June 8, 2003
TELLING IT SLANT
"Tell all the truth," Emily Dickinson said, "but tell it slant." In eight simple words, she explained what lies at the heart of all great writing.
Why not proceed straightforwardly, simply state "the truth"? She offered one reason, though there are many. It's like looking directly into the sun; truth, she says, is too glorious, too powerful, and we are too weak, too limited, to bear it. "The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind."
She may well have been thinking of a truth like the infinite love of God, an idea that's too big and too abstract to be graspable; we need concreteness. That idea almost required the birth and sacrifice of God's own son to dazzle us, by conveying that love in terms humans could understand -- as much as He loved Jesus, He loved us more and allowed His son to die to save us.
Equally hard to grasp, though, would be the darkest of our suspected truths -- that we are powerless victims of careless gods that use us for their sport, or that, given absolute power any of us could become monsters, like Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, confronting "the horror! the horror!" that is the hole where his soul should be. Indeed, when I was asked at a poetry workshop to supply a second line for the line of poetry I had chosen, mine was, "Tell all the truth and tell it slant -- Head-on, truth can be tough. It body-tackles."
It's also true that some truths are just too abstract, too big, too unimaginable. How do you make the speed of light, "299,792,458 meters per second," comprehensible? How can you write about "21,000,000 dead in the influenza pandemic of 1918" or "2,312,000 slaves in the United States in 1860," and make your readers see living, breathing people, not statistics? How can you make people envision what war or peace or justice might actually look like?
We have to tell it slant. Fortunately, writers have a whole bag of tricks for doing that.
Metaphor is one of them. "It's like this," we say. We figure out the meaning of vague abstractions by comparing them to simple common experiences we DO understand, and we explain them to people the same way. When I wanted to describe what I thought the most enjoyable conversations did -- take an idea and let everybody explore it, expand it, refine it, above all just play with it -- I called it Dixieland Thought. How vain a hope is it to wish to change the world through poetry? Don Marquis compared it to "dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." To convey how long it took life as we now know it to evolve, scientists compare the entire history of the earth to one 24-hour period, with plants popping up on land at 10 p.m., dinosaurs appearing at 11 and disappearing at 11:39; mammals beginning to flourish then, and human beings appearing one minute and seventeen seconds before midnight.
And we use parody. An unknown author, for instance [http://www.seuss.org/seuss/spam.i.am.html], marvelously captures our increasingly desperate resistance to spam in classic Dr. Seuss style:
I would not like it
if it's lewd.
I would not like it
in the nude.
I would not like it
here or there.
I would not like it
I do not like
your e-mail spam.
I do not like it
Irony is another trick we use, appearing to say one thing while really saying something quite, quite different. Jonathan Swift, the unrivaled master of the art, attacked the indifference of the English overlords to Ireland's starving poor in "A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public." In a tone of sweet reason and sincere helpfulness, he explains that we could transform the children of the poor from social burden to economic benefit by letting their parents sell them for food. The horrific nature of his "solution" startles us into consciousness of both the suffering of the Irish and the inhumanity of the British.
But mostly, what we do, and what we've been doing since we lived in caves hiding out from sabre-toothed tigers, is tell stories. We teach virtues with parables, about the dashing, overconfident hare and the never-give-up tortoise, about the pigs who built with straw, about the lost sheep in the wilderness, valued more than the 99 who remained safe in the fold.
I suspect this is because logic and reasoned argument are acquired skills -- we have to learn how to do them, learn, even, how to read them. But storytelling seems to be wired in.
We explain who we are and where we came from with stories. We tell how the earth came to be, when God created it in seven days, or when Uranus, the god of sky, mated with Gaia. goddess of earth, or when Sky Woman fell into the oceans and was rescued by the animals. We tell how we personally came to be who we are with stories of a father lost in Vietnam, a great-great grandfather who fled pogroms and came to America, a grandmother who drove her model-T across the continent, with a hammer and a can of red pepper to protect her from anyone who might jump onto the car's running board.
Ask Americans what it is to be an American, and chances are we'll tell you a story. Maybe about the settlers who held barnraising parties to help each other get a start. Maybe about General Thomas Jackson, standing there like a stone wall, or the Army commander who, when the Germans told him to surrender, answered, "Nuts!" Maybe about Thomas Edison, getting the light bulb right after 2,000 failed experiments, or Amelia Earhart dreaming bigger than women were supposed to.
We have lots of stories about impossible dreams, in fact, the kid who started in the mailroom and worked his way up to head of the studio, Steve Jobs in his garage building a machine that changed the world, Clara Barton, who didn't have the right to vote but nonetheless convinced powerful people to fund the Red Cross. Don Quixote may have been a Spanish novel, but Man of La Mancha is an American story.
We'll tell you about Wyatt Earp AND Billy the Kid, about Helen Keller and FDR, undaunted by their handicaps. We'll tell you about Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Mr. Smith going to Washington, Bonnie and Clyde, Toto revealing the truth about the wizard and Dorothy realizing that there's no place like home. Americans are all of these conflicting stories, often at the same time.
We use stories to explain our social problems and solutions, because raw numbers tell us nothing about what these mean in people's lives. Some of us may talk about welfare queens in Cadillacs, and women who sue McDonald's because they're too stupid to realize that coffee is hot; others of us are more inclined to talk about the child who died in the ambulance as it went from one overcrowded emergency room to another, or the executive of the strapped airline who forced wage cuts on his employees while not disclosing the multi-million dollar bonus he'd arranged for himself.
What all of us are doing is telling the truth slant. Or at least the truth as we understand it, which is something else altogether.
Many of us reacted viscerally to the loss of history when Iraq's National Museum and National Library were looted; only later did we find out that the complete destruction of a heritage we were mourning did not exactly happen, because much of each collection had been removed for safekeeping beforehand. The truth about the Civil War is even now very different depending on whether you're in Boston or Richmond. The reporters who pointed their cameras at the flood waters in my home town in 1993 led viewers to believe our entire town was underwater; had they pointed their cameras the other direction, viewers would have understood that most of the town, built on a steep hill, was totally unaffected by the flood.
You see, telling it slant is not just an artistic device, it's the human condition. Even with our best intention of giving an honest straighforward account, we will fail because our knowledge will always be incomplete, and our beliefs and personal stories will always limit our ability to understand what the truth may be. We cannot help but tell it slant.
Isn't it wonderful then, that even so, writers sometimes find a deeper truth that somehow speaks to all of us? Emily Dickinson did.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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