Who’s up for a little creative insight from Emily Dickinson?
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
When I started my MFA in Writing program nearly two years ago, instructors kept insisting I “tell it slant.” I had no idea what they were talking about. But I’ve come to understand that telling it slant is a key to elevating solid nonfiction writing to creative nonfiction. It is a touchstone of CNF, but the approach serves fiction writers as well.
The notion of telling it slant is that you highlight details that advance the reader’s understanding of what the writer is seeking to convey. The goal could be a better understanding of the narrator’s emotional state, a glimpse into the narrator’s past, or a foreshadowing of what is to come. It is, to drag out a trope that is a bit more familiar to us, a way to show, not tell.
This is an important point for CNF writers, because in many cases we are encouraged to show. Some of the greatest essays ever written have large passages where the narrator is simply speaking his or her mind. In the blogging class I teach, we spend some time on “telling.” But for a CNF writer to paint a scene in the way a fiction writer can, one needs to tell it slant, as follows:
- Identify your objective. In the travel memoir I’m writing in my MFA program, I have a scene in which I find myself concerned for my own safety. It is, obviously, a scene in which the narrator’s anxiety level rises to troubling heights. As the author, I wanted to create a sense of anxiety before the narrator finds himself trapped in a troubled individual’s basement. So that was my objective: creating anxiety in the reader.
- Choose the details that will advance the objective: Fiction writers can make up any detail they please. CNF writers are bound by the details that are there. As Dickinson says, we must tell the truth. But a CNF writer constantly makes choices as to what details to include. For this scene, I chose to highlight a moment when I arrived at the house in question, and saw someone on a neighboring porch: “A man in a wide-brimmed fishing hat and wrap-around sunglasses stares at me from his concrete porch, an oxygen tank on wheels beside him. I can’t see his eyes. The man breathes in deeply when I exit the car, but then I cross the street away from his house, and he visibly exhales.” I’ll explain why I made this selection and wrote it the way I did in the next item.
- Slant the description of the detail you’ve selected: I could have written that the man wore a colorful shirt, was drinking iced tea, and appeared to be enjoying a warm afternoon in the shade of his porch. Instead I emphasized only his staring with unseen eyes, and his breathing, which the oxygen tank signals to the reader would sound unnatural and forced. This man does not appear again in the story. But his three sentences form the first of many more such slanting details I include over the next two pages.
When I wrote this chapter about eight months ago, I shared it with my local writer’s group. All five of them volunteered that they felt creeped out before there appeared to be reason for that feeling. They weren’t sure why, but as they pored over the prose, they focused on the oxygen-breathing man, as well as other details, such as thick red curtains blocking out light, and the minimal open space in the windowless basement room. Not once do I have the narrator tell the reader that he is anxious, but I didn’t have to. The reader was already in that state. It was all part of my effort to, as Ms. Dickinson put it, allow the Truth to dazzle.
I’m still a novice at telling it slant. But there are some good resources that have much more to say, including Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in the appropriately titled Tell it Slant, and Sue William Silverman (my MFA advisor this semester) in Fearless Confessions.
CNFers: Is this a tool you’ve sought to bring into your prose? Fiction writers: How would you compare telling it slant to showing not telling?