Monday, August 15, 2011


A few years ago, I attended a corporate meeting where we were handed out two cards. One had the word tangent written in black ink, the other had the word brainstorm, written in red. In order to help the technical wizards develop a new operating system for the company, we had been called in to become a think tank of sorts.

Being a thinker by nature, I was very excited to be a part of the process. The man running the meeting went on to say that most brainstorming sessions were continually derailed by tangents. He then turned to me, pointed a finger and said, “I can tell you will be going off on tangents all over the place.”

I felt my cheeks burn and my stomach tighten. This man did not even know me! Why had he singled me out like that and how was I to disguise the boiling sense of outrage threatening to send me running from the room? One of my friends quickly said, “She will not.” Her kind words meant a lot to me, but had no effect on him. Every time someone said something beside the point, trailing off to a dead end, or raising a red herring, his ruse was to have us hold up the tangent card in order to make the person embarrassed enough to shut their trap. We have all been in interminable meetings with tedious types who when sensing they are failing to get their point across, neglect to abandon their stance. Rather regrettably, they step up their efforts to persuade everyone that their half baked ideas are actually sound.

Even though I understood the method this facilitator was employing, my upbringing was such that I had been thoroughly schooled in the unwritten law that one simply had to endure insufferable types until a polite, but scathing quip might be lobbed in their direction. Holding up a tangent card seemed unspeakably rude to me, but in my position, I was not able to voice my objections. Did any great ideas come out of that meeting? No. Instead, it turned into a free for all, where anyone who longed to be able to take a shot at a co-worker could, and nothing by the way of good ideas came out of it at all.

As my book club is reading Victor Hugo's masterpiece, “Les Miserables” this summer, and as I am ensconced in it for the second time, it has put the subject of tangents back in my thoughts. When asked at a recent gathering, how the reading is going so far, I said that absolutely no one is allowed to write like that any more. When asked for specifics, I expressed that we have been trained, schooled and edited out of tangents with great discipline. Victor Hugo, free to do what he does best, went happily off on any bunny trail he saw fit to explore. Les Mis is 1,232 pages long. Even a recent translation, wisely, did not shorten the book by much. Thank goodness too, because all the details are absolutely fascinating.

In modern times, we still go off in different directions, but any sidetracking inevitably ends up on the cutting room floor. Why do we waste our time? For anyone born and raised in the protestant work ethic, it is a painful process to destroy work that took many hours to create. If it ends up edited out, angst over the wasted time and effort, starts nipping at the heels of any doggedly determined writer. Yet we have to do it. This is the question we must pose over all those tricky passages: What does this have to do with the story? Did we not hear that in school and do we not continue to hear it from editors, critique groups or well meaning spouses? One cannot say, “It was the way I got there.” Yet, I believe that may be the case.

When thinking of a picture to illustrate tangents, I suddenly became overwhelmed by the idea of how the natural world is comprised. Roots, branches, tributaries of rivers: they are all tangential!

In geometry, the tangent to a curve at a given point is the straight line that "just touches." The word comes from the Latin tangens, which means touching.

What is so wrong with being beside the point? While geometry is for the most part, to me, utterly incomprehensible, looking at the graph charts illustrating tangents, it seemed to me that they come so close to the mark that they are at least heading in the right direction. I have concluded that I will no longer consider them as a literary version of casting about in the dark; I will not view discarded thoughts or pages as waste, but instead, I will just see them as flights of fancy. Besides, any time spent writing is not squandered.

"Time is the only critic without ambition." John Steinbeck


Jennifer Rova said...

Loved your analogy. You tie everything together so nicely.

elizabethbrinton said...

Thank you. You are always so affirming!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, Elizabeth. I started to comment earlier but got off on a tangent. ;-)

So true that those places we sometimes go that take us away from the core of our stories are always the fist to get cut. Like you, I don't view those extra thoughts and pages as waste, and I believe they should always be saved in a holding file somewhere. They may become the next spark for another story, an article, or even a blog post. At a minimum, they serve as a valuable exercise in practicing the craft of writing, and are a record of those particular thoughts at that particular time we wrote it. As writers we shouldn't discard our hard work, but just view it as something we wrote before we needed it and save it for later.

elizabethbrinton said...

What a great idea you had to save those bits in a file and from there find new ideas. I will do that from now on. Thank you.