By Craig Joseph
There’s a running joke in my family that I could make a million dollars writing a collection of short stories about our relatives. But I’d have to shelve it in fiction because no one would believe that it’s true. And I’d have to wait until everyone was dead – or I’d piss them off.
We jest, but the truth is, some of my best inspiration for writing comes from those closest to me, and I’ve had to grapple – more than a few times – with the ethics of whether or not I commit their stories to print.
The broader questions of “Should I create?” and “What’s my motive for doing so?” made Tim’s pick, Capote, a fascinating watch this week, largely because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s enigmatic portrayal of the title character and the layers of uncertainty that surround his reasons for writing In Cold Blood.
Truman’s answers to questions about what he’s doing change, depending on the day and the audience. At his most altruistic, he is seeking to humanize Perry, to tell his life story and to convince readers that no one sets out to become a monster. At the same time, Tru is driven by a need to do something different than he has before – to write “the book he was meant to write” – and to garner a level of fame, attention and, yes, money. A third string of comments suggest that there is some personal exorcising of demons going on in writing the book – that somehow, Truman is grappling with his own abandonment issues. And Hoffman’s nuanced performance also begs question: was Capote obsessed or in love with Perry?
We get no answer, but a chorus of ethical voices – Harper Lee, Jack Dunphy, Wallace Shawn and even the killers themselves – underscore how unaware Truman is of his own motives. And an epilogue about his troubled life post-publication serves as a cautionary tale for any of us who create without exploring our conflicting reasons for doing so.
This film challenges me. Though I’m unlikely to be tempted by fame and fortune (I mean, only 2 of you read this – hi, Mom), my purity is compromised other ways. I have written – and published – for revenge. I’ve had conversations that I ought to have had in person via poems. Several forays onto the stage have found me mimicking someone I know for the purposes of creating a character. My therapist once called me a “promiscuous intimate,” and I’m ashamed to say that I know I can pretty much make friends with anyone – and have – sometimes solely for the purpose of gleaning their story for my artistic designs. But I’m thinking about and wondering now if it is ever possible to separate my complicated motives and personality from my creative output. And if that’s even desirable. Certainly, I want to steward other people well, and I haven’t always done that, but this viewing leaves me thinking that an artistic vision can never be anything other than totally subjective and self interested.
All that being said, I am posting this week from the Outer Banks, where I’m on vacation with my family, so watch for it in hardcover sometime this fall at your local bookseller.