating to us, but doesn’t hold a lot of interest for the other person.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Karen. I think you’re spot on and precise in your observations. The writer’s goal is to answer the question So what? to the best of his/her ability. For the blogger/writer this is particularly dicey since the forum lends itself to the foot-loose and fancy free–that is, often lacks the discipline of “So What?”

      Thanks for stopping by “…the house..” and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it very much.
      d

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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