The Task B hook
Michael John Sunderland, 1/12/20
When writing, especially vulnerably or emotively, if you choose to do so, you want to take on some responsibility for how what you say lands for other people. Furthermore, you want to be aware of how you position yourself relative to the reader. When I started writing task b narratives I looked retrospectively and frankly into the annals of my history and, much of what I had to say was probably quite grim by other people’s standards. I personally didn’t mind it, I have dealt with my stuff. Nevertheless, my history, as I saw it, was more or less a consecutive series of the worst imaginable traumas punctuated by my willingness to persevere, rise above, and stay true to my values. So that’s what I wrote. I have since learned through my Section 2 preparation, that truth is relative and my history is equally uplifting and beautiful. We’ll circle back to this later.
Let’s stop for a moment. Reading that line about the trauma, check into your body. How do you feel? As I write I am subtly aware of heaviness, a sense of peripherally “dealing with” something, and a lack of vitality and aliveness. At worst I may have triggered people through the mention of trauma. That okay, you can release that now, it’s gone, and you’re feeling uplifted, free and alive again 🙂
What I wrote was momentarily bleak and misanthropic. It could be profound and engaging and it could move and connect with you, but I still would have achieved that relatedness through engaging the faculties within you that drain you or make you suffer (however momentarily). This creates your marker as somebody who was drained by your writing, and your best possible scenario (if done artistically) is leaving them with the same feeling you get at the end of Titanic, Schindler’s List, or the Pianist. You might get a good review, but it’s through the thicket of their exhaustion. As we have discussed, people are highly susceptible to their biases and emotions. If I can create the marker however I like with my writing, I might as well choose to have my work marked by someone relaxed, uplifted, laughing, happy, whose guard is down, and who likes me. It is human nature to overestimate risk when afraid or fearful (e.g “my toilet paper is going to run out” during covid), and underestimate risk when happy or relaxed (“I can go to the beach without sunscreen, I’m never going to get skin cancer”). So being marked by someone whose guard is up is going to make them err on the side of conservativeness in their marking; whereas being marked by someone happy, relaxed, and who likes you is going to make them take more “risks” or be more outlandish in their appraisal of your work. Also consider that they are reading essay after essay of things that probably don’t make sense and were rushed and they’re probably already feeling exhausted. If you are the moment of relief in the stack of drainers they are going to feel very positively (thankful, even) toward you. I’ve dealt elsewhere in my writing with that it’s relatively hard to shift someone’s perception of you very far off their initial impression (which implies them reflecting better on mistakes after an initial good impression), and so your very first line necessarily needs to give the best possible impression. This is what your hook achieves, and is especially important in a task B response (if you choose to writing reflectively or through the use of narrative at the beginning).
So what should it look like?
When Liv (another of our group members, and someone who scored in the top few percent in her own gamsat) handed me her first ever essay for marking during my own preparation, the first line stunned me. Here it is:
Now how do you feel? For me, it’s real. It makes me remember moments of my childhood of well-being, and innocence. Despite my history, see how she has created me as somebody entirely different than I was earlier in my post? This will mediate my behaviour in response to her (and as a side note, is a perfect illustration of the fact that our lives and everything in them are reflections of us and our own behaviour, but I digress). Furthermore, through her self-effacing and humorous appraisal of herself I immediately feel unthreatened and intrigued. My guard is down. Now this is key! If you imagine all the circumstances in which the marker’s guard has been down .. maybe moments of playing with children, intimate chats with lovers or best friends, laughing with family or falling in love. And then imagine all the moments that the marker has felt guarded: break ups, job interviews, public transport. By being self-effacing, authentic, real, and humorous – and therefore bringing their guard down – you are unconsciously making the marker feel about you how they felt at the best times in their life versus the worst. This is all unconscious but this will make a person feel like they are marking the people who made them feel that way previously (the children, best friends, lovers etc). It’s not so much that you make them feel the worse by not taking their guard down, because that will be most people’s default state; however by explicitly being bleak and misanthropic you do thrust them back into those negative psycho-emotive states, which isn’t wining you any battles. There are two implications we have discussed so far:
- Avoid being bleak and misanthropic
- By being self-effacing, authentic, real, relatable, transparent about your own flaws and imperfections you are able to bring the marker’s guard down.
I will add a third, now, too:
- Thrust the reader IMMEDIATELY into your world, or the world of your narrative.
So I started writing like this, and it made a PROFOUND difference to my writing. Here are some of the hooks I subsequently wrote for task b with the topics they were a response to in parenthesis :
– I once told my pregnant wife i wish she weren’t pregnant. I’m cringing writing it and knowing you’ll read it. Ugh. (Imagination/Empathy)
– I pooed my pants in year four. I can still remember confronting the reality of the situation in the fluorescent tinged bathroom stall of the school toilets. Horror crawled over my skin like so many beetles, dignity squelched into the trenches under the boots of the sobriety of the weight in my pants. Luckily no-one saw. I thank God, still, for escaping the ridicule and embarrassment of the rest of the kids in my class finding out. Back then laughter was not a spontaneous expression of freedom and humanity, or a coping mechanism. Laughter was a weapon. We either laughed at somebody else; or were laughed at by somebody else. I was desperate for it not to be the latter. So I wiped my hands clean and ran from that bathroom, unable to see the humour until many years later. (Laughter)
– I didn’t always get coldsores; they came home with me from a hostel in Cambodia. A consequence of recklessness, the invincibility that enlivens young people and… more directly: kissing someone with a coldsore. (Humour)
– I met my son on a Sunday (Love)
– “Save our Earth!” the placard read, in bold red letters. It was lofted above matted dreadlocks, sported by my 20 year old self in tattered garments and no shoes. I lived in a tree. I’m not even lying: I half wish I were. I learned many things in those years as a Greenpeace activist, the most bitter of which is that much of the world thought they knew me before I opened my mouth. (Clothing)
Try dealing frankly with the qualities of yourself that aren’t perfect and refined. This not only paints you in a positive light to the marker, but shows maturity and self awareness. Crucially, it also gives latitude for self-reflection and further displays of maturity and growth as you subsequently reflect on the narrative in light of the theme.
Do they all have to be upbeat and funny?
No. You might not be a naturally funny person. I’m not. Frankly, I never quite achieve that same light hearted style that Liv has. But in trying to, I learned to write frankly about my own imperfections and it had the desired effect nonetheless. Indeed, it can sometimes be inappropriate to respond to the task with humour or lightheartedness. A perfect example is in response the topic of death. Every time I read the hook from Helena’s repsonse I get goosebumps.
Have a read:
Just that first line. “It’s nearly midnight and my grandmother is dying.” Aside from being a gut punch, within 8 words I am right there next to her in the room. Powerful! Where, with the benefit of the rest of the response, it can be improved is in balancing the emotive thrust into the sobriety of time of great adversity for her; with elements that take care of the reader gently and considerately, so that they’re never made to feel heavy (for long). Darkness or intensity can be contrasted with light and humour to play with the marker (putting them on a rollercoaster) but if you choose to do this you must be sure to end on a positive and optimistic note.
- Be sure to end on a positive and optimistic note if you’ve been anything but upbeat in the rest of the essay.
Now that we’ve learned the four rules above, let’s apply it to one more hook. I won’t give my thoughts on it yet, have a read, and see if you can identify any good or bad qualities in each sentence or the hook as a whole (disclaimer: I stole this from Des O’Neal.. i think?? I’m guessing because of the font, idk. Pretty sure this guide is out of print, but thanks D!)
What do you think? The most valuable 30 seconds of this reading will be working through it yourself rather than skipping to the answer. Active learning is far more beneficial and long lasting that passive learning. In fact, in the spirit of that I will wait a couple of days, let you guys answer in the comments, and I’ll post my thoughts in the comments in a few days..