- Writer Unboxed - https://writerunboxed.com -

Writing from the Heart – Lessons of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”

Photo [1] by Isakarakus [2] via Pixabay Free License [3]

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

A few years ago, I undertook a private education of sorts, reading classics I had missed in my youth. Apparently, my college engineering studies had cut short an otherwise promising literary foundation. Imagine that! At any rate, at some point during my remedial studies I picked up a copy of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I devoured in one sitting. Fortunately, the relatively short novella was accompanied by three other stories, one of which opened my eyes to how a simple tale can leave a profound impression when sculpted by a writer at the top of his game.

To this day I still return to “A Christmas Memory” for inspiration. The language is sparse, at times reading more like notes rather than fully formed passages. But the voice draws you in from the start, and the descriptions of, well, everything – from the scarlet berries on wild hollies to the chill of winter streams to the bite of straight whiskey – beckon you to a time few today would even know and yet which somehow feels achingly familiar. Quite simply, it is a masterpiece.

But what stands out most of all, for me, is the tale’s emotional core. The main characters, two distant cousins – one young, one old – and their tattered canine companion, form a family of misfits. And while their various adventures in the lead up to a Depression-era Christmas are often humorous, it is their easy banter and open affection with one another which propel the story. Neither tension, though shadows in their lives are hinted at, nor an elaborate plot compel the reader. Instead, it is simply the desire to understand this unlikely relationship and the hardscrabble life they share which keeps one invested in their outcomes.

I may never craft a story anchored so fully in pure emotion, but Capote’s writing in “A Christmas Memory” remains a touchstone for me, for it serves as a guide to essential components of any scene in which a character reaches an emotional turning point. So, how did he do it? What elements did Capote perfect to deliver such a powerful punch?

Capote Opened his Heart

One of the reasons the tale feels so immediate and brimming with the texture of real life is because it is indeed a memoir from Capote’s youth, and a tribute to his relationship with an eccentric and loving cousin. By any measure Capote’s childhood was a disjointed one, and his Cousin Sook was the one relative with which he felt secure. She was a simple woman who showered her younger cousin with affection. He in turn was her main companion, given that others in their town tended to frown upon her childlike eccentricities. And thus the stories he wrote about her, though perhaps dappled by the glow of nostalgia, feel real because, emotionally, they are.

What makes Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” exceptional is the honesty with which he approaches the subject matter. Writing as an adult, he still manages to draw from his deepest recollections to tell their stories through the eyes of a youth long since gone. His willingness to do that, to immerse himself back into the mind of his childhood, adds a richness to every scene.

I believe there is a lesson in that for any writer, regardless of genre. And the lesson is that in moments of great pain or character transformation, one should step inside the skin of the character. Commit yourself to seeing the world through their eyes and in the hearts at that moment while drawing upon the reservoir of your own personal experiences. Allow the reactions to spring from a true emotional core, your own, rather than creating a caricature based upon a hypothetical response.

Capote Dropped all Pretension

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable — not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid.”

This is Capote’s introduction of his older cousin in the opening paragraphs. He paints a vivid picture, both here and in descriptions throughout the tale. But more than that, he presents matter-of-fact images. There is no pretense. These are poor people scraping by in a struggling community, and he offers no gloss. Kindness, yes, but no rose-colored glasses.

He tackles emotions in the story in precisely the same way. When the characters laugh, you can practically hear the echo through the trees. But, at another point, when his cousin breaks down “long after the town has gone to sleep,” he describes her “weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow’s handkerchief.” Time and again, Capote creates beautiful images; but he doesn’t shy from stripping them down to a heartbreaking essence when emotions ebb.

He Lets Emotion Shine

At this point, you might well think that “A Christmas Memory” is a sad story; and in some ways it is. It is also a story of love and friendship, even resilience. But I believe the greatest gift to writers from the story is that Capote never waivers from showing the true and raw emotions of his characters.  When they are happy, they revel in life. When pain comes, they express it. And Capote’s descriptions capture both fully and unvarnished.

That is what inspires me each time I read the tale. In our own lives, and at times in writings, it is easy to hold back. It feels safer. And yet Capote in this tale provides an example – a lovely example – of what happens when you allow a full expression of character on the page.

What do you think? Are you familiar with “A Christmas Memory”? Do you have similar impressions, or did you feel it relied too heavily upon an emotional hook? Do other stories, or authors, come to mind that offer good examples for expressing emotion?  Please share your thoughts in the comments — I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [4]

John J Kelley [5] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [6], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.