Why You Should Write Like Katharine Hepburn Skateboards

Kate Hepburn Skateboarding

I love this photo of Kate Hepburn. Even though her both-feet-athwart stance seems to presage a butt-tumble to come, the fact that she’s cranking the angle shows she’s not just rolling a flat-foot-dead-ahead-I’m-terrified skate, but she’s going for it. Maybe it’s the only time Kate skated, maybe it’s just a publicity photo, but implicit in it is the kind of attitude confirmed by Hepburn’s bio: a brash kind of what-the-hell brio that was disarming and refreshing.

That’s what I think writers should do: push the angle a little, crank off some language that’s bolder or brighter, be willing to take a bone bruise to your writer’s elbows. I like to imagine Kate grinding on a curb in the Safeway parking lot, the security guard saying, “Hey lady, give it a rest!” From reading of her history, she rarely gave it a rest: she was opinionated, strong-willed and emotional, and it came out in her acting and her personal life. Whether you write for business, pleasure or both, writing doesn’t have any flavor unless you add some cayenne now and then.

The Long Hangover from a Word-Bender
When I was ten or eleven, I became slap-happy with words. I’d read the dictionary in chunks of pages, getting into the brief etymologies, mouthing the pronunciations. I remember running down to my best friend’s house, having memorized a line about a nice, old Volkswagen bus his highly educated parents had bought, so that I could spring on them something like “Congratulations on purchasing a well-restored vintage mode of transportation,” or some such gobbledygook. My friend’s dad just looked at me and laughed, though in a kindly way.

Despite regularly getting those kind of skeptical responses, I continued being a word-dweeb for years. The editor of my college paper was a guy who liked me and my writing, but one who accurately judged that my polysyllables-per-sentence count was choking many readers. He once titled an article of mine about an unconventional housing design near the college, “A Lot of Big Words About Housing.”

I’ve calmed down some from those days. I’m no longer so insecure about my writing that I have to forcibly lard it with fifty-cent words to make it seem worth something. But I’m still thrilled by language, still rifling through the dictionary, still wanting to goose a sentence with word-grease that makes it jump. So, take some chances with your writing: think of Kate Hepburn shredding in a half-pipe, no knee pads.

Bonus Celebrity “No Way!” Sighting
Agatha Christie was a surfer. I knew that Mark Twain did it in Hawaii (look for his tales of “surf bathing” in the Sandwich Islands), but Dame Agatha? Yes! I am hoping that one of you can find out whether Yogi Berra was a knitter.