When I read that a suggested reading for my recent Write-by-the-Lake workshop with Amy Lou Jenkins was Miller and Paola’s Tell it Slant, I immediately got gut pain. Some years ago, during a writing workshop, the teacher had shown a page of an essay I’d written on a screen and asked the group of about fifty attendees to read it. Then he asked, “What’s missing here?”
I knew only a few in the group, but had felt safe in submitting my piece for scrutiny because I’d felt it to be my best work. Now, I didn’t feel confident at all.
When no one responded, the teacher said, “Does anyone know what telling it slant means?”
One gal shot her hand up and said something like my piece was just a recording of facts.
Well, yes. What was wrong with that? I was supposed to write about something that had happened and I did. What I didn’t know was that Emily Dickinson originally coined the term: “Tell the truth but tell it Slant / Success in Circuit lies…”
Miller and Paola nicely explained Dickinson for me: “We think she meant that truth can take many guises; the truth of art can be very different from the truth of day-to-day life. Her poems and letters, after all, reveal her deft observation of the outer world but it is ‘slanted’ through the poet’s distinctive vision.” (p. xiv)
They go on to describe exactly my problem: I had told the truth, but I had to “become more that a mere transcriber of life’s actual experiences.” (p. xiv)
One of my former writing teachers, Carol LaChapelle, hammered the same notion in her discussion of writing as art. Facts are important but the “What about it?” is more important.
Yes, indeed, what about it?
My materials from the Write-by-the-Lake workshop are still on my bar. I’ve not taken the time to put them back in my study, because I got the greatly-procrastinated idea last week of sorting all the boxes of photos I’ve accumulated since 1991. So, pile upon pile of memories sat next to my Tell it Slant book screaming at me to not only remember the event taking place on each photo, but the what about it? Why does it matter?
Take this photo for example:
It’s a typical Thanksgiving Day at my brother’s house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We gathered there on that day for over thirty years. Each year, I’d take photos of different family groupings. This photo shows my mother on the couch, with one of my three sisters next to her and one next to me. The missing sister lived on the West Coast.
If I were to tell you just the facts, I would describe how we traveled there every year, what we wore, what we ate, how we spent our afternoons after the one o’ clock dinner, and how we said our good-byes. And you would traipse along with me on our usually snowy roads from Chicago, perhaps feel my discomfort in my fitted clothes after gorging myself on the staples of Aunt Esther’s turkey, Aunt Kay’s mashed potatoes, Aunt Kay’s (the second) broccoli, and my veggie tray; and maybe sit on my shoulder as I went around taking family photos.
At first, you might think my listings interesting; you might even find comparisons to your own Thanksgiving celebrations. But, eventually, you would tire and wonder, so what? Who cares? So you drove 180 miles in snow to pig out and take photos. Well, hurrah for you.
But look at the photo again. When I unearthed it last week, among the hundreds of others, I spontaneously burst into tears.
Now that’s the beginning of the What about it? Why would I cry some twenty years later? If I were to write, “Come with me to my Thanksgiving of 1994. See me with my mother, along with two of my three sisters. Now picture me in 2017 finding this photo, glancing at it, realizing I’m the only one still living, and bursting into tears for what was and what might have been.”
Now you’d be hooked because you’d want to know more about these people. More than what a listing of travel, wardrobe, and menu plans, and a stack of family photos could tell you. More than just the facts. The telling it slant through my “distinctive vision.” How my brother and his wife welcomed us into their home every year. How my mother instilled in me I could be successful at anything I chose to do, how I followed my nurse sister (on the couch) in her profession of teaching nursing, how I am acutely feeling the missed planned visit last month by the sister standing next to me because she unexpectedly died in April after successful surgery for cancer. How my only brother, the host of this event, is no longer alive, either. How cancer took all of these siblings.
In other words, the meaning of those yearly events and those relationships to me.
At the Write-by-the-Lake workshop, we also learned about using photos as writing prompts. Amy even suggested writing about what’s not in the photo. Looking at this photo alone, I’m sure I could write a book exploring what each of these relationships meant to me, and how blessed I was to have them, including how I wish we could all gather at a Thanksgiving one more time.
Try this—take a photo, stare at it a few minutes, and start writing. Tell yourself, after describing the facts—the who, what, where, when, to dig deeper and explore the so what, what about it, and tell it slant.
Advance notice: An anthology of essays written on “transitions” for this Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat will be published late this fall by our teacher, Amy Lou Jenkins, at Jack Walker Press. As students, we are a part of this daunting, but exciting, process. I will keep you informed of our progress!