The most useful comment that I ever received on a paper came when I was an undergraduate. The assignment had been to explicate a poem. I don’t remember what it was – perhaps John Donne, perhaps Robert Frost -- but the paper had to be at least three pages long. So, to pad at it out, I catalogued rhyme schemes, talked about metrical scansion (as best I could), counted syllables and words and lines. Next to a paragraph in which I tallied these up, saying something like “this five stanza poem has five stanzas with each stanza having four lines each and each of the four lines contains ten syllables….” the professor, Wayne Booth, wrote in the margin, “So what?”
Even though I was shocked at the bluntness, and a bit hurt, I understood that he wasn’t being flip or sarcastic. Those two words pierced to the essential point. Why did this information matter? He wasn’t saying that it didn’t; he was noting that I hadn’t made it clear why it did. I was scurrying around, offering the appearance of analysis, without actually explaining what these observations added up to.
The comment scared me because I couldn’t answer it. What was the point? I didn’t know. The point was to write three full pages. The point was to do the paper so I would pass the class. The point was to pass the classes so I would get the degree. The point was to get the degree so …
Even now, I keep returning to these words, particularly when I’m revising my writing. On bad days, they torment as “why bother?” On good days, they prompt and provoke and force me to think about what I’m doing. When I have put down yet another anecdote that’s merely shaped like a poem, I step back and look at it and think, “So what?” What is this doing and why? Is it more than a diary entry? If not, why am I telling it? It’s not always easy to find, or admit, the answers.
There also are a couple paradoxes or problems to the question. One is that, in some work, explaining the “so what?” diminishes it and condescends to the audience, saying “I’m spelling this out so that you’ll be sure to get it.”
Another is that sometimes you may not be able to articulate an answer. Sometimes the process involves an element of faith that what you’re doing has a purpose.
And a third is that if you explicitly try to sound deep, relevant, profound, you’ll probably fail. In golf or baseball, if you try to blast the ball, you’ll often miss or pull it. The effort will deform your stroke, and you won’t hit it as hard as you’d like. If you try to act for the award, it’s unlikely you’ll do good work. Reach for too much, and you won’t get anywhere. And yet, simultaneously, as the poet Donald Hall puts it, "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems. … To desire to write poems that endure — we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it."