“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?