Learn by going where you have to go

First off, the most important thing I have to write is thank you. Thank you for reading this blog. Though I cut back on the frequency mid-year, I think about you and this hardy band of subscribers often. What I know for sure: I would not be writing my book, if not for this support. Thank you. And now...

Happy Christmas Eve!

I learn by going where I have to go. 
-Theodore Roetchke from "The Waking”

If you read this on Monday morning, think  of Juan and me on interstate 70 headed west towards Kansas City, our Christmas destination. Gifts are shipped, cards are sent. A few stocking-stuffer parcels are tucked in the trunk. We’ve left behind our cat, Tasha, who has an automatic round-robin food dispenser set up to rotate and pour out pre-measured kibbles twice a day. (I imagine her cat-crouched before it when we’re out of town…staring it down and daring it to turn.)

In some ways, this scenario is a microcosm of this first year of writing in this first year of retirement. Speeding forward towards the destination of writing a novel, and yet spinning a bit (a lot) in the process. Roethke's quote, "I learn by going where I have to go" is a good description of this year of writing and learning, doubling back and moving forward. .

As the weeks have gone by, again and again, pre-conceived ideas about the story have been forced aside. I've had to strike a balancing act between researching facts about Jo's life while also allowing the story to unfold. The genre I'm writing is fictionalized biography -- based on a real person, yet fictionalizing events -- and in some cases, people.

When I first looked into writing my book, i came across an interview with a biographer who described Johanna van Gogh this way:

"She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo...it was important to marry a wife who was...well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband."

Though the biographer does go on to give Jo her due, the description didn't sit well with me. Through my 21st-century sensibility, the phrase "perfect wife" rankled. It also didn't square with how Jo herself described her marriage. Here's an excerpt from a letter Jo wrote to her sister Mien four months after she'd married Theo:

"He [Theo] is so good and kind and I love him..But in saying this I am pronouncing a eulogy on my husband but not on marriage -- you say 'is it not pleasant to be your own boss?' -- well you are infinitely less when married than when you are unmarried...You have infinitely less freedom -- nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to you anymore, and I can assure you that it has been difficult for me to get used to that, me who was as free as a bird! You gain a great deal of love, but only at the expense of a great number of sacrifices." 

Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger (p. 33)

I love that passage. 

These are not the words of a passive "perfect wife." Jo's voice calls out from the page, doesn't it?

So, as I write forward I've been cautiously supplementing my research bit-by-bit with passages such as the one cited. The new information can help. For example, there are times when my writing stalls out and I struggle to find words. I've come to recognize that when that happens I need more "inputs" to get going again -- a bit of research, a podcast, a book, a marketing blog. Notice that the inputs are all over the place: I've found that when a chapter is stuck and I set it aside, the back-burners of my mind still work on the problem, and an idea inevitably connects and solves the issue. My last chapter was like that; I had to rewrite it three times until it finally came together. 

Next time you're stuck on a problem, try increasing the "inputs" and see what happens...

In the case of my last chapter, struggling with it felt like I was spinning, going around and around in the same section -- it certainly didn't feel like progress -- and, as a result, I became increasingly frustrated and scared (What if I can't finish??). In hindsight, though, I can see that the repetition helped. Gradually, the writing became deeper, adding Jo's internal thoughts behind the external action. In the scene Jo is learning news about the plight of some children in a nearby town, which takes her into thoughts about her own son, in turn giving the reader insight into some decisions she's made. Will I revise this scene in the future? Maybe. But for now, it's good enough to move on. 

Again and again, I'm learning that if I'm persistent, keep the inputs coming), allow myself to "go where I have to go" an answer will reveal itself. Suddenly, new connections between ideas emerge. 

But I'm cautious about research, too, because I don't want facts to get too far ahead of the narrative drive of the story. If I start to relay only what happened in her life, and not why it happened and how she's thinking, then I'm afraid that I'll have squandered the chance to write a story worth connecting to. 

Progress = two steps forward, spin. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Resetting Goals for 2019: I had hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year; it didn’t happen (see above!). I’m developing the project plan for 2019 now. In addition to finishing the manuscript, it will include a schedule to read all 902 letters between Vincent and Theo for insight into the brothers' relationship. Juan gave me a complete official six-volume set of letters a year ago for Christmas.  

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: The close-calls-with-death memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O'Farrell, has an intriguing structure. The table of contents is not chronological but instead is listed by endangered body part and year in which she nearly died. Skipping back and forth through her life, O'Farrell stitches together scenes and people and experiences that are both comic and revealing. Once I got over getting scared by her descriptions of near-misses (she does make it, after all!), I couldn't put the book down. 

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

One of Jay and Cristina's official engagement photos.

The clock is ticking toward my daughter's March 2 wedding. The groomsmen's suits have been fitted; Cristina's dress is being tailored; the venue, the food, the band are all finalized. However, I do not have a mother-of-the-bride dress. So, when Cristina mentioned the "special occasion dress" website JJ's House, I was ecstatic! Easy shopping. I found four dresses I liked and ordered them, planning to return three, of course. A few days later, in my inbox, a little note from their customer service: Was I sure about my order? All dresses are custom-made and non-returnable. Yikes! Just what I need: four pearl-grey ballgowns. I cancelled the order. I'll circle back after New Year's for possible sales. Meanwhile, kudos to their customer service!

A final word about progress with another quote from poet Roethke:

Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.

Moving forward! I hope you're having a beautiful holiday.

Warmly, 

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Well, the wedding happened!

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.
-Leo Tolstoy

My next door neighbor Diane watered our patio plants all through the St. Louis 100-degree days we were gone attending our son's wedding in Flagstaff, Arizona. We returned home last Tuesday and when I popped over to say thanks and share tales of the wedding week, I was sitting at their dining room table when her husband Bill asked me a normal question; yet, it caught me off guard. Will I use any memories of the wedding in writing my book?

No, I answered (too quickly). There is no church ceremony or white veil or vows planned in the plot. 

But the question needled me.

So, now I've changed my mind: Yes, I will have ideas from the wedding in the novel. 

Just not what you may think. 

There was so much joy in the wedding, but there also is a loss. If life is a trilogy, now one book has been read. The child whose favorite article of clothing was a safari jacket (lots of pockets for his collections of sticks and rocks) and who pulled dirt to him like a magnet is a man who looked wedding-handsome in a well-cut suit at the ceremony. The goofball who choreographs his karaoke now has a career advising people on investments. Those powerful warriors, time and patience, have done their work. 

Suddenly, I don’t think I paid enough attention.

What role does a mother have?

It's a question that's come up in my book. One of the first things that caught my notice when I was researching the life of my protagonist, Jo, was the story of her son. Since her husband died when the baby was an infant, the child Vincent (named after his artist uncle) of course did not know his father or uncle. He grew up with their ghosts. 

For one thing, he would have seen his mother, night after night, bent over his father's large desk, painstakingly translating letters the brothers wrote to each other from Dutch to English. Secondly, as a young boy, his evenings would have frequently been interrupted by late-night guests gathered to see small Van Gogh painting exhibits set up by Jo. Because she also shipped the paintings to museums and art dealers, more often than not, their front room was clouded with dust and noise from building custom cases and packing the paintings for shipping. And Jo made trips back and forth from the local railway station to send or receive the cases for years — I imagined her son accompanying her to help.

His mom is a single parent, so Vincent Wilhelm’s primary role model is Jo. He would have witnessed her tenacity, determination, and passion for his uncle's paintings. I imagine he also would have felt her devotion for him. Here is just one glimpse of concern found in the diary Jo kept, writing to her husband after he's deceased: “My darling - my dear - dear Theo - at every word, between every two lines, I am thinking of you - how you made me part of yourself in the short time we were together - I am still living with you, by you. May your spirit go on inspiring me, then everything will be all right with our little fellow.”

I wondered  — after such a childhood — wouldn't Vincent Wilhelm have felt compelled to take on his mother's work as his life passion too? 

Wouldn’t it have made Jo happy to work side-by-side with her son? Proud, even?

You’d think so, but here’s what happened: Instead of art, Vincent Wilhelm studied mechanical engineering at Delft University. He went on to work as an engineer in France, Japan and the United States. Upon returning to the Netherlands in 1920, he set up a management consultancy with a former university friend — the first in the country. 

He took on the nickname, “The Engineer,” to differentiate himself from his artist uncle.

It wasn’t until his retirement that Vincent Wilhelm approached the Netherlands government with a proposal to form a Van Gogh Foundation in order to transfer his inheritance of Van Gogh drawings, paintings and letters to the government. In return, the state built the Van Gogh Museum to ensure the collection would stay intact and accessible to the public. Until the end of his life, Vincent Wilhelm spent most days in the museum, devoting himself to it. 

I like to think his life reflects the values of his mother. Not a smidgen of guilt or expectation that he should join her in work she’s devoted her life to, rather, he was given the gift of finding his own path, despite growing up in a home permeated with his mother’s purpose. 

So, what will I share in the book about this past weekend?

The depth of a mother’s love, for sure. The fierceness of the instinct to tirelessly protect. The comfort of knowing when a son is okay and deeply loved. The joy of knowing he has found a life partner. The celebration of allowing the next book to open in life's trilogy.  The confidence that a son is walking his own path toward his own purpose. 

I can write about that. 

Delighted mama!

Delighted mama!

Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

Somehow they're all 'adulting': Eric & Angela pose with daughter Cristina and fiance, Jay. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Developed a Timeline: With the pace of pre-wedding events, catching up with family, making new friends -- I found it challenging to try to write many pages in Flagstaff; however, one morning opened up so I created a timeline for the major events in Johanna and other characters' lives, major artists and paintings being created, as well as a smattering of current events. The timeline revealed some mistakes I've made -  all fixable when I edit. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: In the last blog I wrote about reading author Kristin Hannah's The Great Alone for a book club. Evocative landscapes, an intricate narrative stitching together the story of a family's dysfunction and eventual resolution. I loved the backdrop of the 1970's (my high school days), but I read the wrong book for Tuesday's book club! The correct one is Hannah's Winter Garden. Gripping, beautiful, the last several chapters caused tears to run down my cheeks. The story laces together a mother's chilling, secretive experience living through Stalin's revolution and how it gradually spills into open through a family tragedy. Plus, I am dog-earring pages of this book to study Hannah's writing technique for bringing back origin scenes when the mother's character was set. 

Love in the air still lingers... in addition to my daughter Cristina's wedding next March, my niece Sabrina will be married to boyfriend Zack in November! 

I’ll close with another quote from Tolstoy - he doesn’t call this quality out as a "warrior," but you know it’s powerful:

All, everything that I understand, I only understand because I love. 
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Small things together can become great

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. 
-Vincent van Gogh

I'm in the middle of a big sort. 

In Vincent’s words, a bunch of small things like puzzle pieces I’m hoping will eventually fit into a complete picture. 

The sorting is between fact vs. fiction. Squish a timeline or reflect it accurately? Write only about real people or add imaginary ones? 

The final arrangement will need to be a mix of real and unreal. Even though my novel is a story based on actual people, historical research gives only a scant record of external events. My heroine’s internal motives, the influences on her decision-making, in short, the “why” behind her actions can only be guessed at. So I’m making those up. I’m figuring out why each conversation or meet-up (for we come into each others' lives at just the right time, don’t we?) is intentional and how it will push protagonist Jo’s journey forward. 

There’s more. 

It would be simpler if all the story needed was what Jo thought. Instead, it gets complicated fast because Jo doesn’t live inside the safe bubble of her own point-of-view. For example, when I write about Jo searching out artists that knew her brother-in-law, Vincent van Gogh, it isn’t just her thought process that’s in the scene but also the unspoken thoughts from the other individuals — how they interpret her conversation, approve or judge her, and then respond based on their own self-interest. It’s a cause-and-effect matrix in which Jo is in the middle.

This realization is changing my writing. Previously, when drafting a scene, I’d find the first pass to be a little flat and one-dimensional if it only considered Jo. Thinking of each individual she’s encountering as a full-bodied person with his or her own agenda adds depth. The dialogue and the behavior they exhibit adjust from simply reacting to Jo to a fuller expression of what they’re thinking.

It gets more fun. 

Each scene includes a third invisible actor: the times they live in.

The late 19th century and its prevailing sense of the world is undergoing enormous change — worldwide exploration, inventions like the steam engine and photography, the Industrial Revolution’s exchange of an agrarian life for an urban one — all mashed together is giving Paris the heady feeling that it’s ascended to a new pinnacle of civilization. Its institutions are safeguarding this advanced view of itself but also trying to cling to values from the past. Law, custom, culture — each is doing its best to support social order by toughening up with all of this change going on. 

  • Question: How can a young widow like Jo buck up against rigid laws of acceptable behavior for women without getting pushback? Answer: She can’t. 
  • Question: But what if she AGREES with the laws, even thinks they are protecting her, but nevertheless is forced to act contrary to them and then suffers the consequences? Answer: She has a mean author (ha!)

The real answer is that she has a moral dilemma. So that takes me to the final actor in each scene, also hidden from view, but the most powerful influence on the page: what Jo thinks of herself. What she thinks about who she is, and who she is not, undergirds everything. She may have worked for 15 years to promote Vincent’s work before his talent was finally recognized, but I don’t think she did this because she's a selfless superhero. Assuming so, to me, doesn’t do the real Jo van Gogh justice. 

Instead, Jo confronts herself in every scene. Self-doubt dogs each step she takes to try to move forward. Why the contempt for herself? Because institutionalized bias — by gender, race, you name it — entraps one into feeling somehow you’re not okay, you don’t fit in, you’re not normal. 

  • Here is how Hispanic author Carmen Giviencz Smith described it in a recent interview, “[Growing up looking for Hispanic role models] We didn’t feel we could do anything about institutional racism and the self-loathing it elicited...this daily encounter with structures and apparatuses that diminish or limit or erase my sense of identity.”
  • Or from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the excellent documentary RBG: “People knew that race discrimination was an odious thing, but there were many who thought that gender-based differentials in the law operated benignly in women’s favor....the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned into a cage.”
  • Or, finally, from Barak Obama’s memoir when he was a young boy: “I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation... When I got home from the embassy library, I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me."

Systemic, powerful attacks on an individual’s identity takes awareness and resilience to overcome. If Jo can defeat the bias, her victory will spur the beautiful outcome of her not giving up on Van Gogh’s art. To be able to honor another by honoring herself. 

This is quite a list of small things coming together.

One scene, one chapter at a time. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Working with a Book Coach: A few weeks ago I completed a 10-week class on crafting a story and so have restarted the book. I had to toss out the previous chapters, including changing the scene where the novel opens. Each week (for the next 22 weeks) I’ll be trying to submit up to 20 pages to a book coach. My days are a mix of dipping time into three buckets: research and story development, editing old pages and writing new ones. So far, so good.
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: New York Times bestseller author Kristin Hannah wrote a beautiful story of love and suspense called The NightingaleIt’s a WWII drama about two sisters in German-occupied France. and how their lives and ideals collided against this backdrop - the novel is unusual as a story focusing solely on the women’s experience in the war. I’m reading Hannah’s most recent book, The Great Alone, for a bookclub meeting at the end of June. 

On the wedding front, we’re on COUNTDOWN for Angie and Eric’s wedding on June 16! Juan and I leave Friday for the 16-hour drive to Flagstaff and the Airbnb we’ll use as our wedding central. The dress is hemmed; the shoes are purchased. A pile of items to pack in the car is growing on the dining room table. I never did sign Juan and I up for dance lessons so our dance-floor moves will be unrehearsed! 

In this wedding spirit, let me end with a final word from Vincent:

I feel there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. 


It’s June already!

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Give yourself a green light

It takes a lot more courage to green light yourself than to wait for someone else's yes.
-Brooke Warner

I like this idea: to go forward, or to "green light" yourself, especially in the face of disillusionment and when you think initially people are set up to help you, but, in fact, they become obstacles to what you want or believe. I'd like to share how there's some of this idea in my book after I give you the backstory on where I heard "green light."

I listened to Brooke (author and founder of She Writes Press) in a TED talk. She spoke about how she became disillusioned with the traditional publishing company she worked for a few years ago. As an executive editor, her job was to select and acquire good books for publication. When the company she worked for was acquired by a parent corporation, standards completely shifted -- she was to look for books from authors that were already famous and/or knew celebrities that vouched for them.

Gone - looking for books with an important message

Gone - looking for books of excellent literary writing quality

Gone - looking for books with big ideas

Instead, new standards that had nothing to do with book quality, became her criteria for selecting books to publish. For example, whether the author is media-ready, physically attractive, or has an existing star-quality brand were the measures she had to follow at this traditional publishing company.

Disillusionment takes time, but eventually, Brooke left.  She founded a company, She Writes Press, in order to provide a publishing avenue for authors of the type of quality books she'd had to reject. Where doors had been shut, she chose to create an opening. 

I saw a parallel in this story to the barriers my protagonist, Johanna, would have faced by the cultural establishment in her time.

Paris in the late 19th century had its gatekeepers of culture and art too. I've written about the Academie des Beaux Artes in an earlier post. Run by the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, an arts academy that trained how to paint in the style of the Old Masters, it was the "establishment." For artists, the Academie's seal of approval meant validation. Their prize? An invitation to hang paintings in their annual Paris Salon exhibition, which attracted tens of thousands of visitors, giving the artists exposure to potential patrons and art buyers. 

The Paris Salon was the standard-bearer. If you didn't fit their mold as an artist, you were not invited in (similar to Brooke's experience with her traditional publisher).

So what did excluded artists do? Just as Brooke eventually founded her own press, artists began to create their own societies and to host their own art shows. For instance, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro formed a loose exhibiting group of 10 artists. For the payment of 60 francs each artist member could hang two works in a self-organized exhibition. To get a jump on the establishment, they scheduled their first show two weeks before the Paris Salon — ha!

Now, this was in 1874, more than a decade before Johanna will have inherited Van Gogh's paintings. The rebels will still be nascent, but the idea of them, the alliances Johanna can make to help her, are seeded in the Paris streets, especially Montmartre. Today, Montmartre is in the center of Paris, but during Johanna's time it was on the outskirts of the city - the perfect inexpensive living, and natural gathering place, for up-and-coming artists.

Johanna has a crack in the culture to help her. Yet, there is no one to give Johanna a green light to promote Vincent's work. He was not validated by the Paris Salon, by the art trade or even by other artists. 

She is on her own in finding validation for Vincent’s work and for herself. How many people, to her face and behind her back, criticized her decision to stand behind Vincent’s work? Countless people over the years, no doubt, including those who loved her.  In the end, she will need to find her own reasons. 

Where does legitimacy come from? I agree with Brooke's quote. In the end, not from external validators. Fame, celebrity and brand are not the highest measures of a person’s worth. The only place legitimacy comes from is within. You must grant it to yourself. You must not wait. You must take it. And here’s the good news: With independence comes flexibility and freedom and permission to allow your own individuality and unique vision to pour out of you. 

You are the green light that counts. 

For Johanna and Brooke the followers came, but they had to make the first move. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Changing Blog Frequency: I've been pondering the purpose of this blog a lot over these past few months. I'm going to keep writing it, but pull back a little from the weekly cadence. I need to start doubling-down on my book's first draft.  Craft needs to be my focus and I'm finding that the blog competes with the book. So, the project manager inside me is rising up and re-figuring out new rules for prioritizing how I'm spending my time. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Since I'm writing a book about a strong female protagonist, I thought I'd take a tip from friend Candy and start sharing some referrals of similar books. One of my favorites, The Lake House, by Kate Morton is a multi-layered mystery with several female protagonists -- elegant Eleanor, novelist Alice and a tenacious detective Sadie -- that circle around the disappearance of a little boy. The book flips back and forward through time dropping hints and sending the reader down mis-turns until finally unraveling the answer. I am in awe of how Morton spun this rich story together. 

All’s quiet on the wedding front. I’ve been looking up NYC museums to scout out the Van Goghs there (Guggenheim has Starry Night!). My friend, Joyce, and I are headed to the Big Apple next week for Three Days in NYC planned around theater, museums and foodie grazing - already I know three days won’t be enough.

A quick epilogue: What happened to the Paris Salon? It became unwieldy. It couldn't handle the demand. What had started out as a manageable number of submissions, 375 in 1800, grew to 4,000 by mid-century. By the end of the century, when Van Gogh was in Paris, the number had accelerated. The Paris Salon showed more than 7,000 works in 1879. The works hung from floor to ceiling, no white space around the paintings as we are used to in museums today. So, in an effort not to be lost in the clutter, artists began to submit larger and larger works in hopes of standing out.  Increasing visibility and fitting-in becoming the goals over individual inspiration and the Salon ultimately imploded.

Back to Brooke for a last word...

Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to say yes to your dreams.

What do you need to green light? 

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