I came across this fantastic podcast the other day via Tin House and featuring writer Ann Hood who shares her ten rules on how to write a ‘kick-ass’ essay. It is excellent and I urge you to listen to it immediately!
The podcast is a recording of Hood’s lecture given during Tin House’s 2014 Summer Writer’s Workshop. Hood is an award-winning American writer who also happens to have a passion for knitting and yarn, so clearly she is a wonderful human being.
I was so taken with this podcast that I took notes. I got a bit lost in places but think I managed to get the general gist. I’m sharing them below in case you find them as inspiring and useful as I do. Ann’s words to me were captivating, and I’m so grateful for the wonder of technology that allows the amazing people at Tin House to share this amazing lecture with the world!
While I hope these will be helpful to read through, I do suggest that you listen to Ann herself as she gives full context to her tips based on personal experience and also reads two magnificent short essays too. Plus, you will no doubt glean something different, and certainly more, from the full breadth of her words than from these rudimentary notes, which really are more a personal reminder of the lecture for me.
As she suggests, these are meant as points to think about once you’ve written a draft of an essay and are looking to go back and rework it to kick-ass level, or kick-arse level if you’re from my part of the world. It immediately inspired me to start work on a personal essay and yes, I am busy working through these tips to improve it.
Also, it is worth noting that these tips would be worth considering for any creative writing practice. It seems to me that many would be as useful to think about when reworking a short story as they would be for a non-fiction essay.
THANK YOU ANN HOOD!
ANN HOOD’S HOW TO WRITE A KICK-ASS ESSAY
1. Make sure you are writing about the thing that keeps you up at night.
We work too hard to find this sometimes. Look for the significant moments in the everyday, the thing that you’re trying to figure out.
2. When you do come up with that thing for your essay, forget where it’s going to be published.
Having a publication in mind means you will be trying tot write for a voice that’s not yours. Ann quotes Barbara Kingsolver: “Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you. Figure out what it is that you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”
3. They’re about something small, they’re about something enormous.
Dig down from the small thing to see what lies underneath it. Ann quotes Grace Paley who says that writers should write what they don’t know about what they do know. Also, Alice Munro: “Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Dig down so far that what finally comes out isn’t even what you thought it was about.”
4. No ideas but in things.
This is a line from the epic William Carlos Williams poem Paterson. He argues that poetry should focus on objects not abstractions. It’s the same as saying ‘show, don’t tell’.
5. In a Kick-Ass Essay, you always say the hardest thing, the thing you think you cannot say.
Ann quotes Joyce Maynard, who said “You have to write like you’re an orphan”, meaning that you can’t let your personal relationships censor your words and what you really mean to say. Ann also shares this wonderful quote from August Wilson: “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
6. The reason you are writing an essay is not to get revenge, but it is also not to mythologise a person.
Exposure is not illumination. No hero is totally heroic and no villain is completely villainous. The less judgement you put on your characters, the more your reader will see their flaws.
7. Find the objective corelative.
What is the object or event that can take on the burden of the emotion? A thing that is used in place of emotion, for example Alice Walker’s The Flowers, or Junot Diaz’s The Money where the money stands in for alienation and homesickness.
8. Do not report events, make sense of them.
What is that meaning of that thing? Poet Cecil Day-Lewis says, “We do not write to be understood. We write to understand.”
9. Every story is two stories.
Quoting Grace Paley from a 1987 lecture: “There is no story that is just one story. Every story is two stories. It is the one on the surface, and the one bubbling beneath.” The climax is then when these two stories collide. Ann goes on to say that a Kick-Ass Essay has three endings. You resolve the external conflict, the internal conflict and then you let them collide. When you think you’re finished, you must keep pushing.
10. Don’t hide – open your mind and your heart.
We hide behind language. We hide from the voices of others. We hide behind the hardest sentence to write – behind ourselves. We put up armour protection ourselves and others. Ann quotes George Saunders: “Stay open. Forever. So open it hurts. And then open up some more until the day you die. Amen.”
Aren’t these great!? Let me say it again, THANK YOU ANN HOOD!
You can visit the Tin House website here.
Image via ArtsATL.com