Creative Enemy #1: The “So What?” Factor

All you really need

by Janet Grace Riehl

I’m just back from the Iowa City Writing Festival where I participated in a week long workshop “Finding the Story in Your Life: Using Narrative in Memoir Writing.”  Seven out of the eight writers in the group were women. So, sort of like a women’s memoir gathering.

Every woman in the group voiced a variation of what I call the “So what?” Factor. Our male mascot seemed immune to this bug-a-boo of a writing life. We’ll skip over the sociology of this particular gender gap. What is the “So what?” Factor?

You ask yourself:

1) “Why should I write this? Does it matter to anyone else but me? Does it matter to even me? No one (including me) will care if I write it or not.”

2) “Why should I write this? I will never be able to get it published.

3) “Why should i write this? It hurts too much to dig down to excavate these memories? It’s too much work. What good is it, anyway.”

4)”Why should I write this? I can’t write anyway. Everyone will know it once the words are down on the page. I can’t learn all these fancy skills every one says I need to tell a good story. What’s wrong with straight-ahead prose?”

These, and variations of these–boil down to “So what?” And behind the “So what?” lurks: “I am scared. I am not equal to the task. I’ll get hurt. Is is worth the risk? I’m nothing special. What chutzpah to think my story matters.” Not to worry. These agonies don’t make you a scaredy cat. As long as you don’t let them stop you, okay? Courage is in the doing. Feel the fear and do it anyway.

Is writing our stories futile? Dangerous? Stupid? Dangerous, maybe. Futile and stupid, no. The antidote to the “So what?” Factor is to make our own meaning. Claim it. Then work from the confidence and faith of that meaning.

1) Declare meaning–as if you were planting a flag at the top of a mountain you’ve just climbed. (Oh, heck. As if you were planting a flag at the bottom of a mountain you were about to climb. Why be fussy here?) Eric Maisel suggests this meaning mantra: “I matter. My work matters.”

2) Search for meaning inside yourself rather than outside. You can aim to master yourself and your responses. The world’s response is completely outside your control. Think of it as none of your business. On a personal level, it isn’t. Let it go, especially when you’re still producing the stuff.

3) What motivates you? While our culture says that fame and fortune are the main prizes in life, most Story Circle Network Members write our stories as a labor of love. That labor itself is the gift–to ourselves first of all. Then, as our work finds its way in the world the gift touches others.

4) Invite a friend to be your Meaning Buddy.  When you run up against that “So What?” blood sucker, pick up the telephone (or text!) before that thirsty leech can attach itself to your psyche and your pen.


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15 responses to “Creative Enemy #1: The “So What?” Factor

  1. Janet, Love this article. This is something I have been dealing with all my life. The message I got growing up was – get a real job. You have to find the strength within yourself to live for love. Thanks for the advice on how to find that strength.

  2. Jana,
    Yes. There isn’t a creative person I know–in any media–that doesn’t know the “So what?” Factor pretty well.

    You, and others, who are really out there, doing that labor of love, sometimes are the most vulnerable to this doubt.

    If you look at the Creative Catalyst archives there’s a cycle on dealing with fear that might be helpful.


  3. I’ve had people actually say, “So what?” when I tell them (in answer to their question of what I’m doing now that I’m retired) I’m writing a memoir. I reply that surviving hard times might be relevant to a few people right now.

  4. Fran,
    Oh, yes. What is this quaint little thing are you doing to entertain yourself? Goodness knows.

    I love your memoir “This House Protected By Poverty” (same working title?) and long to read it.


  5. Barbara L Miller

    Hooray!! You nailed it!

  6. Boy, Janet, when the Universe speaks, it can shout. Thanks for this post. I’ve been questioning my own significance for most of my life and that, of course, seeps into my writing. Well, when I can get past the “so what” and actually write. I’ve managed a couple of powerful pieces but right now I’m at the stage of “so what” again. I really needed this encouragement right now. Thanks, again. Sam

  7. Cathy Stengel

    The very most insidious of viruses, this question “why bother?” It weasels and wanders through the spaces and places that surround the beauty of story, setting, self expression. Spoken by the the grand and self-important “editor,” the booming voice of fear and self-protection. When confidence wavers the questions dive in like seagulls grabbing bread off the beach. It becomes easier to give up than to take the risk.

    Given that reality, we must be diligent, have friends who will douse the persistent rattling in our heads, quiet the critics, more importantly, speak to our hearts and the value of the best of what rises within us, wanting to be written, waiting to be read.

  8. Thanks Cathy, Barbara, and Sam. Hey, Sam…good to know that even guy-writers Get the Blues!


  9. They probably do, too, Janet, but I’m female. *G* Sam

  10. Ah! I’d wondered for awhile, actually, but didn’t see any clues in your profile. Thanks for the spirited discussions you’ve contributed to on “Creative Catalyst” for quite awhile.

    Janet Riehl

  11. Hey Janet! Thanks for this great piece. The human condition is universal. I believe we all have a book (or more) within us and it is all relevant and important to someone. We can create compassion by sharing and experiencing one another’s stories. Writers, commence writing!

  12. Diane,
    I love the “writers commence” phrase–like being on the starting line.
    I look forward to reading your story in print.

  13. For me the ‘why bother’ emerges as a why-don’t-you-just-give-up-and-do-something-useful…like clean the toilet or the over, which by the way is smoking something fierce as I sit here reading and writing…maybe I’ll just write about how the smoke looks as it drifts across the kitchen, lit up by the evening sun streaming in through the windows, grey wisps floating gently across the room like some long dead oven spirit who simply wishes to be seen and acknowledged……
    Another thought provoking article Janet! I love this series which you write. It never fails to inspire me!

  14. Love your article and the responses it evoked, especially
    edith’s lovely entry about her kitchen smoke!

  15. Yes! Edith’s smoke is a perfect example of how our indecision and doubt become the source of our work. Good going, Edith.

    “…maybe I’ll just write about how the smoke looks as it drifts across the kitchen, lit up by the evening sun streaming in through the windows, grey wisps floating gently across the room like some long dead oven spirit who simply wishes to be seen and acknowledged…”

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