The Truman Capote Primer for Writers

Caleb Pirtle explores the life of Truman Capote and the brilliant author’s thoughts on the fine art of writing.

He was a small man, only five feet and three inches tall, but he once said of himself, “I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy.” And so he was. He was born in New Orleans as Truman Streckfus Persons, but the byline we all remember carries the name: Truman Capote. He was abandoned by his mother, who would one day kill herself, farmed out to family in the little Alabama town of Monroeville, and grew

up in the midst of a lonely and a solitary existence.

The Eccentric Truman Capote

He once told The Paris Review that he felt like “a spiritual orphan, like a turtle on its back.” He said, “I was so different from everyone, so much more intelligent and sensitive and perceptive. I was having fifty perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five. I always felt that nobody was going to understand me, going to understand what I felt about things. I guess that’s why I started writing. At least on paper, I could put down what I thought.”

Truman Capote did have a high regard for himself, but, in reality, he was more intelligent and sensitive and perceptive than anyone else.  And his writing – his prose and his style – contained the stuff of sheer genius. As The New York Times reported, his writing “shimmered with clarity and quality.”

Capote began his career with The New Yorker, mostly sorting through cartoons. But in his spare time, Capote started submitting articles to magazines and, never to his surprise, they were being published. He won an O’Henry Award, which earned him a fifteen hundred dollar advance from Random House to produce a novel. At the age of twenty-three, Capote turned out Other Voices, Other Rooms, a deeply personal and sensitive account of a teenage boy‘s coming to grips with maturity, accepting his homosexual world as it was, nothing he could change. The novel received critical acclaim and was hailed as a remarkable achievement. Yet, Capote said that the story was nothing more than “an attempt to exorcise demons: an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of it being in any serious degree autobiographical.”

He became a star. He became a celebrity. He ran with stars and celebrities, and their parties provided him with the backdrop for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was seen at the right places with the right people. And he traveled from one television talk show to another because, The New York Times said, he had a gift for purveying viperish wit and scandalous gossip.”

His fame was assured. His bank account was running over. But Truman Capote was a man most miserable. His was extremely superstitious. He said, “There are some people I never telephone because their numbers add up to an unlucky figure. Or I won’t accept a hotel room for the same reason. I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses – which is sad because they’re my favorite flower. I can’t allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won’t travel on a plane with two nuns. Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort obeying these primitive concepts.”

The Early Truman Capote

What troubled Capote most, however, was his longing to create a new kind of novel, a nonfiction novel. He said, “I got this idea of doing a really serious big work. It would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end.”

He tried a couple of ideas and spent a lot of time on research. But one idea after another fizzled out. Then came the turning point in his life. He said, “I wanted to make an experiment in journalistic writing, and I was looking for a subject that would have sufficient proportions. I’d already done a great deal of narrative journalistic writing in this experimental vein in the 1950s for The New Yorker.

“One day I was gleaning The New York Times, and way on the back page, I saw this very small item. And it just said ‘Kansas Farmer Slain. Family of Four Is Slain in Kansas.’ I think it was that I knew nothing about Kansas or that part of the country or anything. And I thought, ‘Well, that will be a fresh perspective for me.’ And so maybe this is the subject I’ve been looking for.

“I arrived just two days after the funerals. The whole thing was a complete mystery and was for two and a half months. Nothing happened. I stayed there and kept researching it and researching it and got very friendly with the various authorities and the detectives on the case. But I never knew whether it was going to be interesting or not.” It was not unlike just another idea slowly drying up.

The Celebrity Truman Capote

But police did catch the killers. The case was solved. For the next four years, Capote spent much of his time with the condemned and served as a witness to their execution. The book was six years in the making. In Cold Blood became an international bestseller, earned more than six million dollars and forever changed the face of the American novel, the nonfiction novel. It was chilling. It was poetic. It probed the psyche of the town that lost a family and the killers who took their lives. A whole new genre burst on the scene. There had been true crime books written before. But nothing like In Cold Blood. His writing caused Norman Mailer to describe Capote as “the most perfect writer of my generation.”

Capote has left us with these thoughts on the art of writing and himself as an author:

  • All Literature is gossip.
  • Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.
  • Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just like painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.
  • To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’ about, but the inner music that words make.
  • Most contemporary novelists, especially the Americans and the French, are too subjective, mesmerized by private demons; they’re enraptured by their navels and confined by a view that ends with their own toes.
  • You should maintain a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs toward the end – or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all.
  • I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch with a cigarette and coffee brandy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter, not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand with a pencil. Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially, I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance. Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. It works fine. I can manage a hundred words a minute. When the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper, and that’s that.

Truman Capote died far too young. He was only fifty-nine. He published a mere thirteen books, most of them slender volumes. Even his novels, other than In Cold Blood, read like extended short stories.  An old friend John Malcolm Brinnin said that Capote had failed to join the ranks of the truly great American writers because he squandered his time, talent, and health on the pursuit of celebrity, riches, and pleasure. He did have a feud or two with other well-known authors of the time. Gore Vidal read about his death, nodded, and called it “a good career move.”

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