“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

In a recent “60 Minutes” episode, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton playwright, lyricist, composer, actor) had this to say about the creative process:

I think of acting and writing as pretty much the same thing. It’s all about getting inside the skin of your characters, and seeing where they are, and knowing how they’ve grown up. You have to know all this, like, in your bones, what they’ve come up against, who they are. And then you just start talking as them. And you write until the rust comes out of the faucet and it’s clear water. And you write down the clear water.

The “clear water” of truth is what’s left after the writer or actor flushes out “the rust” of slushy thinking and irrelevancy. When I turn on the faucet of creativity and I get rust and grunge, I can choose to turn off the faucet until another time—or push through until the water runs clear. Those are the hard times; the discouraging times. But, eventually, the water may run clear—and this is what keeps me going.

Sometimes, when I turn on the faucet, I get an immediate rush of clear water. That’s when I fill up my teakettle and my water vessels. That’s when I water my plants. That’s when I shore up the truth that flows out of that faucet. That’s when my characters come alive.

In these days of “alternative facts,” we’re all looking for the clear water of truth. Truth doesn’t change from generation to generation and, for many of us, it’s worth a lifetime search. But sometimes truth is too obscured—or too blazingly bright—for the direct approach. That’s why we have writers and performers, poets and artists, to interpret the truth in a way that is fresh and meaningful for each succeeding generation.

Of course, there are many vessels of truth that have withstood the test of time. Emily Dickinson had a lot of truth to tell. In fact, she kept telling it, over and over, in her nearly 1,800 poems. She preserved the truth in clear-water vessels that are still fresh and bracing today:

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 —

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