Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola

tell it slantBrenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are faculty members in at the local university where I live now, and they have written a book about writing creative nonfiction: this was an easy choice for me. Tell It Slant is instructive, and comes in three sections. First, “Unearthing Your Material” is a series of subjects we might write about: the family, spirituality, the arts, nature. These subjects come with brief successful examples of each from established writers like Didion, Dillard and Talese, and writing prompts; we are exhorted to pay attention to scenes, sensory detail, and dialog. The second section is about “The Forms of Creative Nonfiction,” including the personal essay and more experimental forms; it also covers how to do research, and the ethical challenges of the genre. Finally, “Honing Your Craft” discusses what makes for good writing generally, the importance of revision, and writing groups. Each chapter opens with a very brief piece of creative writing by one of the book’s two authors, and these short pieces are the most simply enjoyable part of the reading experience.

This book was published in 2005, and for the most part works as well today as it would have ten years ago: although the examples of successful essays might look a little different now, the examples are still excellent ones. The only section that felt slightly dated was the one concerning research. Or maybe, as a librarian, it just felt a little simplistic to me. The advice to go find yourself an excellent reference librarian to help you along was and remains very fine advice, though!

I think I struggled a little bit with the ordering of the book. It could have used a little more introduction, or maybe beginning with part 2 would have worked better for me, because the subject-oriented part 1 felt rather like jumping right into a laundry list, lacking context. I settled in, though – and part of what helped me to do this was flipping ahead and scanning parts 2 and 3, to see what I had to look forward to. I certainly saw the value of the writing prompts. They won’t all work for every writer, but there are lots to choose from; and responding to a prompt that feels empty is a worthwhile exercise in itself, I grudgingly admit. The list of recommended reading at the back of the book is valuable: of course it would be updated to some advantage today, as I said, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the essays listed here, either. (Also, we are directed to ways to keep up to date with the best contemporary essays being published, including literary magazines and best-of collections.)

The audience for this book is never explicitly defined, but I think it becomes clear that it’s written for creative writers who hope to have their work read and appreciated by the public. There is an emphasis on producing work that is appealing to a larger audience, so that this is not a manual for people who write for therapy, for fun, for a hobby, etc. Rather, Tell It Slant teaches us to write for general readership.

I didn’t discover anything earth-shattering here, although the authors’ very brief pieces at the start of each chapter were good reading. I would keep these writing prompts around as practice opportunities. This is a fine primer, and valuable in that it is specific to the creative nonfiction genre.

Rating: 6 sensory details in memory.

4 Responses

  1. […] one of the authors of Tell It Slant, Season of the Body is a collection of lovely essays which showcase Miller’s extraordinary, […]

  2. […] Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola […]

  3. […] *Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola […]

  4. […] published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at […]

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