Tag Archives: new york times

On Capote: Writing is a Dangerous Business

On November 16th, 1959, Truman Capote read a New York Times article with only 300 words that would change his life, and American literature, forever. The article began:

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing had been stolen.

It’s ironic that it’s on American Independence Day that I’m watching Capote, the film of how the book Capote would write transpired.

An early cover from Penguin's release of In Cold Blood.

I’m starting to realize what an important movie it is in my collection, from a million different perspectives, almost all of them to do with writing and what it means to me or what I feel it says about writing.
And in that realization, I found myself at a loss for a brief moment there, “pause” frozen on my screen, pondering what effect Truman Capote’s original book, In Cold Blood, must’ve had on the mindset of America.
The murders themselves, of course, resonated with the country then, but I wonder who, other than Capote, realized what it meant in the adolescence of his country. These days, it would seem he was ahead of the pack in those observations.
In the five decades since the Clutter Killings, one could say we’ve witnessed the death of the American Dream. With a look across the cultural landscape, one can’t ignore the economic strife America’s battling, the crime that has redefined the geography of the land, and the loss of the Here-vs-There that once existed — the “safe”-country-versus-the-“bad”-city mentality.
Where is the America that existed before it all? Gone, like any culture any other place in the world — a victim of modernity and technology?
About In Cold Blood, Wikipedia says:

The book examines the complex psychological relationship between two parolees, who together commit a mass murder, an act they were not capable of individually. Capote’s book also explores the lives of the victims and the effect of the crime on the community where they lived. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work of the true crime genre.

It’s safe to say that In Cold Blood was one of the first mass killings in which the rest of the country had to say, “My god, if it could happen to them, it could happen to us.”
With that came fear, a fear that’s forever stained the fabric of America.
Anyone who’s paid attention to USA’s politics since 2001 knows just how destructive it can be to adapt to life under a regime of fear.
Well, by 1960, America had inklings of what “fear” was. It was the time of McCarthy and the Cold War, and a decade-plus of post-Holocaust reality that, out there, Evil existed.
And now, with the handiwork of killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the fear lived at home, too.
Capote’s true-crime masterwork is a book widely accepted to be a jumping-off point for what fine literature was able to do to real-life on the pages.* In it, a real and tangible look was given into the headspace of these killers — one of whom had very much the same sort of horrible childhood of abandonment and abuse as Capote, offering this brilliant author the opportunity to internally juxtapose the life he’d been able to create for himself despite his tragic beginnings, versus the horror Smith wreaked upon others as a result of his own.
And that, friends, is often what brilliant writing is — the seeking of truth in everything, and the ability to own it within yourself. The inability to do the latter in a lasting way, however, can be devastating to a writer, and Capote’s decline should be a warning to all writers.
Reading In Cold Blood was a defining point in my life as a writer/reader. True life’s tragedies could be rendered in beautiful language that conveyed so much more than just photographic evidence of its horrors.
I doubt it was Capote’s work alone that stirred a new consciousness of the possibility of Evil Within amongst Americans — much of society was headed in that direction at the time, powered by media and politicans.
But Capote did what I love that good writers can do: Through a seemingly miniscule event, he correctly understood the quickening pulse of his country, and that this event — a seemingly small rural tragedy, buried a few pages into the newspaper on his morning read — was something that spoke of a world to come, of changes that loomed in his country’s previously untouchable heartland.


As much as this film makes me want to be a writer, it terrifies me — the price it suggests one would pay for being great seems far too high.
Capote, I feel, was destroyed by his subject (and himself).

A young Truman Capote by Irving Penn.

With his book’s success bound to his subject’s journey to the electric chair, and his need to understand the parallels in their lives, Truman Capote slipped into depression and guilt. He almost certainly was traumatized by the reality that he knew Smith’s execution was necessary for his book to be the brilliance it could be.
Deep down inside, I’m sure Capote realized having Smith living would contradict the “truths” the writer would write in the book, that it might be dangerous to his masterwork’s longevity. No one wants to think like that, but I guarantee you the thought would occur to any intelligent writer. What if…
Today, speculation does exist that Capote fictionalized entire passages of what was boasted to be true in every word. Evidence of the fictionalizing has been hard to come by.
Having that “what if” of execution work out in your favour — guaranteeing the “truthfulness” of what would be your masterwork — standing there to bear witness as the noose snaps the neck of the man who is all that’s wedged between you and literary immortality, that must induce some pretty horrific guilt-laden realities for a writer.
In the end, it took him 4 years to write the book, and 18 years to drink himself to death before his 60th birthday in 1984.
The book came out in ’65, and Capote became somewhat a mockery of himself within the next seven years. He would never again write anything considered “great” and, by 1978, was comfortably threatening suicide on national television, the punchline of many a joke.
I believe, ultimately, that his willingness to go as far as he could to write about those murders and to draw parallels between his life and the life of Perry Smith is what drove him into his alcoholic haze that choked the greatness from him.
Writing is a dangerous business.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The choices we make of holes to dig and skeletons to reveal, they define who we writers are in that moment and who we’ll become down the line. Writers must accept that these words they trifle with hold powers they maybe don’t expect, and the journeys taken to weave words can burrow deep into a writer.
Some opened doors will never be closed.
Capote couldn’t close his, so he drank to numb the opened doors away.
One could say he should have truly dived into the abandonment he felt as a child — that he was only comfortable peeling away the truths about others but terrified what doing so might reveal of him.
After all, he was an openly gay Southern man when being gay still meant being “one of them”. He was an outsider, born poor, spent a lonely childhood never belonging anywhere, and found his solace in writing.
When he stopped pushing envelopes and didn’t publish anything of significance beyond In Cold Blood, I would suspect he lost that solace and instead felt as though he had betrayed some part of who he was.
Not having been true in life and now not on the page, I’m certain Capote probably felt like a fraud and found himself seeing life through the eyes of Perry Smith, believing he could never really belong where he socially was perceived to be.
In my lowly opinion, the greatest, most tragic men in “big” American literature in the last 100 years were Hemingway, Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson.**
Each searched for an ideal, a life they felt obliged to enjoy or a dream they held about Their America and what the modern world could be. Each never found what they sought. Each engineered his own demise.
Ironically, though, Capote did achieve what he sought — the execution of a man he fell in love with after identifying with everything that made Smith the monster America believed him to be, a monster Capote possibly wondered if he himself had inside — and it gave him the book he dreamed he could write, solidified his placed as a master of American English literature, and it is, one could argue, that achievement (and guilt for it) which destroyed him.
Writing is a dangerous business.
*Some would argue too that Capote’s take on the killings romanticized and even justified the murders from a sociological point of view, and that the “literary” non-fiction approach may have led to the erosion of facts and journalistic irresponsibility. These aren’t entirely wrong, nor right.
**Without getting into a lengthy debate with hugely relevant but lesser-knowns like David Foster Wallace & John Kennedy Toole. Just of the “big scene” American writers.

An Intro to the Cunt's Take on Abortion

The Guy knows I’ve thought about abortion a couple of times this week, and he coincidentally found a pretty horrific story in the New York Times about abortions in El Savador on the same day I happened to buy the Mike Leigh film “Vera Drake” on DVD.
It’s an interesting time for abortion.
On January 22nd, 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided in the American Supreme Court, which ruled, essentially, that a woman’s right to privacy superseded a state’s law on abortion, thus legalizing the highly controversial practice.
That means, being 32, abortion has been legal for my entire life. Yet I can recall being a child and seeing the “Dr. Death” propaganda waved in front of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who was a legendary abortion activist. I was a staunch Catholic as a kid and perceived abortion to be “killing babies.”
Now, though, I perceive it as a necessary evil in a world where mistakes – and yes, crimes against women – can transpire. Should I find out I’m pregnant tomorrow, I’ll be at the clinic Monday. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve used the so-called “morning after” pill three times, the first being back when I was about 20. I even remember the condom breaking, that one catalyst that forced me into that situation. I take the birth control pill now, and use the condom as well. I’m vigilant. But if something were to happen, I’d go to a clinic and deal with it.
Because it’s my body, because it’s my choice, because it’s nine months of my life that’s at stake, because I know that my genes are likely to mean a kid may have too many medical problems in their youth, because there are too many reasons for me not to have a kid. Because.
I feel for men who believe that it’s their kid too. I feel badly that they might think they should have more of a say in the matter. But until they’re able to have a distended belly, all-over bloating, utter discomfort and unease for a nine-month period, until they’re able to “squeeze one out,” the choice needs to be that of the female.
I can say a lot of shit right now, and I’ll have many men on my ass as a result, so I’ll keep it short and not so sweet. Men have great intentions. They want to be daddies. They want to bring a kid in the world. Ultimately, the majority of them take their responsibilities too simply, and the women tend to have to do most of the cleaning, cooking, and whatever the hell else the Soccer Mom of the Year tends to do. It’s the way it’s always been, and while dads are getting more involved and taking on more, they’re kidding themselves if they think it’s all evened out now. There are exceptions, of course, and yes, I’m speaking in generalities, but generalities being “the norm,” we know this is largely true, so please spare me the arguments on this. There are exceptions, but let’s look at the norms, all right? For the sake of argument.
When some guy – a boyfriend, a lover, whatever – says he wants the kid, he’s going to take care of it, there’s not a whole lot to go on there. Intentions don’t make the world go round, and promises are made to be broken. When it’s 18 years to life, one doesn’t wish to take a gamble, not when one knows who’s to pay the price when it all goes belly up. She will.
When the religious right and all those other bubbleheads get on their soapboxes to proclaim the sanctity of sperm and the amorality of abortion, they’re forgetting that the world isn’t some idealist’s wet dream. Ideals are for fools, and reality is for the rest of us. Yes, kids can be put up for adoption, but there are already kids out there needing parents – they’re just not the cute and cuddly little things in pink bunny slippers that every yuppie this side of suburbia’s got designs on. Let’s take care of those already neglected before we bring more into the picture. Yes, there’s social assistance for mothers who can’t make the finances work, but it’s not enough. Yes, everyone claims they’ll be there for the women when the women need help, but three years down the line, she’s going to be all alone, and she essentially knows it.
The thing that makes me most mad about this whole anti-abortion thing is this: It’s Christians leading the charge against it – whether it be El Salvador, Guatemala, or here in our own backyard – and they seem to have missed that very, very important part in the book of Genesis. God allegedly put an apple on a tree, and told Adam and Eve it was there, and the choice was theirs as to whether to eat it. He said there would be consequences for their actions, the expulsion from Eden, but He chose as a Creator to give them the option to decide what they would do with their life. Consequences would be doled out in the afterlife, and purgatory would be the resting ground for debts to be paid. Them were the rules set out by the Big Cheese oh so many millennia ago.
So, here we are, thousands and thousands of years after these alleged events, and these fucking Bubbleheads have decided that God’s choice to allow us the freedom of choice just isn’t good enough for their little right wing mission.
I love how they want to adhere to the Bible when it suits them, yet throw it out the window when it means they have to live in a society that doesn’t adhere to their little cookie-cutter mentality of Utopia.
Get over it. Choice, according to your beliefs, was divinely given. Man cannot usurp it, is what the Good Book claims. Or is yours a faith of convenience after all? Oh, the hypocrisy. Fuck, I hate hypocrites.

*As for El Salvador and Vera Drake, I’ve more thoughts on those. I’ll get back to that another time. Abortion’s being messed with in a major way, and Bush is on a mission. Well, la di da. So am I.