The ‘So what?’ dilemma

Craft as conduit to art & Brenda Miller’s seminal essay on form.

Adverse Camber x

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott, “Against Technique”

I read many student personal essays, memoirs, and literary analyses. I’m not one who bashes student writing, says kids today can’t write—the vast majority of even freshmen are competent writers, especially of essays for teachers. What they’re not is professional writers. Nor do most aspire to be.

But then, while I try myself to emulate a professional’s ability, I’m a student too. Isn’t any writer? I believe that the cure for what ails us aspirants and our flawed efforts lies largely in craft. And craft also addresses the implicit and sometimes explicit curse that vexes memoirists and personal essayists, “So what?” That is, Why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think? These challenges are fellow travelers with the bitter and ignorant “navel-gazing” charge that faces even bestselling memoirists.

My guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, appears on my friend Shirley Hershey Showalter’s blog on memoir. Much of my lengthy post discusses a seminal essay by Brenda Miller, “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle of October/November 2011. Miller, editor of Bellingham Review, emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn the raw material of their lives into shapely, publishable stories. Form, the various elements of the craft of presentation, she says, protects writers from the pain of their own revelations, delights readers, and transforms one human’s experience into art.

And it does seem almost magical, really, the way one writer can interest us with her account of her divorce while another’s tale bores or angers. Yet most essays Miller receives as an editor, including over 400 each year as entries for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, fall short. She says:

[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.

I can’t help but smile at this pro’s tough love—and she is a pro, Miller having won six Pushcart Prizes herself—even though I know she or her weary posse has rejected my own hopeful submissions for the Dillard Award. Thankfully the models she cites as successes in her essay are ones that I and other hopefuls might learn from. For instance, Miller praises an essay that’s helpfully available on line, Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” which cuts back and forth in its braided structure between a bear, which is threatening Simpson and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her displeasure with her mate. In Simpson’s essay one can see how craft imposed on raw experience makes the essay not only interesting but more real, more lifelike. We can easily grasp that even when threatened by grizzly—maybe especially then—a person might still brood about her hubby.

So, craft.

This blog has been mostly about craft, even though craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. The self that produces art and its intent are what’s crucial. A paradox about art, however, is that craft is all we can really discuss. It’s what we can teach and work at. And anyway, craft is the path to art.

Of course, technique by itself is hollow if enshrined. Often to me writing seems simply a struggle with the self, the practice of craft pressuring what’s in the self that engenders art to come forth. This is the real mystery, ultimately, not how it’s done but that it’s made to exist and why. This is a spiritual matter and seems too personal and too various to address directly in a group setting or format; it lurks in the resonant negative spaces, the white spaces, of our discussions.

So we talk about craft, the necessary conduit, the way in.

See also my post from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about writing’s deeper or spiritual dimension and its relationship to craft.

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14 Comments

Filed under blogging, braids, threads, craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, essay-personal, memoir, religion & spirituality, structure, teaching, education

14 responses to “The ‘So what?’ dilemma

  1. As always, Richard, you are creatively and productively engaged with essential essays and material on writing. I really like what Brenda Miller has to say about form, and I like how you showcase your remarks about her and about Bret Lott’s instinct to look for surprise that surprises the writer as well as the reader.

  2. So insightful. That “so what?” is crucial and translates to any writing, really. It should be the first question writers ask themselves before sitting down to write. It’s a question I want my journalism students to consider before they write a story. Answering the “so what?” correctly is the difference between a good news story and a boring one.

  3. A fitting time to apply a quote from today’s birthday boy, John Steinbeck. “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

    • What a great line! Thanks, Brendan. So true. A writer must believe in his story, because that’s the only thing that will keep him going in the face of all the rejection. And while rejection teaches a writer, some of it is just wrong. Or a matter of preference or whim. Learning to know the difference is hard.

  4. The problem/challenge is often, for me, one of voice or perspective. One person’s “so what?” may not be another’s. Too many anthology essays end up being one more upper middle class writer whining about X…not a broader and more diverse array of voices from a wider selection of life experiences. Too often, I read an essay about someone’s personal experience and just don’t care very much, no matter how well crafted it might be.

    • I agree, Caitlin. So much comes down to taste. Which is why a writer, having belief in her story and having worked like a dog on its craft aspects, should not necessarily take rejection as proof of her work’s intrinsic worth.

  5. I always enjoy the discussion on your blog, Richard. In fact, I’m off to read your piece on Shirley’s blog. Tomorrow, I’m off to Baton Rouge to meet Shirley. I have a book event in New Orleans and had planned to spend the night in Baton Rouge before heading over. Shirley and her husband are passing through at the same time. I’m as excited about meeting Shirley as I am about having a book event on NOLA.

  6. It was great to have you present with us in a coffee shop in Baton Rouge through your great posts and responses on this subject, Richard. Thank you so much for adding your wisdom and wit to my blog this week. And when I was on a road trip, to boot.

    Feeling blessed to have met both Darrelyn and you online. Sending you both extra energy and clarity as you write. Friendship is one of the best answers to the “so what” question.

  7. This is another helpful post. Recently, I read advice that a great memoir is the type that makes the reader think, “Things can’t possibly have happened like this!” One of the women we’ve interviewed for the museum’s oral history project has just this type of life story, and has told me she’s wanted to write it for many years. I’m so tempted to help… because it’s an amazing narrative. I mean, not only does her personal history include segregation and hardship… but an abusive stepfather, a quadriplegic husband she nursed for twenty years while working three jobs and raising five children, a stint as a community activist who helped bring proper water and sewage to the town’s African American neighborhood in the 1970s AND a term as the black PTA president during school integration… just too, too much to believe. But the amount of craft involved is incredibly deep and broad. Sigh. I will be reading your old posts in my feeble attempts to determine whether I’m worthy of offering my meager talents to this amazing woman. Glad you’re here.

    • Thanks so much, Jennifer. If I were you, I’d plunge in and try to help her, maybe be her ghostwriter. You, and presumably she, have the strongest asset, belief in that story. And it sounds dramatic and so inherently interesting—literature is about trouble, after all. Craft will become important in how it’s told, of course, because even a great story can plod. But that can be worked out in revisions.

  8. Pingback: Spiritual Practices and the Memoir Writing Process: An Interview with Karen Horneffer-Ginter @ Shirley Hershey Showalter