A couple of years ago, a writer friend of mine told me about one of his old high school English teachers who owned a lethal pair of personalized rubber stamps. One read “So what?” and the other, “Who cares?” Ouch.
I’m sure this teacher wielded her stamps with gusto, slamming them down on her students’ papers, calling the young writers out on the errors of their ways. And I’ll bet she left those essays dripping with red ink as well.
Harsh? Perhaps. But what better advice is there for writers than to suggest they listen to these two little devils on their shoulders, the ones whose voices drown out the beautiful Blue Fairy of unconditional love—the one who blows kisses as each perfect sentence lands safely on the page. They Who Must Be Listened To inspire and encourage us as writers to search for an angle—a way of telling a story that hooks the readers’ interest and makes them care. So what? I’ll tell you what.
Ever since I heard my friend’s story, I am unable to look at anything I’ve written without hearing the hard sound of one of those accusatory stamps pounding down on my work: So what? Who cares? I have to stop and consider: Do I have answers to these questions? Can I make a case for my answers that will cause the two demons to slip away and bedevil some other writer for the time being? I like to imagine them slinking off, defenseless, in the face of my well-chosen topic, construction, and attention to detail. If I’m telling the story I want to tell, I can stand up to those voices and tell them I have it covered. Scram!
The Red Stamps of Doubt force me to think about the essential message I’m trying to convey in my writing. And I look for it in what I read too, especially when it comes to memoir and personal essays. What does the writer hope I, the reader, will take away from the story: why should I care? Will I recognize a truth in what is written that applies to me as well as to the writer? What is the reason this writer chooses to tell a particular story at a particular time? Is a memory jogged by recent events, or has something finally worked its way to the surface after years of dormancy? Maybe I could add a “Why now?” stamp to my imaginary arsenal. Like the three witches in the Scottish play, they chant their questions as they stir the pot. Yes, it’s annoying. But how much better the writing becomes when the writer has ready answers to these questions.
If one writes about a personal tragedy (which I have, at great length), what kind of reaction does one hope to evoke from a reader? What are the answers to the three rubber stamp questions posed here? I’ve written about a major fire that destroyed 3000 homes, including mine, and the way my family and I survived in the months that followed. Most people who have witnessed the misfortune of others in a situation like this—floods, earthquakes, fires—often wonder what they would do if it happened to them. What would you take if you had five minutes to get out of the house? What would you miss if you lost it forever? The answers to “so what, who cares, and why now” are determined by how well I’ve been able to convey what changed for me in those days of loss and anguish, and what, if anything, I did differently after those changes occurred. If I only tell what happened and what happened next, it’s just a long string of anecdotes with no real purpose.
I took a personal essay workshop from San Francisco writer and essayist Adair Lara earlier this year. In her book on the craft of writing memoir and personal essays, Naked, Drunk, and Writing (and how can you top that for a title!), she devotes a chapter to the elements of a successful essay. I especially like her suggestions regarding narrative essays: start small and focus on the points of change, those “turning points or learning points”; it’s all about the moment something changed. She says, “Find a significant moment, and then find a way to frame that moment.” As with any story, it takes a lot of fine-tuning, sifting, and sorting to get to the nitty gritty of it. And then you must choose the best way to get that meaning across to a reader. What details and events will do the best job of presenting that meaning? What must you leave out?
But the reader must first get to know you, the narrator, before the epiphany or transforming moment, and must also see what has changed after that moment; which means there must be one more element: resolution. Show the reader these elements, and they will care.
Let’s say you have a story to tell that is of deep personal significance, and you intend for others to read it. Will the reader be able to slip into your shoes for a while and feel what you felt, see what you saw, hear what you heard, and experience that moment of change along with you—or, will the reader perhaps come away wondering how he or she might have dealt with similar circumstances? Will the truth of your experience touch a nerve in the reader? Either way, you will have answered the questions and given your reader a reason to keep reading.
Lara tells us that we may need to be prepared to “take perfectly good ideas out of a piece and save them for another day” so they won’t distract from the story we are trying to tell. If you cull out the distractions and broad vistas that force you to use abstractions, your essay will have a point, a snappy rejoinder to that little voice asking “So what?”
She also reminds us that a problem is at the heart of every personal essay: she says, “If there is no problem, there is no conflict, and thus no tension, and thus no reader.” So do we need another stamp that says, “What’s your problem?” I hope not!
I’m good with the old so what, who cares, and why now. Thanks just the same.