So What?

Twice a week during my junior year in college, our class would get into groups of three or four and workshop our latest personal essay. Before this, I’d never considered nonfiction to be a creative art. I mean, how entertaining can a story be if you’ve never done anything exciting? Nonfiction was a retelling of events, and I believed if the events were dull, then so was the story. For my first essay, I had no idea where to begin. Sure, we’d been given plenty of examples, but when I examined my life, nothing intriguing had happened. The one thing I was armed with was a resonating piece of advice given to me by my professor: What’s the so what?

I sat in my dorm looking into my computer screen with a blank Appleworks document open, the cursor blinking at me mockingly. I’d already written and deleted a dozen or so sentences. I could write about religion, or philosophy, or what it meant to truly live. I wanted my so what to be heavy, worthwhile, something that lingered. So there I sat, thinking, when suddenly inspiration struck. What was this smack-you-in-the-face topic I’d chosen? Checking out the ladies.

While my mother explored every crack and crevice in the mall for a sale, my younger sister and I would cruise the walkway to pass time. We’d crack jokes and people watch. As we sat down on a bench, Kacee popped her head up at me and said, “That girl was looking at you!” We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around seeing how many girls would look at me. Then we’d make fun of them.

That’s right, my first personal essay that I’d spent an hour working just to get started, ended up being a concise, 650 word exposé on a teenager and his kid sister making fun of girls kind enough to give him a double take. I abandoned writing something weighty for getting a few cheap laughs. It was easy and the story was somewhat unique, but by the end, I realized the significance of my professor’s question. The so what of my piece wasn’t the story, it was what the story represented. A brother and sister passed time in a mall doing something stupid, but it was during that time that they became closer. The plot was a device, but it wasn’t the story.

This was a revelation. It was the first time I discovered and really embraced the idea that a good story is more than what happens. Anything could make a good story, as long as you find the so what.

As a middle schooler, I was really into art. I would spend hours on a drawing, sketching meticulously to get every detail just right. The more I put the graphite to the page, the more I saw the world around me in terms of composition. In college I studied poetry and became so entrenched in my art that I would see something mundane like a dandelion and spend my walk to class composing a verse in my brain.

Lately, I’ve felt as though my writing has become stagnant, so to combat this I’ve had a nonfiction reawakening. I’ve returned to the personal essay in the hope that I can discover more so whats. And I’ve already been noticing the results. I’ve been finding myself conversing with friends, or driving my scooter through traffic, when suddenly I realize I’m imagining how I’d capture the moment with words. My hope is that if I can be more sensitive to the world around me, then my writing will reap the benefits.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.


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