No Better

Whatever your life's work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Who am I?

What is my purpose?

Do I have a destiny?

This is the mental territory I've been exploring for my book's plot this week. Since it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day today he dominates my thought as a role model of someone who pursued a purpose with determination and passion in spite of enormous resistance. 

Why am I here?

This deep question is the key to what drives my protagonist Johanna's struggle. Because this novel is based on a true story -- Johanna eventually succeeding at gaining recognition of Vincent van Gogh as an enduring artist -- the reader knows at the outset that she will be successful. 

However, what the reader won't know is how did she get to her answer to "Why am I here?" and what she felt along the way. So, I'm about 5,000 words into the the cause-and-effect trajectory of the story. Without giving away specific events that happen, here's an idea of some of the plot components:

The path to answering Who am I? takes...
Unrelenting pursuit
Initiating risk
Finding supporters
Threatening the status quo
Encountering opponents

So Johanna will need to experience...
Being persistent despite setbacks
Curiosity taking her into danger
Encouragement (such as from her future husband, Theo)
Resistance when she challenges the traditional gender role for women
Facing a difficult moral dilemma

And she will feel...
Determination and despair
Excitement and naiveté
Love and unselfishness
Shame and humility
Longing and hope
And more...!

Here's the funny thing. If done right, the real journey is not the protagonist's experience, but yours as you read it. Readers agree or disagree, argue or approve what a character is doing and in this way have their own experience with the book. Finding out "who am I?" is a universal theme; one we each grapple with in our own way. For authors, I've read that a common mistake is not sharing enough of what the protagonist is feeling so that the reader can identify with what's going on. So, I'm trying to identify what Johanna feels now in order to keep this top of mind. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of doing this vicarious soul-searching with Johanna, I had a few emotion-stirring events in my own life this past week. 

  • Attended my last two retirement dinners.... feeling a big mix of cheerful and grateful and sad.
  • Got a surprise "Facetime" announcement from our daughter that she's engaged to boyfriend Jay... feeling HAPPY and, funny, Cristina's news made me look forward even more to my son Eric's upcoming wedding to Angela. (2018 is turning into a big year!)
  • Reveled in a home-cooked dinner of Juan's chicken marsala... feeling the LOVE from his perfect result and his intentional adding of extra mushrooms for me.

How I'm Writing the Book
Highlighter Exercise: Book editor Sheila Athens gave me an exercise with highlighters I finally tried this week. You might want to try it out of curiosity. Its purpose is to see how to strike the right balance of current action and back story without slowing down pace. One of my favorite books is Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings so I took it off the bookshelf to mark up. The goal is to identify each sentence: Yellow is inner monologue (what the character is thinking), pink is dialogue, orange is the current scene and blue is back story. Surprisingly, I found most pages had all four colors. I noticed that Kidd sometimes slips in even a single line of back story to give the reader context yet does not slow down the scene's action. Try it!

Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It is so useful as a model of how to tell the story of a famous individual through the eyes of someone close to him/her -- in this case, it's about Ernest Hemingway through the experience of his first wife, Hadley (for me, Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of sister-in-law Johanna). I also slowly read through The Wisdom of Sundays, a compilation of conversations Oprah Winfrey had with spiritual thinkers on her television program, Super Soul Sunday. It really provoked my thinking around this blog's theme on "Who am I?" 

Finally, it's not a book, but I watched a Netflix documentary, "Joan Didion: The Center Can Not Hold," (thank you, Elyse!) that also made an impact. It was inspiring to see how Didion's literary work is an outcome of her life. From her candid reporting of deep personal grief to the chronicling of the unsettling shock of the '60s, Didion shaped "new journalism," or using essays to communicate facts through narrative storytelling. The 90-minute documentary was released just a few months ago and is spell-binding. 

As I close, Martin Luther King Jr. has words of encouragement for discovering your unique purpose and finding out what you can do better than anyone else:

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. 




Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

Each of us has a purpose - an ecstatic one! When I came across this quote it immediately resonated with a story I've been thinking about writing. Let me share its discovery with you.

Last October three girlfriends and I took off for a quick 5-day trip to Amsterdam. It's become something of a tradition for us -- every few years we find a good flight/hotel travel bargain, push aside family/work ties and take off. Amsterdam had risen to the top of our choices -- a direct flight from New York, none of us had ever been, good shopping and Belgian chocolate -- perfect. 

It was at the start of our second day that I stumbled across the story.

A 15-minute walk from our hotel was the green expanse of Museumplein (Museum Quarter), a beautiful park fringed by a number of Amsterdam's major museums. One is the Van GoghMuseum, which owns the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings and drawings in the world. When Vincent Van Gogh died in 1890, he'd not yet been discovered as a major artist. Literature describes how his brother Theo, an art dealer, safeguarded 200 of Van Gogh's paintings, 500 drawings and an 850-letter correspondence between he and Vincent. It's this treasure trove the Van Gogh Museum dips into and displays.

The Van Gogh Museum has a fantastic layout. If you follow its plan, the route starts on the ground floor and moves up floor by floor. The course takes visitors through Vincent's life story. Beginning with landscapes of farm scenes he likely experienced as a boy, the exhibit traces Vincent's life as a teacher and theologian, of love and heartbreak, then of art and mental instability. Display by display he comes to life in the museum. Gradually, his original creativity and emotion break through and I imagine glimpses of the man through his priceless paintings. Here is one of the world's greatest artists.

It was after about three hours that I saw it. At the very end of the exhibit, on the top of the third floor was a panel that listed Van Gogh's family members. I remember I'd just glanced at my watch and knew there was only a few minutes remaining before the time my girlfriends and I were to reunite. Hurriedly, I scanned the family tree. Next to Theo was a reference to his wife, Johanna, Vincent's sister-in-law, and then an astounding, almost casual reference.

Here is where I found my story.

Theo did not bring Vincent's work to public attention. Grieving over his brother's suicide, Theo became ill and died about a year after Vincent. It was Johanna -- married just 18 months and with a new baby -- who inherited all of Vincent's work. Many of his paintings were still wet, heavy with their multiple coats of oil paint. When Theo died Johanna's family implored her to return home where she and the baby could be cared for. Instead she decided to move to Bussum, a quiet town, and to pick up her husband's trade as an art dealer. Taking in boarders and housekeeping to earn a living, at night Johnanna wrote letters to galleries and collectors promoting Vincent's work. It was her tenacity, not Theo's, that ultimately gave the world Vincent Van Gogh's art and letters.

Standing in front of that panel, I marveled. Without Johanna, Van Gogh's work would likely have been undiscovered, lost.

Since that trip I've gradually been reading the letters between Theo and Vincent and seen excerpts from Johanna's diary. Her first entry begins, "Tout n'est que reve!" (Everything is but a dream!) She writes, "Theo taught me much about art, no let me rather say - he has taught me much about life... Besides the care for the child he left me yet another task, Vincent's work -- to show it and to let is be appreciated as much as possible." So began the years of her laboring to make Van Gogh's work known.

(I have the best sanctimonious art-critic quote from Johanna's time, "Mrs. Van Gogh is a charming little woman but it irritates me when someone gushes fanatically on a subject she knows nothing about...It's a schoolgirlish twaddle, nothing more." Ha! I wonder if he lived long enough to know he was wrong?

I have much more research to do but this story tugs at me. I have a mission statement I've been thinking about for my writing: "To share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters and each other." Johanna seems to fit.   

What do you think?

Update on exploring steps to write a book:
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 57.

Research similar authors:  Airline travel this past week enabled me to finish Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees, which I loved. Now I can watch the movie! I'd read Kidd's The Invention of Wings, and found that both of these books have the theme of tenacity in common. Kidd gives her protagonists time to work through the change their characters need to make -- years of time -- and doesn't rush the hard work of their need to let go of insecurity. One last point - as part of my research I follow the authors I'm reading on Twitter. About a week ago Sue Monk Kidd tweeted, "The power of a typo!" She'd been invited to speak at an event calling her the author of The Secret Life of Beer. Ha!

Mastermind writing course: Just finished Week 4 of this 12-week virtual class. So far the biggest transformation the course has given me is feeling as though I've moved from a holding pattern into forward motion with my writing. I'm grateful. 

It seems fitting to end with a quotes from Vincent, "What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything? "