tell it slant

Wolfy posted a comment asking how a person goes about writing a memoir, if the process is similar to the writing of fiction. The question can really be extended to any kind of creative nonfiction, a term you may not be familiar with. I’ll cut to the chase: if you write about something real (WWI, dog breeding, airline safety, Winston Churchhill) that has no personal connection for you, that’s plain old nonfiction. It can certainly be creative nonfiction, which means that the author has taken pains with content and style so that the reader is drawn in. A newspaper article may read

A two story flat burned down last night after an electrical short ignited a stack of papers in the cellar. There were minor injuries to three persons, including one firefighter, who were treated at County Hospital and released. The owner of the building could not be reached for comment.

Or, somebody may decide that the story is bigger and give it full investigative journalism treatment, in which case it will become creative nonfiction. If the journalist knows what s/he’s doing.

A sixth grade book report is nonfiction about fiction. So is a review in the New York Times.

I read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a genre I really love, for the care and thought that goes into sharing esoteric knowledge or stories that otherwise go unremarked.

[asa book]0375760393[/asa] A title that jumps to mind is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire — which is where I got the idea for the Wilde’s apple orchards). Here’s the PW review:

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan’s fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Memoir is a very different undertaking. You are contemplating your own being and history. You feel your way along as you write. There’s very little invention here — unless you happen to be the putz who wrote the fake memoir that Oprah bought into — but a great deal of room for style and presentation. The process is so very different from fiction writing that it’s hard to even compare the two, at least for me.

And now I contradict myself: there is, of course, no such thing as a factual memoir. Everything is reshaped by memory. Goethe called his autobiography Wahrheit und Dichtung (truth and imagination, for a loose but colloquial translation) . Because the two are indistinguishable from each other. [asa book]1206577296[/asa]

My friend Suz wrote a memoir called Body Toxic, a truly masterful piece of work that is a hybrid — memoir, yes, but also a look at environmental mayhem in her native New Jersey from various angles. The research is there, and so are the personal memories and the re-imaginings. Terrifically difficult to pull off, but she did. Body Toxic evokes tremendous reactions from people who read it, especially people from New Jersey. Such emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. The anger some readers pointed at her as the author makes it clear that her memoir tapped into a greater consciousness and a great deal of conflict and pain.

If you’re writing a history of gardening in Japan, you may love your subject but still approach it with some degree of objectivity. It’s next to impossible to be truly objective about your own history.

Writing about my own history is something I’ve been trying to do for all my adult life. If I’m writing fiction I may ask myself: what does this character want right now, and why? But when I think about writing memoir the questions are more complex and far harder.

What was she thinking? What did she want that she never got, and why?

[asa book]0072512784[/asa] Tell it Slant is (a) from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and (b) the title of a book also written by Suz and Brenda Miller, a colleague. ((Suzanne writes her creative nonfiction under a penname, you may have noticed.)) The book was designed for students of creative nonfiction, and attempts to demonstrate the idea of Dickinson’s poem: you can’t run at the truth head-on. If you approach it at the right angle, your story will not only be told, but heard.

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–

perfect day

Whoever it is who gives out the annual awards for best book design and best cover art did just that a little while ago. Sometimes the official picks amaze me. Sometimes a cover amazes me.

This is a non-fiction book about the crazy costs of throwing a wedding, the money spent, and why. This is not a topic that I would jump on, unless I had a character who was a wedding planner. Which I most definitely do not.

But the cover caught my eye, because it is clever. Very, very clever. The image of an old fashioned receipt stapled to the front of the book is clear enough to make you do a double take, at which point you’ll see that it’s not an accounting of numbers but the title and other basic information.

The cover underneath the faux-receipt? Boring. Boring script, boring color, boring layout. In the normal course of things,if this were a plainer, more straight forward cover, I would never notice the book. Color is a big deal, and this cover art has none.

The receipt is what makes this work. Or at least it works for me. I don’t see this kind of innovative thinking very much when it comes to book covers, but maybe you pay more attention. Any covers to compare this one to out there?


Once in a while you come across a really great book title. More than once I have stopped cold in admiration and (yes) envy. An excellent title is almost as hard as the whole novel behind it.

Here are a few that strike me as just right:

A Hundred Years of Solitude
The Shell Seekers
The Inn at Lake Divine
Fear of Flying
Welcome to Temptation
Small Sacrifices (nonfiction)
She Drove without Stopping
The Things They Carried
Friend of My Youth

I thought Pajama Jones was a pretty darn good title, but my editor isn’t sure about it. The rest of her suggestions were really very reasonable and minor, things that I had been half worried about myself and that I can fix in a couple hours total. But the title?

That’s a lot harder. Also, I got good reactions on this end. Jenny (she who came up with Welcome to Temptation, Bet Me, Faking It, and other fantastic titles) loves Pajama Jones as a title. Unfortunately Jenny is not my editor.

The primary plot is about two people: one agoraphobic, the other claustrophobic. Whenever I consider that fact, I remember the Yiddish saying: a bird and a fish may love each other, but where will they make a home together?

Somehow I don’t think that would work as a title.

As I can’t solve this right now, I will go and work on something else. Like, hiding cookies from myself.