The “What’s-the-Use” Syndrome

by Judy Goldman

My husband twisted to flick off the lamp. Then he lay back and let his entire body sink into our too-soft mattress. I thought I heard a sigh. From his lips? From the mattress?

“What’s the use?” I said, shifting to face him, folding the hem of the sheet over the comforter.

“Hmh?” he murmured, flipping his pillow to the cool underside, swiveling away from me onto his side, pulling the covers around his shoulders, messing up my neat fold.

“There are so many great poets in the Carolinas,” I said to his shoulder. This was in the early ’80s. “Why would I even think I could write well enough to get my poems published?”

He kicked one foot out from under the covers, circled it a little. “You’re learning,” he said. “You’ll get there.” He reached back around to pat my arm.
“Yeah, but really, what’s the use?”

I started naming all the poets I’d heard of then. The ones I could never be. “There’s Dannye Romine Powell. And Julie Suk. Susan Ludvigson. Fred Chappell. Mike Chitwood. Kay Byer. Joseph Bathanti. Who am I kidding?”

I heard a faint snore, then a soft whistle.

“Michael McFee,” I went on. “Reynolds Price. Alan Shapiro…”

He was sound asleep.

Decades later, I’m working on a new memoir. But I’m stuck again in the “what’s-the-use” syndrome. Lord knows, it’s hard to get anything published these days. The industry is no longer firmly in place. Agents, editors, authors – who really knows the way forward? Why should I keep going with a project that could take three to five years, maybe longer, when I know good and well my manuscript could end up in my drawer, unpublished? A friend of mine says friggin’ all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word. But here goes: What’s the friggin’ use?

There are no new stories. Any book I write will just echo countless others. If only I’d moved here from North Korea. Or, just once in my life, defied something impossible to defy. Then I’d have something to say.

How can I make my pitifully unremarkable story remarkable?

Any truth I try to express will probably be obscure, or obvious.

And there’ll be all those false starts and dead ends.

How do you get it exactly right?

Why bother?

It’s so much trouble to write.

Answer to an unanswerable question: It really doesn’t matter whether the world applauds our efforts. It doesn’t matter if our closest kin starts our book but never actually finishes it, if our family loves our book but we don’t get an agent, if we get an agent but a publisher doesn’t buy, if we’re published but not reviewed, if we’re reviewed but the reviewer hates our book, if we get an agent and we’re published and we’re reviewed favorably and we give a reading in a bookstore and a woman in the front row falls asleep – it doesn’t matter.

We’re writers. We’re curious. We have to probe that curiosity all the way from the top of page one down to the final sentence. Revise three, twenty, forty times. Strive, not for perfection, but for specificity, imagination, clarity. We need to convince, maybe not our readers, but ourselves.

We must tell our stories. Tell what we can almost see. What prickles us because we can’t see it fully. Whether anybody’s listening or not.


Learn about Writing Memoir with Judy

TUESDAY, MAY 7: “Everything, Really Everything, Judy Goldman Knows about Memoir,” 6:00–8:00 p.m., Charlotte Lit, 933 Louise Avenue (@hygge Belmont). Info and registration

In this immersive talk, Judy Goldman will cram every tip she wishes she had known before she started writing personal essays and memoir. She’ll discuss beginnings, voice, structure, descriptive details, reflection, scene vs. summary, and tension. She’ll even talk about a writer’s self-doubt and how she keeps going despite those little voices that say, “You can’t do it. You’re not a writer.” For beginners and experienced writers alike.

About Judy

Judy Goldman is the award-winning author of seven books—three memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry. Her new memoir, Child, was named a Katie Couric Media Must-Read Book for 2022. Her recent memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, was named one of the best books of 2019 by Real Simple magazine and received a starred review from Library Journal. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Charlotte Observer, Real Simple, LitHub, and many literary journals and anthologies.