Stubbornness you need for living

I paint with the stubbornness I need for living.
-Suzanne Valadon

I think there’s a vein of stubbornness in you.

That's a good thing!

Especially if your stubbornness rears its head when you’ve just about given up, when the curve ball has knocked the breath out of your lungs, and you think the worst must finally be over… and it is not.

The person I've quoted, Suzanne Valadon, is stubborn. My protagonist, Johanna, has just met Suzanne in the chapter I wrote last week.  

Suzanne was a French painter who broke into the ranks of her male post-Impressionism peers and was recognized in her lifetime. She lived in Paris at the same time as Vincent van Gogh. She is the first woman painter invited to join the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a society of artists that organized to show exhibits independently of what I think of as the Red-tape Art Establishment of the late 19th century (aka Paris Salon).

At the time Suzanne meets Jo in my novel she has just started to paint. 

At their first meeting, they don’t have a lot in common. Johanna grew up in a sheltered, upper-middle-class household in Holland, a country that sat like a side street between the pulse-pounding cultural competition between Paris and London. Jo was well-educated and her upbringing followed societal rules of respecting the separate spheres men and women inhabited. 

In contrast, Suzanne was raised by an unmarried mother in the poor outskirts of Paris. As a little girl, she worked alongside her mom — among her jobs was as a laundress and in a milliner's shop. She went to school until about age 11. She then quit to make her own way, including joining the circus as an acrobat. At 15, she fell from a trapeze, injuring herself so that she had to quit. However, at the circus she had met some artists, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and decided to move to the Montmartre artist community in Paris where she took up work as a model. 

Over the next decade it was through this modeling work that Suzanne became intrigued with art and began to draw and paint herself. This self-taught education gave her artwork a freedom from following a specific style. The female figures she drew weren't as idealized as the ones male artists painted, preferring to draw and paint the reality she experienced. 

At the time I have the women meet in the book, Jo has been getting pelted by curve balls (I love my book coach saying to me, “Think of the worst thing that could happen to Jo” - so I do!) Jo needs some role models to encourage her to keep forging ahead and to discover the mis-beliefs that are holding her back.  When I came across Suzanne in my research, I was thrilled. Suzanne has the authenticity to really challenge Jo’s view of herself.  

Stubbornness, rebellion, independence, bravery --  Jo will need all of this. 

Once I started to reflect on these qualities, more role models have caught my attention. 

  • One is the comedian Hannah Gadsby in the Netflix special, Nanette, a stand-up routine Hannah does before a live audience in Sydney. This one-minute trailer gives you a hint of it. What starts out as typical funny routine becomes suspenseful and angry and heartbreaking and compelling. Hannah's dialogue has peeled away artifice or acting. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed such a tour de force. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend Cyd alerted me to it, and it is so worth seeing.

  • The second is a friend who at her work is facing down the sabotage of insecure bosses by standing up for herself with truth. The honor she ascribes to herself -- her self-respect -- inspires me. When you beat back the fear and side with truth, you find strength. How many times have I not stood up for myself when I should have?

So, these two women shine in my thought as role models for me to attempt to write into Johanna. She has a lot to overcome. I think Suzanne can help her. 

Stack of books I'm researching on the 19th century, and Suzanne Valadon in her studio in 1925. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Extended the Plot. While plugging away writing a few weeks ago, a sneaky little feeling began to grow larger. For awhile now, I've been ruminating on whether the "ah-ha" moment I'd planned would work, because in this climax Jo has not yet sold a Van Gogh painting - not yet. I wondered whether this omission would be too disappointing to the reader (since we know that ultimately that's her legacy)? This niggly doubt kept popping up on the periphery of my mind. So, to address this, I drew in a deep breath and took a shot at extending the novel, digging into more of Jo's past to identify the tent-post experiences that would lead her to a different, big moment. I think I got it. The book is still targeted to be about the same length of 300 or so pages. This week I'm writing chapter 10. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. As a recommendation from my W4 Book Club, I recently read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It's based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann and how her Memphis Tennessee Children's Home Society was set up to steal and sell children into adoption. The book is chilling as told through the eyes of its 12-year-old heroine. Wingate is a master at storytelling; the suspense and pace kept me up reading late into the night, and, even though it's sad, there is redemption. 

It's been 100-degrees hot in the midwest this month. My mom, sister and I are speeding out of the heat next week with a 10-hour road trip up to my brother and sister-in-law's house in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Gorgeous towering pines, glass-surface still lakes, sweatshirt-cool mornings...my Macbook and I will be tapping out words to the call of loons. Meanwhile, next up with Cristina's wedding planning is a KC trip to the florist to design flowers. I can't wait! But Juan said he'll sit this trip out. What??

Here's a final quote attributed to Suzanne. Perhaps it will be written as dialogue for her to say to Jo:

I had great masters. I took the best of them of their teachings, of their examples.
I found myself. 
I made myself, and I said what I had to say. 

In Therese Diamond Rosinky's book, Suzanne Valadon

Are you saying what you need to say?

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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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