Shaun Levin

Embrace the Tangent

In Story, Writing on May 11, 2022 at 9:24 am

“She grabbed a piece of fruit and ran for the bus.”

Don’t say “fruit” say…

Words are memories – if she grabbed a strawberry, or a slice of melon, or an apple, or a wedge of an orange (wedge? Why wedge? All wedged in there like something that’s been missing from her life, my life, our lives) and whatever fruit she grabbed would be a memory, a story to add to the story we’re working on and maybe she’d remember those summers when they went strawberry picking or she’d think how much she missed summers when melons were in season, I mean like really in season, not somewhere else in the world where this melon was from – Spain? Guadeloupe? Morocco? – not quite ripe, not quite right, and nothing was right in her life right now, things were hard, this slice of melon was hard, even though when she bought it she was hoping it would fix something, this melon and all that it held, summer, and joy and so much sweetness of the juice that would run down her chin, but not this slice, not this melon, not this life she was living now, almost late for the bus for a job she almost hated, but not quite fully, nothing quite fully. Fool. And this tangent, this tangent we’re on right now is what stories are made of, stories are made from the tangents we take and we must embrace them, embrace the tangent, because that’s what gives our writing texture, they are the true evidence of our imagination and its workings, this is what my imagination looks like on the page, if you could see inside my head, this is what you would see, this is what a tangent looks like. Singing, this is what a ta-ha-ha-ngent looks like.

And as we do one thing, so we do everything. Who said that? The way we do one thing is the way we do everything? Because if I settled for “fruit” and not the peach or the grapes or the slice of kiwi fruit, then I might settle for imprecision when it comes to other things. A thought, a touch, a feeling, a smell. Don’t avoid the details. They are where trust is built. They are where the connection is established. With the reader. The Reader. Don’t think about the reader. Be honest with your imagination and readers will take care of themselves. Trust is established through the melon. The peach. The over-ripe banana. She’d never eat an over-ripe banana. Never a soft blueberry. Never a floury apple. She hardly ever, almost never, wastes food but she would waste a floury apple. I will waste you, floury apple!

Where were we? Yes, the tangents. Tangents build trust. Tangents are invitations into the private workings of the individual imagination. No two imaginations tangent in the same way. Is tangent a verb? I tangent, you tangent, we all scream for tangents. Give me tangents or give me death. Tangents are the specificity we must name. Don’t let her catch the bus without naming the fruit she’s grabbing from the plate in the kitchen, no, straight from the chopping board, for wasn’t it her lover who’d sliced the melon before he left to catch an early train to Glasgow? No, Paris. Every specific detail has a story, and it’s that story that makes the story in which it appears. Don’t avoid detail. (Okay, I won’t, I won’t, I promise, never!) Don’t avoid story. Don’t avoid the work of the writer. Embrace the tangents. All of writing is a series of tangents as we work our way through creating a story.

Now what was the number of the bus she just got on? (Phew, just in time.). The 116? The 73? Which, of course, is a whole other tangent.

  1. ‘Be honest with your imagination and readers will take care of themselves’: love this. And the floury apple (reminds me of Stein’s ‘tender buttons,’) is arresting and sets the reader on their own tangent. Tangent: such a good word to capture those paths we wander. Reading a lot of Virginia Woolf whose work frequently is tangent upon tangent but makes a whole.

  2. Fabulous. You literally made my day. And it was legitimately a hard day. Or is objectively a hard day more accurate? Actually rather a few hard months. But of course these are difficult confusing times and that is true for everyone. And really — what does “hard” mean in this case, these cases. Be more specific I shout, loudly, internally, where the echo can be deafening. Ah but dinner – actually a collection of acceptable (maybe) leftovers must be prepared. And a bottle of Bordeaux opened (we are not savages) thus my tangenting must cease. For now. Of course it’s a verb. Duh. Thanks Shaun. Did I mention you made my day?

    • Thanks, Pam. It’s nice sometimes when dinner gets in the way, a tangent in the day. Something tangible, at least, etymologically linked, related to tangent, from the Latin or Greek for touch.

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