Guest Post, Dinah Lenney: This and That

When I remember, I add to my collection, a running list of souvenirs from my daily walks. For instance, among yesterday’s finds down at Echo Park Lake:

A model posing in diaphanous turquoise
A pair of lovers: exceptionally tall, exceptionally short
A man with a guitar
A man with a flute
A man doing sun salutations
A girl with scarlet dreads
Three Muskovy ducks
A bunch of mallards
Lilies, voluptuous, a field of them, waving and blushing
And the other kind, too, purple pinwheels on the water
One heron
Two egrets
Coots and baby coots
Turtles and baby turtles
A boy on a bike
A runner with green shoes
A cat on a leash
An all-white pigeon

HeronA running list, as I say, and the day’s adds not so remarkable, really— though I can never get enough of the great egret; and she was closer than usual, too; I saw the breeze ruffling her feathers, and the orange of her beak.

Then, too, there was that pigeon— the white one, very rare—I tried to take a picture with my phone, but up jogged the joker in green shoes, and she was gone.

The point is, though, I keep on collecting. But why? What to do with all these bits and pieces? Must I do something with them? Must I know what I’m doing?

Once upon a time (but this is true), over 80 years ago, there was a man named Raymond Isidore, a Frenchman (you can google the guy), who lived with his wife in Chartres (home of the famous cathedral), roughly an hour by train from Paris; a straight shot from the Gare de Montparnasse, which—on a Saturday this past July— was a ten minute walk from our rented one-bedroom on Rue St. Jacques. A miracle, it seemed, to be standing in front of the Cathedral at Chartres in less than two hours. Actually, a miracle that we caught the train at all, distracted as we were that morning by the scene out the window over the kitchen sink, where our pigeon was more visible than usual. Our pigeon, I say, because the day we moved in, we watched her build her nest twig by twig; since then—for three weeks and a day—we’d been waiting. More accurately, she’d been waiting: such a patient bird, so devoted, so watchful, always there, almost hidden in the fork of that tall, skinny tree, like so:

pigeonEvery morning we wondered, would it happen today? Tomorrow? Would the eggs hatch before we ourselves had to fly away home? We’d noticed: our bird had been sitting higher and higher on the nest—but for how long had that been true, we wondered? And did it mean she’d produced more eggs? Wouldn’t she have laid them all at once? Reluctantly, we tied our laces, pocketed wallets, tickets, keys. We had that train to catch—we were meeting friends for lunch in Chartres.

Once there and outside the tiny station—two tracks only—we found our way up the hill to the Cathedral (“You won’t be able to miss it,” said our friend, and she was right, there it was, kissing the clouds), where we marveled at the spires, the buttresses, the saints, the angels—and all of it erected something like 900 years ago. Nine hundred years—almost a millennium. How, I kept asking? How did they hoist these enormous stones one on top of the other? How long did it take? (Decades.) At what point did they build the staircase, 300 steps: not all at once, surely, but when and how? Before? After? On their way up? At lunch (a salade composée; I wish I had a picture) I forgot about my questions. After lunch, with plenty of time to spare before catching the train back to the city, our friends drove us to Raymond Isidore’s house, La Maison Picassiette, two kilometers east.

Isidore, born and raised in Chartres, was a molder: by profession he made parts, from molds (this seems important to note ), before, due to health considerations, he became a sweep at the local cemetery. In 1929, he bought a small plot of land on which he built a little house for himself and his wife. Nine years later, so goes the story, he was out for a walk one afternoon when he found some bits of broken pottery—and he picked them up. I’ve done that, haven’t you? Long before I started my running list, I saved things: pebbles, pinecones, shells. They’re all over the house, in saucers and boxes and tins; on night tables and tucked in the corners of shelves and drawers. We even bought a glass lamp, the kind you can fill, in which we arranged a random assortment of stones and driftwood and marbles. Also a couple of pool balls and a postcard or two and a pair of old spectacles—artless and arty, but definitely not art, no—not adding up to much and not meant to. Raymond Isidore, though: did he have any idea that first afternoon? If so, how did he know where to start? Or was he somewhere in the middle when he realized what he was up to? And then—if that’s how it was —how did he manage to stay the course as if it weren’t a course at all?

mosaic ovenBut I haven’t explained: Over the next 30 years (he died in 1964), Raymond Isidore tiled every surface of his house: not just the front stoop and the garden path—but the walls, inside and out; also the lamps, the bedframe, the counters—the stove! The sewing machine! (His wife’s)—the tables and chairs and doors, all of them part of this enormous mosaic: a portrait here, a landscape there; animals and people and places, some familiar—the Mona Lisa, Chartres Cathedral itself, and the Tour Eiffel—others of his own invention entirely; whales, giraffes, monkeys, birds, flowers, elephants, clowns, moons, stars, meadows, oceans: a series, a serial, a collection of linked stories—which turn out to be the story of a life! Raymond Isidore’s life, created day by day out of disparate fragments of glass, china, crockery, all colors, kinds, textures; now dark, now light, now serious, now whimsical, not only in content but also in craft: here and there you can find a spout from a teapot, or a handle from a jug winking from a beam or a sill.

Did Isidore, aka Picassiette—from the words “piquer,” to steal, and “assiette,” a plate (though the connection to Picasso is not unintentional)—have art in mind? Or was he just compelled to…to… To what? To recycle? To give purpose to his days? To leave something behind? To make things add up somehow?

So it must have been for the builders of the Cathedral at Chartres. Apples and oranges, maybe: in that case there was no master architect, no overall vision in anybody’s head. But the construction of the church was accomplished by teams of master craftsmen. And as far as they knew it was a work-in-progress: no one of them could have been there from beginning to end—which maybe tells us something similar about the relationship between work and art, and why and for whom; though what it tells us I’m not exactly sure.

Meanwhile, what am I to do with my lists? How to mold them? How to spring them from their molds? (See, I knew it was important: the fact of his having been a molder—) What does one image—one souvenir—have to do with another? I haven’t a clue: I’m looking for clues—that’s what I’m doing on my daily walks, isn’t it?

Back to our Saturday field trip. We returned to the city on the late side and warmed up some leftovers (this and that all over again) in a pan on the stove: full up as we were with the day, and dinner, by the time we remembered our pigeon it was too dark to get a good look. The next morning, though, there she was, high up on her nest (that perfect composition of sticks and leaves: how did she know where to begin and when it was finished?)—nothing had changed, we thought, nothing doing. But then, as we were getting on with the day, we heard an unfamiliar sound—not her throaty gargle, but an actual cheep. We rushed to the window: she’d left! And there they were, two of them, fuzzy and gray, open-beaked, insisting. Judging from the size of the squabs, and the sound, and how savvy they were when she flew in again with breakfast , they’d hatched some days before. Although nobody was worse for our having missed the main event—if that’s what it was.

Guest Post, Dinah Lenney: One Step Forward, Two Back: On Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.  


That’s Elena Ferrante, the Italian author of the much-lauded Neapolitan novels, in an interview just published in the Paris Review. And I’m sure she’s right—that is the truth about literary truth. You can’t have it, not in any genre, if, as she earlier states, “the writing is inadequate.” But say the writing is not only adequate, but exquisite! What about the actual truth—the truth-truth—in a work that claims to be nonfiction? Does it matter at all? For how long? And who gets to decide?

I’m thinking about In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Beautifully written, right? But is that what mattered when it was first published? Is it all that matters now? Why did he call it a “nonfiction novel”? Was he inventing a genre, or only wanting it both ways? And—if that’s what it was (the latter)—so what; what’s wrong with that?

Backing up—I get regular emails (A.Word.A.Day, almost daily) from wouldn’t you know the day I was scheduled to talk about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis), the word for the day was “expurgate”— and its definition: “verb tr.: to remove parts considered objectionable.” Hilarious. There I was in my hotel room putting the finishing touches on my tiny talk—this had to be a sign, a directive; for me, of course, not for Truman Capote. If you were to expurgate In Cold Blood, it’d have no blood at all. The best parts are the objectionable parts, right? But are they objectionable? Or are they only the best?

In Cold Blood, billed by the author (as noted) as the first “nonfiction novel” (although his assertion is debatable—just about everything about Capote is debatable, after all), was published half a century ago this year: hence the occasion—the AWP event—an opportunity to consider the book’s legacy and relevance today.
Truman Capote - In Cold Blood CoverBut let me back up again: it was 1969. I was 12. The Clutters had died ten years earlier; the book had been published three years before. I read on my back in a sun-filled room (mine: I had a big bay window, and a chintz bedspread pulled up over my knees); it was one of those days when your parents keep urging you to go outside, get on your bike, get some fresh air…but I was cooped up with Truman Capote. I could not get enough. I read the way we read fiction—or the way we did when we were kids, which is why we fell in love with writing in the first place, yes? I mean to say, if Capote had ruled out first person presence and point of view (a requirement, said he, of his brand-new form), I had not: I believed in what was happening in that farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas as if I were dreaming it up all by myself. It was Nancy Clutter who got to me, of course—Nancy, who was 16 and perfect. She had a horse and a boyfriend; she was good at everything; everyone loved her. Nabokov has counseled us against identifying with characters. That isn’t our job he explains in his invaluable essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. And even so that’s how I read fiction back then, and how I still read it when I get lucky: for the duration (at the very least), I claim it as my own.

I knew, of course I did, that Capote’s book was not just “based on” a true story (that’s Hollywood parlance by the way—based on, inspired by—these are the phrases screenwriters and producers use to let us know they’ve fudged the facts): that was undoubtedly part of the lure—that this terrible thing had happened to a real girl, a girl just like me (okay, nothing like me—no horse, no boyfriend, not dead—poor Nancy… I ached for Nancy). But not only “based on,” that’s my point: According to Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, the author “publicly boasted” that “In Cold Blood may have been written like a novel, but it is accurate to the smallest detail—“immaculately factual.””  Clarke goes on to say, “Although it has no footnotes, Capote could point to an obvious source for every remark uttered and every thought expressed. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book,” he said, “the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.”

But he did give way to distortions, that we know. And he had to have invented—because he wasn’t there! So—does it matter? Once a work is part of the canon—once it informs the culture as this book has, is it, perhaps, a waste of time to worry about the rules? In any case, I can tell you, if you’re 12 years old, and you’re death-obsessed, as very many of us 12 year olds were (for me that was also the year of A Separate Peace, Death Be Not Proud, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Roald Dahl’s macabre Kiss, Kiss) the rules (not that you knew them at the time, but say you had—Genre, wtf, who cares, you would have said then—and here’s an awful thought: were you more enlightened then?) would seem not to apply.

Flashing forward (I hope I’m not giving you whip lash): Every time I went to jot down my thoughts about the book I got stuck in just this way—as if I’d been chosen, me of all people, to come at the book from this particular angle. But of course that wasn’t why the moderator (smart, insightful Kelly Grey Carlisle) had contacted me—it couldn’t have been; she had no way of knowing how strident I’ve become about genre blur—about the responsibilities of writing nonfiction. What she did know, she must have, was that I’d written about a murder, my father’s, in a book called Bigger than Life.

And yet. I wasn’t willing, at first, to zoom in from that perspective—as if I have some particular purchase, or privilege, or prescription for writing about trauma. How long, how many times, I asked myself, can a person milk a trauma? And so, this time, for this panel—and this was an act of avoidance, I guess—I resolved I wouldn’t resort to that strategy. This time I’d change it up. Therefore I engaged in an informal survey. I emailed a bunch of my colleagues—a dozen smart, successful writers—and asked them to tell me in a line or two what they thought about In Cold Blood.

The first responder, a journalist in her mid-50s, who, like me, had read the book as an adolescent, wrote that she was (again, like me) “swallowed up in the story.” When I asked if it occurred to her that Capote had made any of it up, she answered that it was  “written with such authority that I believed in it.”

Another friend—a guy pushing 60 who pens novels and writes for television—had read much more recently, as a middle-aged man. He was “blown away,” he said, “by the prose, the storytelling, the essential invention of an entire genre.”

And another novelist, who remembers the book from high school in the 70s, told me that, having to do with the title, perhaps, she’d felt cold as she read, and “a little sick, the way you feel when you suspect yourself of prurience. The narrative distance probably also contributed to that feeling.” She added, “I believed every word.”

Two more: First, from Nathan Deuel, a young nonfiction writer (he has to be named, because I can’t take credit for his answer, though I wish I could): “It’s a beautiful book! But it’s also a big hash, right? I could imagine a great course that involved Capote, D’Agata, Dillard, etc. Details, Danger, Destiny, and Deceit.”

Last, from a New Yorker staff writer, also in her 30s, who read the book a year or two after she graduated from college: She was “thrilled” by the writing, she said, though she remembers wondering, “How is this NON-fiction?”

Good fun, my survey, though it didn’t change anything for me; it only confirmed my misgivings, which have more to do with my own way of reading, I fear, than with the book, itself. I found myself wondering over and over: Did Capote get away with something when he published In Cold Blood? Would he get away with it now? To even entertain the question makes me wonder when exactly I became so rigid in my expectations and standards? And now: face to face with In Cold Blood, do I have the courage of my relatively recently-cultivated convictions? Are my notions about genre worthless to me in the face of art? (At what point in time do we decide it is art, whatever it is? I want to know that, too.)

Here’s another quote, this from a 1957 interview in the Paris Review, two years before the Clutters were murdered. A writer called Pati Hill asked Capote if he had “definite ideas or projects for the future?” He answered:

“Well, yes, I believe so. I have always written what was easiest for me until now: I want to try something else, a kind of controlled extravagance. I want to use my mind more, use many more colors. Hemingway once said anybody can write a novel in the first person. I know now exactly what he means.”


As flattered as I’d been by the invitation to join Kelly Grey Carlisle’s AWP panel—it’s always flattering to be invited—as the months ticked by I began to suspect I had no business weighing in, not really. I’m not a journalist. Nor have I yet challenged myself to write about the experience of anyone I do not intimately know—which was the realization, in spite of my intentions, that prompted me to make a connection of sorts: because, come to think of it, back when I finally sat down and imagined murder on the page, I did, in fact, write in third person. But if it was the absence of an emotional attachment that allowed Capote to choose omniscience, it was just the opposite for me. I felt cornered. I chose third because I didn’t trust myself, not because I did.

The most frustrating thing about what happened to my father isn’t that it was unimaginable—though it was—it’s that I have to admit, first and always, before anything else (this is the problem of writing about your own dead, the ones who are real to you) I will simply never know. What was it like? Did he believe he was going to die? Did he have time to be afraid, or angry, or sad? Because I actually knew him—my father—I was unable to convince myself (as Capote had) that I could ever come close to knowing. And I judged myself harshly—still do—for pretending I could. I called the chapter “Conjecture.” And if I’m not sure what I think about In Cold Blood (not to compare myself to Capote, please don’t mistake me), neither am I sure how I feel about my own pages—about how, with the truth up for grabs (but forever out of reach), I nonetheless allowed myself to “reanimate, revive, subject” for the sake of “literary truth.” If “literary truth” is the end-goal in fiction, in nonfiction, even and especially when it’s the best we can do, it perhaps comes up short.

With all that in mind, and continuing to prep, I ran into an essay called “Ghosts in the Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” written by Capote himself, in which he talks about his sense of disconnection on the set; how odd it was to watch actors impersonating murderers in the Clutter house—that’s where they filmed the movie!—at the actual house: “…eight years have passed,” writes Capote, “but the Venetian blinds still exist, still hang at the same windows. Thus reality, via an object, extends itself into art; and that is what is original and disturbing about this film; reality and art are intertwined to the point that there is no identifiable area of demarcation.”

Although he admits, on first viewing the movie, to experiencing a “sense of loss”: “Not,” he says, “because of what is on the screen, which is fine, but because of what isn’t.”

Ironic, no? As if the filmmakers were the ones who compromised? As if he did not?

You tell me.

Guest Blog Post, Dinah Lenney: On Finding a Palette In Just the Right Key

Dinah LenneyA confession: I am—in the car, for instance, or on my stationery bike—likely to listen to oldies stations; what’s more, I’m inclined to sing along, and not very well (pity my husband and children), with the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bonnie Raitt, and the Doobie Brothers. Also Paul Simon. Also Etta. And Chaka. And Mel Tormé. In this way, I’m starring in my-life-the-musical, and it’s mostly a comedy, mostly a slice of domestic pie. Not that a good song can’t make me teary (“Try a Little Tenderness”), but I’m scoring the ordinary here: trips back and forth to campus, to Trader Joe’s, to the post office, to the dry cleaner; or a cycling break between folding the laundry and starting dinner. I mean to say it’s only every so often that I’m after something loftier—not for lofty reasons, mind you—it’s when my soul is roughed up in one way or another, and lyrics won’t do: rather, they distract or annoy—they get in the way and that’s when I opt for the local classical station, KUSC.

So—all that preamble—the point is, you know Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”? Of course you do, I promise you do—I’m not putting on airs, really not: it’s not like I knew what I was hearing when it came on Pandora a few weeks back—me pedaling away, not in the mood for words, tuned into Vivaldi Radio therefore (which is one of my stations). I had to shift in my seat to see my computer screen on the floor beside me, to put a name to the music that was turning me inside out—the real me, exposed and on display—those strings (violins, violas, cellos) pulling me along, and up and up. The stakes started high and they just kept rising—taking me to the edge of something important, some recognition, precious and momentous (and sad), unnameable and inevitable—
and here’s what I wound up asking myself: Who wouldn’t want to write something like that? Who wouldn’t want to make that happen on the page, with prose?

See, used to be, I had this idea that writers could do for painters and musicians what neither could do for us. As if writing had something on the other arts—

writing as descriptive—writers straining to describe, getting as close as we can, every once in a while managing to pin the thing down, whatever it is; although, more often than not, as soon as the moment is writ, it’s lost to us, isn’t it? Whereas music and fine art, I suddenly realized, inform the moment over and over—are the moment, in fact—the moment we writers can only approximate. Music and art don’t aspire to sentences and paragraphs—don’t concern themselves with the ekphrastic, for instance; describing art is a writerly preoccupation, whereas painting and music, I decided, have a better shot at the real deal. O woe.

This discovery, when it happened, had something to do with the Adagio, sure, and everything to do with my own frustration; my inability to put this life to words—my longing for colors just outside my imagination, and the ability to diminish or augment a phrase (like a chord), and so fill it with hope, or sorrow, or joy (or all three at once).

Here I’d been lording it over the others—those other disciplines—as if they don’t generally transcend my own efforts. Now I realized—now I considered: What is Chagall’s “The Birthday” if not a poem; and Hopper’s “Nighthawks” tells so many stories; “Christina’s World” by Wyeth feels like memoir, doesn’t it?; and what about De Kooning’s “Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother,” what is that—some wonderful blurring of genres there, right? And with music: consider Ravel’s “Pavane on the Death of a Child”; “The Poet’s Heart” by Grieg; what about Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—I’m going to do better? I’m going to describe to you how Beethoven contains the moon in the sky? As if he needs me to translate; as if, having heard his sonata, I have anything new and worthy to say about the light of the moon. Deeper I plunged into my funk.

But then. A few days after my brush with Barber, on my way to the market, still tuned intoVan Gogh's Mulberry Tree classical, I heard Erik Satie: “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.” A composer—a pianist—with still life on his mind. And a few weeks after that, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I found myself rooted for a very long time in front of van Gogh’s “The Mulberry Tree,” in which he intended for the brushstrokes to be “firm and interwoven with feelings like a piece of music played with emotion.”

Turns out, we’re all on the same team, right? All rooting for art in the broadest sense, all wanting and willing to beg, borrow, and steal from nature and each other, since, so wrote Nabokov, “Both [are] a form of magic, both [are] a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

And so. I’m back at it—back to work, I mean. Determined to compose an essay in Bb for piano and bass: it will maybe feature a piccolo; cymbals, too, perhaps, I’m not certain just yet. I will paint with a palette of blues and greens not found in nature—or only found in nature: that would be something, wouldn’t it? The canvas will have texture; and the song will take my reader right to the edge; and he’ll want to cry out —to get as close as he can and reach into the frame and touch…