Why memoir writers need to read fiction

For the longest time–decades–I’ve been reading nonfiction. Autobiographies and memoirs, biographies and oral histories, you can imagine. It wasn’t just my obsessive interest in the craft of writing about life–it was some kind of Yankee holdover from my ancestors, some sniffy disapproval left in my veins about “wasting time with nonsense.”

I’m trying to get over it. Great novels can teach us so much about writing in any genre. Many are closely drawn from the authors’ lives, so why count them out as appropriate for memoirists when, with the restoration of a few correct names and dates, they would be true?

I recently read Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve seen the movie enough times that I got to wondering about the original. I had devoured his In Cold Blood while still a teenager, shortly after it was published, but had never read any of his work since.

Much of Capote’s writing is generally accepted as autobiographical, beginning with his short stories about his Alabama childhood. The novella “Breakfast” is definitely drawn from his own experience as a struggling young author in New York, befriending and befriended by another escapee from the south. Which brings me to my point.

Capote’s a great wordslinger.

Memoir writers need to read great books–whatever the genre–to expose themselves to the virus of great language.

Here’s the passage that got me slavering like a dog on a fresh bone, so tasty was the language. It’s from “House of Flowers,” one of the short stories that follows “Breakfast” in the edition I found at the library. Capote is describing a prostitute’s first meeting with the man she will love. The setting is Port au Prince, Haiti.

She could see that he was from the mountains, his straw country hat and the worn-out blue of his thick shirt told her as much. He was a ginger color, his skin shiny as a lemon, smooth as a guava leaf, and the tilt of his head was as arrogant as the black and scarlet bird he held in his hands. Ottilie was used to boldly smiling men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs.

A smile that’s fragmentary. That clung to lips like cake crumbs. What does it mean? The literal language doesn’t convey a concrete image but the emotional thrust of it is visionary. I wish I wrote that!

Infected by a talent for close observation, paired with a sideways-sliding imagination–that’s the kind of writer Capote is, the kind I want to be. These short stories of Capote’s express many of the recommendations in Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project–pay attention, write what you know, go small, think in propinquities.  There’s a lot to be learned from reading Capote.

There’s a lot more Capote fiction out there and I’m diving in. This will be my summer reading project. Come along!

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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