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.

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13 thoughts on “Why You Should Write Like Katharine Hepburn Skateboards

  1. That’s funny, Jodi. It really is so true these days that you can often find the email address of people, even prominent people, and they might even write you back, if you don’t sound like you’ll stalk them.

    I’ve been amazed by how quickly Seth Godin answers email, when he must get a zillion a day. Don’t know if Yogi has an email address—I’ll see if I can find one.

  2. hat I’d like to see is the email thread between Seth and Yogi… Now THAT’D be interesting!

    (“When you get to a fork in the road- provide experiences for your customers that delight them, and that solve their interesting problems.”)

    (“Nah, no one goes to that restaurant anymore- it’s too crowded, and it’s no longer Purple.”)

    (“It ain’t over till it’s shipped.”)

    (“If you make wrong mistakes, it means you’re shipping.”)

    And so on…

  3. Nice photo. I especially like the open door on the van. Maybe she just jumped out and started shredding.

    I always like your pile of words, Tom, and the order you put them in. Inspiring.

  4. Rick, I think you should continue channeling Yogeth, and that you should put the sayings in fortune coookies. You’ll make a fortune. Or at least a fortune cookie. Keep those mashups mashed, T.

  5. Hey Rex, lovely of you to drop by! Do you suppose Katherine whipped up in the van (as much as you could “whip” in a VW van), flipped out the board and started ripping? I like to think so.

    Thanks for the kind words (which are pretty much always better than big words).

  6. Jodi, do you think Seth is a Yankees fan? Of course, it’s hard not to be a Yogi Berra fan. I’m trying to picture Seth in a Little League uniform, but the image won’t quite solidify…

  7. Do you find yourself reviewing your writing to downsize the words before you publish them? Hemmingway may not have been a word dweeb, but don’t you imagine that many writers are? I used to read the dictionary when I was child. Seriously! And during those formative years, I also read a lot of stuff by Brits. Now I’m paying for it, needing to simplify and Americanize each sentence or else risk turning my readers into non-readers. It may not be easy being green, but how about trying to write while simultaneously forgetting one’s rabid obsession with words?

  8. Hi Megan. I’m going to be slippery with my answer, because I’m that kind of guy. It all has to do with the context: I’m much more likely to let the big dogs of elocution out when I’m writing a personal essay kind of piece. I save the Paris Hilton Yorkie words for business writing and those mid-sized Aussie herders for things in between.

    Obviously you’re going to lose readers/customers (or insult them) when you pound them with polysyllabics in things like website content or ads. But if you are writing blog posts about language and its delights, employing some delightful language seems mandatory, as long as it’s not just suffocation-by-adverb.

    Of course, a sense of fun with words is always helpful too, but some contexts (popular prayers) don’t seem to allow for a great deal of fun.

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