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.
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 Nightingale. It’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!