So I’ve been recovering from the flu this week – well, I just started recovering – and so I’ve been off my “writing game” for the last few days. I’ve been skipping my morning pages and any Artist Date will have to take place within 25ft of my bed.
The worst part – aside from the physical manifestations I’ll leave to your imagination – of being ill has been the panic I’ve felt about the loss of momentum that inevitably happens when you suffer a setback. I’ve talked about this before, and generally championed the idea that in order to overcome the power of the immovable object, you simply must “do” whatever must be done.
So here I am, trying to craft together a blog post that’s has some meaning, insight and valuable information and serves a purpose grander than simply showing up to the page. Thankfully, providence stepped in, handing me access to a series of articles about writing from the likes of Truman Capote, George Orwell and The Paris Review.
Truman Capote Talks About Narrative Nonfiction
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
Slate occasionally runs survey pieces highlighting long-form journalism. Grouped by category (“The Longform Guide to Surfing,” “The Long Form Guide to Cheaters” , etc), the articles are culled from Longform, a narrative journalism clearinghouse with links to some of the great nonfiction writing of the last half-century. If you’ve got an hour or two to kill, by all means explore that website’s database.
In the meantime, I’d like to discuss one of Longform and Slate’s recent groupings, “The Long Form Guide to Writing Great NonFiction.”
First in the lineup is an interview with Truman Capote conducted in 1966 by the New York Times. In the interview, Capote discusses the processes behind the writing of In Cold Blood and lays out his ideas for what he called “a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel.’”
Capote begins the interview discussing the tendency to ignore journalism as serious writing. He talks about the skewed perspective of nonfiction reporting as nothing more than “literary photography,” while also highlighting some of the difficulties behind truthfully depicting nonfiction narratives. For example, the more accurately you depict a source, the more likely you are to find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
As Capote explains, “it’s indeed difficult to portray, in any meaningful depth, another being, his appearance, speech, mentality, without to some degree, and often for quite trifling cause, offending him. The truth seems to be that no one likes to see himself described as he is, or cares to see exactly set down what he said and did. Well, even I even can understand that–because I don’t like it myself when I am the sitter and not the portraitist; the frailty of egos!–and the more accurate the strokes, the greater the resentment.”
On the discussion of the need for imagination and discipline, Capote talks of how nonfiction writing requires even greater skill than its fictional counterpart. Not only must your accurately portray real life, but you are also tasked with selectively highlighting certain moments, visions and comments.
Although in Capote felt that fiction and nonfiction writing required different disciplines, I think that he description of the tendency of fiction writers to be too introspective in their work strikes a cord.
“It seems to me that 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. If I were naming names, I’d name myself among others. At any rate, I did at one time feel an artistic need to escape my self-created world. I wanted to exchange it, creatively speaking, for the everyday objective world we all inhabit. “
I think if we all take a look back at some of our first attempts at fiction – short stories, poems, writing exercises for high school English – we can all recognize this propensity for “navel gazing.” As I’ve said before, I think all writing can benefit from the discipline imposed by journalistic endeavors. Accurately depicting a scene – whether real or imagined – involves putting a cap on sentimentality and flowery description. Take out all your adjectives, and then put them back in, one by one, until you just reach the benchmark that turns your writing into something real.
The interview is a fascinating peak at the creation of a novel that is considered by many to be the prime example of true crime fiction and a “Great American Novel.” Capote warns the aspiring nonfiction novelist to pick a topic that will feel comfortable for several years (4-5 in his estimation) and that will not date itself. He talks about the arbitrariness behind the topic of his own novel (a small, three to four paragraph summary hidden in the back pages of the newspaper), and goes into detail as to how he ingratiated himself to the community and found a way to tell the truest version of the events he could craft. And for Harper Lee fans, there are a couple of anecdotes regarding her contributions to the project.
And if you’re unfamiliar with In Cold Blood, pick up a copy (or download it on your e-reader) the next time you’re in the mood for something creepy, disturbing and revolutionary (in the literary sense).
(For an added treat, check out the strange – but probably true – story about Capote I once overheard in a coffee shop.)
All Content is the sole Property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer, if you are reading this blog on another site, it has been reposted without the author’s permission and is in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
- The Longform Guide To Writing Great Nonfiction (slate.com)
- Truman Capote’s Writing Process (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- An Answered Prayer – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (bookrhapsody.wordpress.com)
- Fetishized rituals (themillions.com)
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- William Burroughs’ cold-blooded letter to Truman Capote (dangerousminds.net)
- Getting Catty with Capote (silverbirchpress.wordpress.com)
- Fiction vs Non-fiction (with cameos by Jim Jarmusch, James Frey & Truman Capote) (tessfragoulis.wordpress.com)