The Magic of “So What?”
November 10, 2020 § 10 Comments
“I’m going to ask you a hard question,” I warn my students when we’re talking about writing. “And sort of a mean one.”
The students look worried. What am I about to do?
I tap at the opening paragraph of the essay we’re discussing. “You say that Charlotte Bronte’s descriptions of Bertha Rochester are really upsetting. That’s true. But so what?”
No one answers me. Where is the mean question?
“So what,” I repeat. “Sure, it’s an upsetting description, but why should we care?
That’s the mean question: So what?
“So what” might sound mean, but it’s also magic. It’s simple and tough and cuts through a lot of crap. When I use this question with my students, particularly as they’re wrestling with academic essays, so what? helps them to move from description—that scene is upsetting—to analysis: what is upsetting, why is it upsetting, what is the significance of that observation?
The answer to “so what” doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, I tell them. It’s not as if you need to come up with the definitive analysis of Jane Eyre. But maybe the reason to pay attention to those upsetting descriptions is that they show that the novel is both progressive and very much of its moment. Or maybe we notice those descriptions because it helps us see that Bronte can only imagine independence for certain kinds of women.
When you come up with your answers to “so what,” I say to my students, you’re helping to create a road map for the rest of your essay. The “so what” helps you know where you’re going.
I use “so what” no matter what I’m writing. Answering that question always helps, no matter if I’m at the very beginning of a project or stuck somewhere in the middle. When I’m writing non-fiction, the “so what” helps me to chart a path towards an argument; in fiction, “so what” helps me to gauge the impact of my writerly flourishes. And “so what” is invaluable when I’m working in memoir, where my impulse is to include every detail, because, you know, “that’s what happened.” That “so what” question becomes a tool that cuts through to the bone, forcing me to include only those details that deepen the narrative.
Sometimes “so what” becomes my free-writing prompt, in those moments when I’m trapped in a thicket of sentences and cannot figure out which way to go. I open a new document or flip to a new page in my writing notebook, and respond to What’s the so what? for ten or fifteen or thirty minutes.
“So what” helps trick my monkey mind into thinking it’s answering a simple question rather than doing something more difficult like establishing a thesis statement or determining a character’s motivation, or my own motivation in writing. Questions about thesis or motivation are hard; they are questions that remind me I am writing and then of course, I immediately want to do the laundry or the dishes or scrub the shower grout.
But “so what?” Hey, I can answer that. That’s an easy question, no biggie. And then voila, there I am, examining my writerly choices, pruning away the excess, killing my darlings with blithe abandon.
Sure, you could spend time with more complex writerly exercises, like writing out a backstory for all your fictional characters, or mind-mapping the various key moments in your memoir. But when it comes down to it, “so what” will get you where you want to go.
A student stopped into my office last fall (in those halcyon pre-pandemic days, when we could just “stop by” to chat). “I just got into law school,” she said, “and I wanted to say thank you.” I was confused. I hadn’t written her a letter of recommendation and she’d only been a student of mine once. “My personal statement,” she went on. “As I was working on it, I kept hearing you say ‘so what?’ And the people who my recommendations said the statement was really good.”
And what’s the ‘so what’ of that story?
It’s that “so what?” works, no matter what you’re writing.
Deborah Williams teaches in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi and is currently asking herself “so what” about a YA novel and a nonfiction book about teaching. Her essays have appeared in such places as The Paris Review Daily, Motherwell, and The Rumpus; you can read selected other work here.
Strangely, it was not the academic world where I first heard the “so what” concept; I had just joined McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s top management consulting firms, as a communications specialist. It’s an incredibly useful method of coming up with higher-level thoughts. “So what” is the way to “synthesize” messages” at McKinsey — it’s part of the pyramid principle, the firm’s communications framework. You can arrive at the governing thought(s) by asking yourself “so what” until you reach the top of the pyramid.
That is so interesting! I’d never thought about it — but it’s exactly right!
Thank you, Deborah. This spoke to me.
Sometimes simplicity is the deepest wisdom.
I heard poet Mark Doty say, during a post-reading talk, that he interrogates his poems that way: “So what?” and also “What else?”–which is perceivable while reading his poems because there are multiple points in the poem that feel like they could’ve been the closing if it weren’t for his persistent interrogation.
I love that “what else” … it’s like working in an improv troupe: allowing oneself to move forward (or deeper) without judgement….
Very important post!!! My writing students will LOVE it.
Hey thanks! My writing students like this advice (although they kind of hate it too) because it’s simple, a question that they can understand. And it helps them to find a thread they can hang onto as they write & revise.
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