Writing Routines

Truman Capote’s Writing Routine: “Intelligence alone can’t make a good writer.”

Truman Capote was an American novelist, screenwriter, playwright and actor, best-known for his literary classics, the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the true crime novel In Cold Blood.

Intelligence alone can’t make a good writer and style alone can’t make a good writer—that is, not a really important or significant writer—but the two things together make a really good writer.

New Again: Truman Capote | Interview

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Truman Capote had always known he was going to become a writer. When he was in first grade, he found out that he could read as well as the average high school kid. “The teachers, curiously enough, were very resentful of it,” he recounted to Interview magazine. “But I began to read a great deal and I would also tell the stories I’d read.” From then on, it wasn’t long before he realised he wanted to be a writer.

When I was a child of about ten or eleven and lived near Mobile. I had to go into town on Saturdays to the dentist and I joined the Sunshine Club that was organized by the Mobile Press Register. There was a children’s page with contests for writing and for coloring pictures, and then every Saturday afternoon they had a party with free Nehi and Coca-Cola. The prize for the short-story writing contest was either a pony or a dog, I’ve forgotten which, but I wanted it badly.

Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17 | Paris Review

When it comes to his daily writing routine, Capote revealed to Interview magazine that he only writes for a few hours a day. “There’s a lot of time that I don’t write,” he revealed. “When I am writing, I try to do it five hours a day but I spend about two of those just fooling around. I’m one of the world’s greatest pencil sharpeners.”

At the start of his writing career, Capote used to keep notebooks to store outlines for potential stories, but over the years he found that this process “deadened the idea in my imagination.” The author believed that “If the notion is good enough, if it truly belongs to you, then you can’t forget it—it will haunt you till it’s written.”

Truman Capote’s creative process

In a 1957 interview with Paris Review, Capote revealed his unique writing process, which includes: writing longhand while lying down, and making the transition from coffee to alcohol as the day wore on:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17 | Paris Review

In addition to his unique writing set up, Capote was also known for his personal quirks and superstitious belief. For instance, He will never call someone if their phone number “adds up to an unlucky figure.” 

The same went for hotel rooms. He also wouldn’t tolerate having any yellow roses around him; or if there are three cigarette butts in the same ashtray; or travelling on a plane with two nuns. “Won’t begin or end anything on a Friday. It’s endless, the things I can’t and won’t. But I derive some curious comfort from obeying these primitive concepts,” Capote confessed.

Unlike a lot of other writers, Capote has no problem reading other authors while he’s in the middle of his work. “It doesn’t bother me to read while I am writing—I mean, I don’t suddenly find another writer’s style seeping out of my pen. Though once, during a lengthy spell of James, my own sentences did get awfully long,” he once said.

“I have a passion for newspapers—read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at news stands. I average about five books a week—the normal-length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.”

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