I’m a well-known note-taker. Today, dipping into the Notes app on my phone, I happened upon unedited notes from a talk by writer Ann Hood on how to write a kick-ass personal essay. I cleaned up my notes and share them here for my writer friends–and those readers who may wonder why they like a particular essay. May you find inspiration here.
- Remember the little girl you are writing about, but don’t forget the woman you have become.
- Write from a sense of curiosity, Illumination, and understanding over defensiveness and self-pity.
- Write about things not ideas. Consider the object or event holding the burden or emotion of your essay.
- Make sure to write about the thing that keeps you up at night.
- Look for the significant moments in the everyday; the thing that you’re trying to figure out. 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 to write for a voice that’s not yours. Quoting Barbara Kingsolver, Ann says, 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.
- Think about the small thing that says something enormous. Dig under the small thing to see what lies underneath it. Ann quotes Grace Paley, saying writers should write what they don’t know about what they do know. Also, Alice Munro, who says anecdotes don’t make good stories. Dig down so far that what finally comes out isn’t even what you thought it was about.
- 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. But do so in a way, per August Wilson, that confront the dark parts of yourself. Then, work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.
- The reason you are writing an essay is not to get revenge, but it’s also not to mythologize a person. Exposure is not illumination. No hero is totally heroic and no villain is completely villainous. The less judgment you put on your characters, the more your reader will see their flaws.
- Find the objective correlative. That 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.
- Do not report events, make sense of them. What is the meaning of that thing? Poet Cecil Day-Lewis says we do not write to be understood. We write to understand.
- Every story is two stories. Quoting Grace Paley, Ann says 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.
- Finally, 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. We hide behind ourselves. We put up armor protection over ourselves and others. Ann quotes George Saunders, saying, stay open, so open it hurts. And then open up some more until the day you die. Amen.
We added three new cases to our Hawaii statewide total, now 638.