This is an essay by Joanne Nelson.
“Let the reader get tearful; they often won’t if you’re already crying in their stead,” cautioned a mentor after reading an essay in which I’d admitted crying.
This feedback, so intriguing when I first read it—over and over looking from my sentences to his suggestion, trying to fathom how else to arrange the words—continues to wind through my creative work. It seems there are two tasks inherent in the recommendation. First, to compose in such a manner that the impetus for those tears is successfully uncovered and described. Second, to create a narrative that draws the reader in, no longer simply an audience member, but an active participant in the unfolding of the story.
Understanding these tasks doesn’t make their completion any easier. I struggled with what to do in the next draft. Left to swirl with my confusion, alone in my damp, spider-filled basement office, I nearly cried.
Emily Dickinson’s poem #1129, commonly referred to as “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” provided the answer I needed. I don’t mean to give an analysis of the poem, but to consider my own definition of what Dickinson meant with her famous first line and discuss how telling it slant may be the best way to get at those tears without sloppily splattering them all over the page.
First let’s look at the poem in its entirety:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
So what does it mean to tell something slant? Helen Vendler, writing in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, believes “Dickinson defends ‘slant’ telling just as Jesus defended parable: some truths must be told allegorically” (431). The difference being that Jesus’s intention was “esoteric,” while Dickinson’s intention was “charitable” (431).
“Her purpose is not to hide it from those preferring untruth,” Vendler writes, “but rather to mediate it, out of kindness, to those as yet too weak to bear its glare” (431). In this definition, telling it slant eases the possibly lethal stroke of the truth through a gentler telling, through an “explanation kind.”
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their introduction to Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction weigh in with their take on Dickinson’s words: “We think she meant that truth takes on many guises; the truth of art can be very different from the truth of day-to-day life” (xiv).
I struggle with this definition, particularly the phrase that the “truth takes on many guises.” The word “guise” seems like a tenuous place to go with truth, and brings along the assumption of falseness or deception in writing. The sentence’s first half sets up the reader, perhaps unwittingly, to view the second half as a bye or pass on telling the truth. Better, and less open to conjecture, is their reason for selecting Dickinson’s poem: “We chose her poem as both title and epigraph for this book because it so aptly describes the task of the creative nonfiction writer: to tell the truth, yes, but to become more than a mere transcriber of life’s factual experiences” (Miller and Paola xiv).
A transcriber sets down the facts but leaves no slant or angled approach that makes room for the reader. Telling something slant allows space for readers to interact with the narrative more personally, the language intentionally crafted to trigger streams of associations—those private associations then becoming as vital to the story for the reader as the occasion of the narrative is for the author. “Readers will want to read your work,” Miller and Paola write, “not because they wish to lend a sympathetic ear to a stranger, but because of the way your truth-filled stories may illuminate their own lives and perceptions of the world” (xvi).
My view varies from both Vendler’s and Miller’s. To tell something slant doesn’t mean to circle around in a misleading or deceptive way, but to spiral ever closer to the truth from multiple perspectives. To, for example, let the objects in the room, the landscape of the scene, or a variety of sensory details lead both narrator and reader into an event and the emotional experience resulting from it. To take time in letting the truth unfold through a layering of memories’ associations so that we—and by we I mean both author and audience—aren’t blinded, but can gradually recognize and name it for ourselves. This approach leads to a more nuanced emotional truth than the straightforward narrating of sentiment.
Purpose of Telling It Slant
There are three reasons why we might want to approach our work, particularly when depicting feelings or traumatic happenings, from a slant perspective. First, to avoid the mawkishness to often present with discussion of heartfelt events. Lee Martin, a memoirist and novelist, blogs frequently about his writing life. In a 2013 post he described this dance perfectly. “We writers of memoir need the sort of immersion that sometimes brings us to tears, but we also need strategies for tempering the rawness of emotion so it becomes more deeply felt by the reader.” (July 1)
Martin was illustrating a scene from his memoir From Our House that had indeed brought him to tears as he wrote about providing care to his father. His father lost both hands in a farming accident when Martin was a baby, and now, years later, Martin needs to help his father with toileting and bathing while his mother is away. He attempts to portray an intimate moment of role reversal with his often angry father:
Never was he as timid as he was then—as bashful as I. He would look away from me while I washed him, sorry that circumstances were such that I had to perform this task. If anyone were to have seen us there, the aging man and his son, they would have never suspected the ugly rancor that simmered between us. They would have seen the boy soaking the washcloth in a basin of water and wringing it out with his small hands, and the father, standing naked in the sunlight streaming in through the open window, his legs apart so his son could touch the washcloth gently to his tender groin. How could I not love him, then, so great was his need. (July 1, 2013)
Martin’s post also speaks of the second reason to “tell it slant.” As previously mentioned, we want to include the reader in the circuit between the telling and the truth. Martin acknowledges this when he writes on the need to temper “the rawness of emotion so it becomes more deeply felt by the reader.” Although the scene he shares is unique and private, he takes care to shape the language such that the reader is in relationship with the narrative; bringing his or her own memories, longings, and associations to the material—feeling the warmth of the sun through the kitchen windows of our own pasts. Thus, Martin gives proof to the wisdom of Strunk and White’s suggestion in The Elements of Style:
Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will be revealed and not at the expense of the work. (100)
The writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz makes a similar point in her autobiographical essay Ruined by Reading: a life in books. In this personal meditation on the importance and meaning of reading, Schwartz recognizes the interdependent power of the written word. She notes words themselves do not contain emotion, but that readers contribute emotion—as does the writer in the drafting of the piece. Schwartz continues, “Intricate neural transactions take place before words find their elusive target, before the wraith we call the ‘writer’ finds the reader” (117). The careful construction of our work, our sentence by sentence choices, enable those “intricate neural transactions” to take place.
More simply put, Schwartz summarizes, “If we make books happen, they make us happen as well” (118). She recognizes the dual relationship between text and reader that underscores the importance of invitation to the book’s audience. In other words, the writer must not privilege her own experience—as I was doing in that early essay when I noted my own tears—at the expense of the reader and what he brings to the narrative.
The third reason to “tell it slant” involves the opportunity to create nuanced layers of meaning in our writing. Rarely do we feel only one emotion—just sad, or lonely, or even happy. Our lives are too complicated, too rich for straightforward sensations. Telling it slant allows us to approach ourselves from multiple perspectives and to use our techniques of craft to design multifaceted scenes. Take, for example, this scene from Frank Conroy’s memoir Stop Time. Conroy has returned to Florida and plans to visit the home of his best friend, Tobey, after an absence of several years.
Conroy is excited, anticipating the look on Tobey’s face when he arrives with his new driver’s license and driving his uncle’s car. He has often relived all their boyhood dreams of just such a moment. However, Conroy hasn’t considered the changes time will have visited on the scene he’s imagined for so long:
Tobey pushed open the screen door and stepped into the yard. I hadn’t thought about how he would look. The image I’d carried through the years was too bright, too strong to have changed. But Tobey was not the same. His slender body had thickened and his face was swollen with acne. A black motorcycle cap was jammed onto the back of his head.
‘Well Jesus Christ if it ain’t Frank,’ he said in a new deep voice.
I looked down at the ground. Deep inside me gates were closing, one by one, locking up a vital area I couldn’t afford to lose all at once, sealing my love in private darkness. When it was done I lifted my head and faced him. ‘Well,’ I said, waving toward the house, ‘it looks the same.’ I tried to keep my tone as casual as his. (203)
Conroy uses this descriptive passage to “tell it slant.” He reminds us of nostalgia’s after- effects—those images we carry that are “too bright,” and “too strong” to be real. Conroy reveals layers of perception by letting the pace of the reunion between the two childhood friends slowly unfold. The phrase “I looked down at the ground,” our signal to pull back, is the spot where the reader draws an empathic breath. The depths of Conroy’s pain more evident here than in even the images of gates closing. These lines provide an additional layer, another turn of the spiral, and contrast beautifully with the simplicity of that six-word sentence that gives us all we need to understand Conroy’s pain—but perhaps not all we desire. He still withholds something from us. His silence yet another way of telling it slant.
Scott Russell Sanders skillfully incorporates all three purposes of telling it slant in his essay “The Inheritance of Tools,” found in his 2012 collection, Earth Works. In the essay Sanders learns of his father’s death and honors the gifts his father left behind, both literal tools as well as lifelong lessons in how to use them. Sanders is at home in Indiana, involved in a carpentry project when his mother calls with the news. His father suffered a heart attack while in Oklahoma to help Sanders’s brother build cabinets. As the essay progresses not only does Sanders avoid undo sentimentality when he describes learning of his father’s death, he also deepens the reciprocal relationship with the reader and invokes nuanced layers of meaning.
From Sanders’s narrative we learn the importance he places on a job well done. Unfortunately this compulsion is not born from the desire to build a good wall, or hammer a straight nail—skillsets taught by a patient father—but from a childhood of trying to be perfect.
Within hours of learning that his father died, the narrator returns to work on his daughter’s bedroom wall. “Snugging the bottom plate against a chalk line on the floor, shimming the top plate against the joists overhead, plumbing the studs with my level, making sure before I drove the first nail that every line was square and true.” (Sanders 55)
These actions are a loving tribute to his father but they also indicate his unwillingness to face his emotions. The quote above is an elegant description of feelings told slant. However, in this case, the author seems unaware he is telling the story slant, as if he considers it a simple choice to finish the project already started. A project inconveniently interrupted by the phone; a life-changing call he is not ready to receive. He returns to the familiar, what he knows how to do. What he has been trained to do since childhood. As long as his hands are busy he won’t have to face what is unknown and uncomfortable; he will not have to look at his grief. It is easier to create something solid with the right tools than to risk feeling out of control if he gives voice to his despair. Unwilling to open this door he concentrates on the literal wall.
In fact, Sanders’s language as he evokes the moments following the unwanted phone call (it comes shortly after he smashes his thumb with a hammer) includes his search for the right door:
For several hours I paced around inside my house, upstairs and down, in and out of every room, looking for the right door to open and knowing there was no such door. My wife and children followed me and wrapped me in arms and backed away again, circling and staring as if I were on fire. Where was the door, the door, the door? I kept wondering. My smashed thumb turned purple and throbbed, making me furious. I wanted to cut it off and rush outside and scrape away the snow and hack a hole in the frozen earth and bury the shameful thing. (55)
Notice that his grief encompasses confusion, displaced anger, and shame. Fury is expressed towards his innocent, injured thumb, the all too human mistake of striking it with a hammer an affront to his need to do things just right. Faced with the loss of his father, he has no idea how to feel or act. Sanders spirals around his complicated responses. He narrates a slant accounting of his anguish, opens a door for the reader, and, one hopes, for himself.
Abigail Thomas is also adept at telling it slant. Her book, Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life is a memoir of vignettes spanning the period from Thomas’s first pregnancy and marriage at the age of eighteen to her third marriage and role as a grandmother. The vignettes, splashes of recollection from a few sentences to several pages, unfold as memories tend to unfold; they are out of sequence, alternate past and present, and change subject when least expected. Thomas, with her rambling structure and alternating point of view, is far from being a mere transcriber of recollections. A slanted perspective is pervasive throughout her writing, as in the following example of life following her separation from her husband. She shares her mood (in the third person) by taking us into her house.
Potatoes lay where they rolled to after the bag broke. She rinsed her coffee cup, wiped her spoon on her apron. Then she stopped wearing her apron. The big house took on the look of a half-eaten sandwich. Wherever she stepped she stepped in something, or on something, or something rolled away under a table or bed. (75)
Thomas doesn’t need to say, I felt like crap. She steps back from her emotional story through her depiction of the house; her description focusing on the mess around her, instead of the mess inside her. The specificity of the details enables the reader to hear the potatoes roll, imagine our own frustration with the broken bag, and understand how much easier it would be to wipe the spoon on an apron rather than on a clean towel, and then how it would be even easier not to wear the apron at all. It’s through these associations that the reader becomes part of the story, able to feel the immense exhaustion of the narrator.
While we appreciate Thomas’s attempt to portray the complexity of her depression instead of simply name it with one inadequate word, we are remembering the occasions we were too sad, angry, dejected, or abandoned to keep our homes clean—and by extension, the soul of the house, the kitchen. We experience Thomas’s loss on a deeper level because of this nuanced recounting. It would be difficult to stop reading. We may like this narrator and mourn with her as her world falls apart, or be annoyed with her immaturity and bad choices; but either way, our feelings are now intimately entwined with hers.
It’s what Thomas causes us to feel that is key to our immersion in the narrative. Phillip Lopate, in The Art of the Personal Essay, recognizes the reader’s desire to become personally involved in the writing as well as to “drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty” (xxv). He continues:
If, however, the essayist stays at the same flat level of self-disclosure and understanding throughout, the piece may be pleasantly smooth, but it will not awaken that shiver of self-recognition—equivalent to the frisson in horror films when the monster looks at himself in the mirror—which all lovers of the personal essay await as a reward. (xxv-xxvi)
How To Tell It Slant
Telling it slant strengthens our narratives, and is clearly an important skill to include in the craft toolbox. So how do we writers accomplish what Martin, Sanders, and Thomas appear to bring about effortlessly?
One technique is to switch point of view. In Lee Martin’s description of washing his father, the scene opens in first person, but in the middle of the paragraph there is that switch to third person. Martin envisioned that the shift would temper the mood as well as include the reader in the unfolding scene, thus demonstrating his ability to approach the truth of his emotions from various perspectives. “That slight adjustment in perspective,” Martin says,
allowed me to be both the participant (the boy I was in the past) and the spectator (the adult who observes from a slight remove). As the spectator, I note the washcloth, the basin of water, the sunlight through the window, the boy’s small hands, and the father’s nakedness. As the participant, I feel again the bashfulness, the love, the need. The blend of immersion and distance creates a moment on the page that not only I, but also the reader, can ‘live full.’ (Blog post)
Thomas also switches point of view throughout her work; either sharing her interpretation of the story in first person, or standing back to let the reader as well as herself observe life from the more distant perspective of third person. Her choice to use third person point of view as she recounts her house falling apart provides an additional slant; the author sharing the truth of how out of control her life had become, but still shying away from it, as if she needs distance to avoid blinding even herself.
This same example from Thomas exemplifies a second approach to telling it slant—of letting the details of the surroundings become part of the expression of mood. Thomas lets the particulars of the room create not only an image of her living space, but also an image of her interiority, of the mess she had become. She avoids the obvious by focusing on the small, innocuous facts of her environment; understanding that the disarray of her house speaks not only for her but also about her.
Whether it’s Thomas’s potatoes, the snug fit of Sander’s door, or how Martin wrings out a washcloth, each author is precise in his or her depiction of the surroundings. There is not an attempt to generalize the scene in order to be more inclusive, and yet we readers are drawn in. Counterintuitively, this specificity makes the scene universal and adds depth to the narrative—to the spiral that leads to a complicated truth for both reader and writer. Conroy uses this same technique when he shows us his friend’s acne, the specific hat, and that deeper voice. These details become a door to our own associations related to nostalgia, loss, and coming of age. All those times we felt the gates closing and realized things would never be the same again.
How Do We Recognize We’ve Told It Slant?
So how do we know when we’ve accomplish our goal, approached our personal essays or memoirs in such a way that we’ve avoided sentimentality, included the reader, and created nuanced layers of self-examination? That is, when do we know we’ve successfully told it slant? A physical response occurs, I believe, when we are in the process of this discovery, this spiraling towards truth that happens when we assay the past and not just tell-all.
Lee Martin speaks of this when he references his tears while writing about his relationship with his father—not their angry battles, but the complicated closeness that unfolds when Martin cares for him and begins to unveil the truth of his nuanced feelings. Martin finds these tears as he describes the room and the steps involved in that care, these concrete details forming the gentle and complicated scene.
I recognize I’m discovering something new concerning the past and myself when my chest tightens and my fingers fly across the keyboard seemingly without direction. It’s as if the thoughts stop coming and I enter a room I hadn’t realized had been waiting for me. The heart of the thing becoming ever closer as I lean into memory and find the sensory details I hadn’t paid attention to before—the sound of my fingernail on a screen door, the hot steam of an iron, the smell of liver and onions on a Wednesday night.
Emily Dickinson also comments on this physicality. She notes it from the perspective of the reader, famously saying:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. (Hirsh Loc. 191)
This physical response—our own version—is what we should recognize when we bump into a truth told slant, a truth that has gradually begun to dazzle us. The associations we’ve spun as we’ve engaged with a text leading us to a fuller understanding of our own lives.
It’s what we begin in our spider-filled, basement offices alone except for all those words, the inspirational quotes taped to the walls, the stacks of books piled within reach, and the scribbled notes strewn across our desks. All these quiet words calling us to look closer, peer underneath, and unlock another door as we circle closer to what was meant, what was done, and where the slanted truth lies not only for ourselves, but also for our readers. It’s why we put our hands to the keyboard, the coffee growing cold beside us, and think this is how I’ll tell it, this is where to begin.
Joanne Nelson is the 2017 winner of The Peninsula Pulse’s Hal Prize in nonfiction. Her writing appears in the museum of americana, Midwestern Gothic, Redivider, Brevity, Consequence, and others. She has been a contributor to Lake Effect on 89.7 WUWM, the local NPR affiliate. In addition, Nelson gives presentations on topics related to meditation, writing, and creativity. Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin where she develops and leads community writing programs and maintains a psychotherapy practice. She holds an MSSW from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Additional information is available atwakeupthewriterwithin.com.