Margaret Mitchell was a self-taught writer, having left college to tend to her father after her mother died due to flu. Truman Capote was also a self-taught writer who never went to college; instead both writers were voracious readers who focused on the writing craft at an early age. Harper Lee, a fried of Capote who helped him in his book ‘In Cold Blood’ did attend college and was also a voracious reader who knew she wanted to be a writer at an early age. Harper Lee was awarded the Civilian Medal of Honor by President George W Bush for her book ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird.’ Both Mitchell and Lee were awarded the Pulitzer Prize and both wrote just one book in their life, although Capote did not win the Pulitzer, he was the most prolific and successful among the three writers though Mitchell could have been the wealthiest if she did not die at a young age of 48 because of a car accident.
My interest in these writers is because of my recent visit to Atlanta, my reading of a Vanity Fair article on Capote and linked to his relationship to Lee. All three writers achieved fame at a young age and mostly self-taught without college education except for Lee. Self-taught writers bring to mind the folk artists who were also self-taught in the exhibit of the High Museum of Art. This tells me that good writing can be learned individually by extensive reading and writing. Mitchell, Capote and Lee are, more or less, Southern writers as the topic of most of their work are stories about the South. Capote is the more cosmopolitan writer, succeeding in multiple genres; plays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction and also as a celebrity socialite and serial talk show guest. He leveraged his writing fame to a prominent social position and has aspiration as an American Marcel Proust. Interestingly, the works of these writers were made into best-selling films.
The works of the folk artists were touching, like the work of children but had deep meaning like the art of the Australian aborigines similar to the modern work of Jean Michel Basquiat. Their paintings have a simplistic power, honesty and insight without the elegance and sophistication of trained artists like Picasso or Diego Rivera. Frieda Kahlo is also a self-taught artist in a way; despite her close association with Rivera, who taught herself to paint while recuperating from terrible injuries due to a bus accident. Visual arts see success from the works of self-taught painters but may be difficult for writers as abstract knowledge is required especially in the scribbling craft. Hence, one is amazed in the ability of self-taught writers because this effort requires abundant reading and practice that allows them to rise above the usual scribbling of an amateur.
One is impressed that one could write a book directly by typing in a typewriter the way Mitchell must have done or Ian Fleming or maybe even Hemingway. I find it difficult perhaps because my mind is always swirling and Mitchell had the fortune of being a writer in an Atlanta paper that allowed her to hone her craft. I guess it is the act of the imagination that one needs to cultivate, whether expressed in the visual arts or in prose, the expression of one’s art in a medium that requires a certain practice. One need to find a theme that would give him a firm foundation: Capote in his acceptance of his sexuality, Lee in the fight towards racial justice (stirred by the work of her father) and Mitchell in her retelling of her lost romantic culture, the destruction of the old aristocracy as told by old veterans or survivors of the civil war. Perhaps one goal would be the acceptance of an Asian identity.