tell it slant

At Clarion Maureen McHugh reminded us of a line from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Maureen placed the emphasis on tell it slant. It’s a piece of advice that is so simple that it has stayed with me since.

I’ve been trying to eradicate lazy writing from my prose. It’s a humbling exercise because it highlights how often I lapse into cliché, or use a common turn of phrase, in my fiction.

Now, I try to see objects, people, and events in a different way. This allows me to describe them slant.

So I set myself a related exercise.

I love to take photographs, but recently I’ve neglected my wee Fuji FinePix (or Pixie for short). By digital camera standards Pixie is elderly, and the geek in me would like to trade her up, but she continues to capture the moments so I’m going to stick with her. For now – sorry Pixie, but your day will come.

I’ve been playing around with Flickr lately. What’s the point of accruing photos on my hard drive? I might as well put the better ones in a place where strangers, and friends or relatives, can look at them.

Today I woke up with the idea of taking a photograph every day. Yet, that simple idea didn’t satisfy me. I wanted to twist the concept.

I decided to take a picture every day of a mundane or common object and show it in a different light. If I can visualise objects, situations, people, or animals in unusual ways then my hope is that this fresh perspective will bleed into my writing too.

This morning it was raining in Galway. I stepped outside my back door, and into the fine mist. My dog grumbled and whined at me, because she wanted to follow me out but she’d get wet. She didn’t understand why her mad owner was so interested in the squat green plastic storage tank at the back of the yard supported by bricks and reeking of Kerosene.

Home heating oil storage tanks are not cool, but they sit at the back of most houses in Ireland and provide an important function. They are so ubiquitous they are invisible.

Yet, when I examined the tank this morning and began to take photographs (uncomfortably aware I hadn’t bothered with a jacket), I realised that there were aspects to the design that I liked. I concentrated on the curves, and the deep shadows they created, and I tried to capture the wet shine that added radiance to the surface.

I went back to my computer and excised the image that summarised what I liked best. Then, I ran it through a filter in Photoshop, just to give it that extra edge. I like the result.

Sure, I could have made it really weird, and I played around with that, but I wanted the object to remain recognisable, but transformed.

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

It’s a decent beginning.

Now, I have to repeat this exercise with every sentence I write.



  • gordsellar

    That’s an interesting project! (It reminds me very vaguely of a contest they used to run in the back of Wired magazine, where they’d photograph some piece of tech or gadget or thing up close and whoever guessed what it was would win something.)I’d like to hear how you find it coming along in a few months, actually. It sounds like it could do something to your writing, I suppose. I’ll pop in an ask in a few months, then. 🙂

    • Maura

      Oh yeah, it’s a distraction… but a good one. All creativity is good, but I don’t want to get too carried away either. I’ll attempt to keep it in check.

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