The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Capote Lesson

by Tricia Dower

If you’re a writer, “Capote” has gotta make you wonder: Could you sacrifice your integrity and decency for a story? Betray another’s trust if the stakes were high?

On a Victoria-mild February afternoon I sat in a small theatre watching that wonderful movie with increasing astonishment. I’d been drawn by reports of the lead actor’s brilliance and my admiration for “In Cold Blood,” a book I bought in hardback and have in my collection still. I hadn’t read the biography on which the film is based and all I knew of Truman Capote was that he was talented and quirky. As the account of how he came to write “In Cold Blood” played out on the screen, I was repelled by the extent to which he lied and manipulated to land that book, the one he was “born to write,” the one he knew would create a genre and give it his name. And I was ambushed by the recognition that I understood his hunger to tell the story. That spark of recognition generated the power of the film for me.

I have no illusions about my ability to alter the DNA of literature. And I can’t imagine hoping someone would die to end my book. But I wrestle with my own moral dilemmas such as the temptation to steal pieces of others’ lives for my work -- this one’s past, that one’s neurosis. It’s easier than making everything up, everybody does it, it’s no big deal, right? Friends and family are a “gold mine,” as Capote said of the murderer who spilled his guts to him, who shared the rich details the writer could not have imagined quite so well.

Parts of my daughter appear in my first published story. In another, a character channells my husband. (My recent works are less derivative; I may be bored, at last, with my own life.) Both husband and daughter read “their” stories as I was writing them, got to comment on and influence them. But what about my other borrowings, my truer betrayals -- the former husbands, neighbours, bosses and co-workers who show up thinly veiled in early works? I didn’t consult with them. If they stumble across my writing and recognise themselves, will they feel violated?

A friend is crossing a treacherous mountain pass, dealing with a situation that’s unique and epic in emotional scope. Because we’re friends, he shares his feelings about it, lending me insights I couldn’t earn on my own. What a compelling story it is, one that if I wrote it well would have the literary world singing hosannas to me. (My fondest delusions involve praise.) It might not be the story I was born to write, but it’s a powerful one, laid out as a feast on a table before me.

I could change the details so the borrowed life wouldn’t be obvious to most readers, but my friend would know. I could ask his permission and give him a sharp blue pencil with which to rule the manuscript. Whether he answered yes or no, he’d be wary from then on, not as comfortable sharing the confidences that deepen our friendship. He’d wonder if my interest in his life, my encouragement to unburden himself, was driven by shallow self-interest. For the sake of a story I could lose a friend’s trust. That's too big a price to pay for now and for always, I’d like to think, but the lesson of “Capote” is: Don’t be so sure; keep those delusions in check.


Blogger Patricia said...

I love this Tricia, this rings sooo true, most of what I write, not all, is somewhat based on my life, my experiences and I just give the character, characters another name, however, there are stories I've written, excellent stories, imo..that will never, ever see the light of day, I think all stories are meant to be told, but not all stories are meant to be read. I write them for myself, to get ride of them, or to keep them, only for me. thanks Tricia xo

Thu Apr 27, 09:08:00 pm GMT-4  

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