Poetic License

Capote 1980

Photo Credit: Truman Capote in 1980 a few years before his death, when all of his society friends had forsaken him for his poetic license in Answered Prayers. Photo taken by Jack Mitchell, 1980: Nesnad/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

“‘The artist is a dangerous person because he’s out of control… He’s controlled only by his art.’” (Truman Capote, as quoted in Clarke, location 7960)

A few weeks ago, I was surfing the TV cable channels for a Sunday movie and came across a film I hadn’t seen in a very long time – 1981’s Mommie Dearest. For those born after the Internet age, this film, along with the biography on which it was based, made huge headlines and completely shattered the squeaky-clean (somewhat) image of one of Hollywood’s icons – Joan Crawford. A celebrity tell-all biography about child abuse may not be that much of a pariah now, but in 1978, when the book came out, domestic violence and child abuse was just beginning to find a public voice. But this blog post isn’t about Mommie Dearest as much as it’s about poetic license.

Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina Crawford, received a lot of criticism over the years, including the Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell biography Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography attacking her version of events and trying to discredit her. Writer and blogger Rebecca Collins picked apart the objections that Quirk and Schoell make against Mommie Dearest in her blog post, “Conspiracy Theory: Was Mommie Dearest a Crock of Sh*t?”. One of Quirk and Schoell’s objections struck me:

“‘[M]uch of the book simply does not ring true… Christina remembers conversations and incidents that she was much too young to recall in such detail…’” (as quoted in Collins, par. 9).

My problem with this isn’t that Crawford may have fabricated conversations and incidents because of faulty memory from the perspective of a child abuse survivor but the idea that the sincerity of Mommie Dearest is being called into question from a writer’s point of view. I talk about sincerity in my post about three barriers to sincerity. Along with truth and sincerity, we must not forget writers are artists and transformers so sometimes poetic license is necessary.

Of course, truth and sincerity in biographies, memoirs, and autobiographies is a different issue than truth in fiction. As Collins points out, “[i]t’s now common practice for memoirists to write disclaimers saying conversations probably didn’t contain exactly the sentences written in the book.” (par. 16). And even when we play back conversations in the past in our minds, they aren’t always accurate: “[E]ach time a conversation is replayed in one’s memory, or an incident is replayed, the mind changes it just slightly” (Collins, par. 16). In our post-modernist world, we accept the fallacies of memory which makes Quirk and Schoell’s criticism a little outdated.

But the point they seem to overlook is complete accuracy in the literal sense of exact conversations and events is less important than the impression they leave in the mind and psyche at the time and analyzed in later years. I agree with Collins that “you still remember the gist, the tone” (par. 16). This is exactly what writing that takes poetic license is meant to do – relate the gist or the feeling, the psychological reality of truth based usually in part on the literal truth.

From this angle, the writer becomes, as Truman Capote insisted, the most dangerous person in the world. As I mention here, the writer is always an observer and nothing slips from his or her notice and that becomes fodder for their work. While sometimes writers transform these observations completely, other times they keep details that are true but use poetic license to give them flavor and meaning.

Capote was one writer who knew this very well. His last unfinished work, Answered Prayers was a roman a clef of sorts, a work of fiction based on true events and real people. What began as a playful transposition of gossip from the New York high society friends he had gathered around him in the 1960’s turned into his worst nightmare, eventually breaking him as a writer. The poetic license that Capote took with events and personalities in his social circle was partly responsible for this.

The catalyst was the publication of a chapter of the anticipated Answered Prayers in Esquire in 1975. The chapter, “La Cote Basque, 1965” focused on the male protagonist, a thinly veiled version of Capote himself, having lunch with one Lady Coolbirth at the ritzy La Cote Basque in New York. Lady Coolbirth relates the latest gossip: 

“[M]ost of Lady Coolbirth’s monologue is devoted to two long and scandalous stories: a barely disguised account of the Woodward killing and a tale of a philandering tycoon’s comic comeuppance.” (Clarke, location 7773)

These scandalous stories were real incidents within the social set in which Capote moved. The first, the Woodward killing refers to socialite Ann Woodward who, in the 1950’s, shot her husband William Woodward, claiming she mistook him for a burglar. The death was ruled an accident but gossip among high society folks pointed the finger at murder. The second scandal refers to a philandering of the husband of Babe Paley, Capote’s favorite socialite, and the rather gory lesson he learned from it.

The fact that Capote was using real events and real people in a sardonic way in his book was not news to his high society friends. But when they actually saw the poetic license Capote took in the story, their anticipation and amusement changed to shock and anger. Indeed, “[w]hen ‘La Cote Basque’ reached the stands in mid-October [of 1975], [the] wrath [of those featured in the story] shook the ground beneath [Capote’s] feet” (Clarke, location 7858-7864).

The repercussions were brutal. Woodward committed suicide soon after the story came out but, as Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke points out, “Ann had been deeply depressed anyway, and ‘La Cote Basque’ may only have been the catalyst that hastened the inevitable” (location 7864). One by one, Capote’s high society friends dropped him, those he portrayed and, in their eyes, distorted, and others out of outrage and loyalty to their friends. For them,

“Truman had been accepted, pampered and allowed into the inner recesses of their private lives; in return, he had mocked them and broadcast their secrets. He was, in their opinion, a cad and a traitor” (Clarke, location 7898).

Capote’s reaction to being shunned is quite telling from an artistic standpoint. Clarke muses, “[n]aivete may be a necessary armor for writers who… closely pattern their fiction on real people and real incidents” (location 7914). He seemed clueless to the idea that his friends might be offended by his poetic license. He was staying with Johnny Carson in California at the time while making the film Murder by Death when the story came out and the reactions came in and “he rambled around [Johnny Carson’s] house in a near-daze, repeating over and over, ‘But they know I’m a writer. I don’t understand it’” (Clarke, location 7919-7925). For Capote, it was natural for a writer to take poetic license even if for those who were the target of his sardonic wit did not agree.

This is not to say that making fun of real people or twisting an incident to show it in a bad light is right or even artistic. But part of a writer’s job is to take what they experience and give it meaning and color.

 Works Cited

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. RosettaBooks, LLC, 2013 (original publication date 1988). Kindle digital file.

Collins, Rebecca. “Conspiracy Theory: Was Mommie Dearest a Crock of Sh*t?”. Web blog post. Not Shallow. Blogger, 30 November 2009. Web. 12 April 2017.





4 thoughts on “Poetic License

  1. Poetic license is like any other opinion. It should never be used to excuse causing another any pain. However if one writes in a manner that is true to themselves then I believe that it allows for a different opinion.


    1. Hi Patti,
      I totally agree with you. Poetic license is just another tool for writers to use but, like any other tool, it should be used with consideration and respect, especially if it’s poetic license about someone you know.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Poetic license does not mean changing the truth. Means sometimes less or more details or changing how the truth is told. If you change the truth, then it becomes fiction. And then that is a different thing all together.


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