Thursday, May 06, 2010

The So-What Question

As an undergraduate, I had a professor who, when the conversation became sticky, would make us take out paper and pen and write down our thoughts. He was Jacob Getzels and he would say, "Writing makes for clear thinking" in a really sanctimonious tone of voice. We would roll our eyes and get out the paper, and I thought he was a huge pain in my backside.

And yet, I hear his voice even now. And I still write when things are muddled. And I'm muddled. I need to pull out some mental weeds and let the right things grow.

My current boss has another way of getting at the same thing. He is fond of saying "so, what?" in an interested tone of voice, when faculty present their research ideas. He might occasionally mean, "Who in her right mind would spend time on this?" but most of the time he means some combination of, "Do you care enough about this to reflect on it and write about it in the early mornings and on weekends?" and "what impact (by whatever measure you like) will this have on the world?" If you can't answer the first one, you won't do the research. And if you can't answer the second one, you won't get paid to do it.

I think if I can answer the "so what" question (to say nothing of figuring out how to punctuate it), I will unstick myself. What are the things I'm willing to get up at the crack of dawn and do? Why would the world care (by whatever measure) if I do those things or not? And, being me, I won't be able to answer the question if I don't write.

So, I'm back, if only to dislodge myself from this icky place.

1 comment:

jill said...

On a related note, I had someone help me with my resume once. This had started out as a truly horrific process - I would open my laptop, open the Word file that contained my resume, stare at it in horror for about 15 seconds, quit the program, close the laptop and go off and do... well, anything.

I knew my experience was good. I knew my resume wasn't reflective of that, and I did not know how to bridge that gap. As a writer, this particularly irked me. Isn't this what I'm paid to do? To convince people through my words that something is worth doing? Something like... hiring me, say?

So finally, I sat down with someone at outplacement and she had me read all of the bullet points in my resume one after the other. Did this, achieved that, managed the other thing. And to every point she said, "Which resulted in what?" And the truth slowly dawned that showing results rather than activity was the important thing. And that the results weren't always obvious to everyone, though they were so screamingly obvious to me that it seemed silly to put them down until I was able to put myself in that other person's shoes.