On Wednesday 2nd June, the UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanities opened its summer programme, ‘Back to the Future’, with an exciting event run by The Writing Lab. During the event, entitled ‘Writing Your World’, students had the privilege of hearing from writer Anne Helen Petersen, who shared details of her writing journey and how her style has evolved throughout her career.
Anne Helen Petersen is the author of four books and writer of the Culture Study newsletter, as well as currently working as a Senior Culture Writer at Buzzfeed. Anne has written on a broad range of topics, but her current and most recent work primarily focuses on celebrity culture. Combining her academic background with current celebrity news, she shared her explained her writing process of striking a balance between the accessible and sophisticated: the collision of high academic theory with celebrities, stars and history allows for Anne’s work to reach other scholars and academics, as well as her friends and family.
Taking us on a tour of her writing journey, Anne explained her path to writing in terms of three central facets: a focus on personal writing and the craft of creative non-fiction, an analytical approach resulting from academic training and studying for her PhD, and a journalistic approach involving reporting. She emphasised the third element of reporting as something particularly daunting and scary, as it involved talking to real people and putting herself out into the world in order to break some important stories.
Anne first found different visions of and ways into reading and writing as a young person through both letter-writing and creative non-fiction, and when she eventually embarked on her PhD in Film Studies, she began to cultivate more of a creative writing voice as a well as a political one. She became deeply interesting celebrity culture and began by starting her own blog as a way of fusing high academic theory with commentary on celebrity news. Anne spoke of the authenticating effect of being paid for her writing, a feeling many of us young budding writers are no doubt aspiring toward. It was an article on Jennifer Lawrence that landed Anne her permanent job at Buzzfeed (as well as solidifying her identity as a writer in a personal sense), as this was the first longer piece on Buzzfeed to go viral. This style of writing, historically rooted analysis of contemporary celebrity culture that still employs personal thoughts and experiences, would become Anne’s authentic trade as a writer.
In the latter half of the event, Anne talked through two of her pieces for Buzzfeed (links for which can be found below), both of which employ a style of reporting focused on gathering statements and collecting interesting stories, as a way of adding to her analysis and fleshing out the piece. Though, as an introvert, Anne initially found the concept of reporting to be very daunting, she confessed that it has now become an essential tool of her writing style (though it does still make her nervous!)
When asked to give advice to aspiring writers looking to find their voice and a way in to writing, Anne shared her view that there is no singular or straight path that brings someone from childhood to writing for a living. She emphasised that celebrating your own unique path to writing is what makes your work and voice unique, and that if you have an overflowing passion for something, this will always seep onto the page and engage readers, regardless of whether or not they had previously been interested in the topic. Wrapping up her discussion on her writing journey and experiences of reporting, Anne’s words serve as an inspiring reminder for young writers hoping to tell different stories:
“Listen to people. Everyone has an interesting story, if you talk to them for long enough”
Links to Anne’s pieces: