The Power of Ah + Aha
Really powerful, evocative writing—the kind that reaches out and grabs you by the heart—starts with that “Ah!” of recognition. It’s that delicious moment when one soul reaches across time and space to another and tells a truth that is as familiar as one’s own face in the mirror.
But great writing doesn’t stop there. Ahs of recognition feel good, but if that’s all that’s on offer, they move rather quickly to “and…?”
An Ah without an Aha—“Don’t like the weather? Just wait 15 minutes and it’ll change!”—is just a cliche. It takes your unique spin on the familiar, the Aha, to transform the Ah into a new thought, a fresh idea, something magical. Something, in other words, that illuminates, that teaches, that matters.
As a onetime comedy writer, the best example of this that comes to mind is an ancient episode of Cheers, in which nerdy postman Cliff Claven decides to become a stand-up comic. This was in the heyday of observational comedy (think Jerry Seinfeld, and the “didja ever notice…” style of humor). Claven got the first half of the equation—the Ah—but wasn’t funny enough or creative enough to deliver the Aha:
Cliff: You know how some people put the toilet paper on the roll so it’s hanging over and some so it’s hanging under? What’s up with that?
The overused toilet paper observation isn’t actually the problem. It’s the fact that there’s no punchline, no twist, there’s nothing unique or new added to the cliché. Yeah, we’ve got the Ah of recognition, but without the Aha, it just becomes a So What.
Observe, instead, the master of the comic Aha, Steven Wright. In Wright’s capable hands, the Ah of the familiar is turned upside down by a surreal and hysterical blast of Aha:
Wright: I saw a bank that said ’24 Hour Banking,’ but I didn’t have that much time.
A great comedian takes something familiar, an Ah of a something we’ve seen or thought hundreds of times, and surprises us with an Aha we hadn’t considered.
A great writer does the same.
Your readers—whether they follow you on your blog, open your emails, or read your interoffice memos, your letters or your books—crave the Ah, and it’s crucial that you create that connection with them. But what keeps them reading are the Ahas—those spins on the familiar that only you, with your unique point of view, can provide.
Ahas are created by viewing the world with new eyes. That’s one of the reasons why children are also masters of the Aha, because nothing is familiar or clichéd to them—they see everything fresh and new.
My son, upon biting into his first cherry tomato, burst into tears and wailed that it had “kachooed” on him, because being sneezed upon was his closest experience to date of having tomato goo all over his face. (Would you have thought to write that a tomato had sneezed on you? I wouldn’t have. And yet, in that brief experience, we have the Ah and the Aha cradled beautifully together—a familiar sensation coupled with a unique and unexpected observational twist.)
If you’re having trouble finding Ahas to go with your Ahs, try seeing your world through fresh eyes. Better yet, hang out with a very young person and catch a little of their Aha energy.
Ah feels good, and it certainly beats Ouch! But without bringing something new to the party, you’re connecting without a spark, and that connection is likely to be short-lived.
Find the Ahas that arise organically from your Ahs. Because that, my friend, is pure writing magic.