Inside

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.
-
Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the surface it was a good week: 

  • 19 pages submitted, 5,723 words written — 158% of my weekly goal. Awesome, right?
  • Wednesday is my weekly submission deadline -- I’ve already received great feedback from my book coach. On the right track, right? 

Something felt off. 

Has that ever happened to you — on the outside humming along, but on the inside you’re unsettled? Like a buzzing invisible insect close to your ear, the mental insistence feels hard to pin down. It's not clear: Does the mental irritation mean you've missed something important, or is the needling the emergence of a new question?

Last week I ignored these unsettled feelings in order to just write. I had a 12-hour goal I had to meet so I wrote a series of events that take my protagonist, Jo, from Amsterdam to Paris. The journey is important, eventually she needs to meet Vincent van Gogh there. I researched how she would have traveled and found in the late 19th century, today's comfortable 3-hour train ride would have been a much longer, exhausting day: Amsterdam to Rotterdam by train, then to Antwerp by boat, and from there another train into the Gard du Nord station in Paris. 

And just as travel today often means crossing through airports and their chaotic cross-section of people, train stations in the late 19th century were epicenters of bedlam. Here’s a sentence I wrote trying to capture what Jo saw in the Amsterdam station: Everyone seems to be in constant motion as though a great sea had rolled them all in and they were stumbling and turning and spinning where the tide dropped them. 

All fine and good, right? I spent a bunch of time describing this and the rest of her journey. Still felt a little off. 

Last week, too, important characters in Jo's life showed up in the scenes I wrote -  in particular her favorite brother Andries (nickname "Dries") and his friend, Theo van Gogh (who eventually becomes Jo's husband). Hopefully, the scenes are spirited and surprising, and dialogue, too, is coming along. (My favorite 19th century expression is What the deuce!)

All fine and good, right?

But the writing still didn't seem right. Too shallow. So I turned to my journal and paged through previous entries, the musings I make in the morning to rev up my writing. Funny, I noticed that I'd been writing similar questions to myself, over and over:

  • What is Jo's limiting belief?
  • Why does she long for something more than the typical Victorian Age woman?
  • What happened so that she thinks outside these norms?
  • Why would she be feisty? And later, courageous?
  • What is her mis-belief - the thing she believes that's unknowingly holding her back and that she will have to overcome...and this is the why she makes the decision to promote her brother-in-law's work...thereby, giving the world this incredible gift?

This last question relates to why I like some of my favorite books. They are stories based on the protagonist suffering from a mis-belief. In The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), Lily believes she killed her mother. In News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Captain Kidd believes he's meant to be a loner. 

Even though I'm just four chapters in, I realized I need answers to these questions now because I'm putting words in Jo's mouth and having her encounter people that will help and hinder her. All of this needs to be aligned to the actions that ultimately lead up to her role in history. Since saving Van Gogh's paintings will be an outcome of her life - what change in Jo's  thinking precedes this action?

I asked this question on Thursday afternoon on a call with my book coach, Sheila. In my thrashing around with these questions I'd come up with two possible solutions: Should I be focusing on a different genre? (maybe literary fiction -- though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant). Or, should I create a deep character sketch of Johanna?

Sheila had a different answer.

"Read a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron," she said. "It tackles how to think through these questions. Or, better yet, it turns out there’s a deep-dive class based on this book. Guess what: It starts Monday."

"Guess what," I responded. "I already have the book," turned and pulled the red-covered paperback off my "writer craft" bookshelf, an arm's reach away. 

So, perfect timing. Four chapters in have brought these issues to light. I feel like I'm asking new questions that wouldn't have made as much sense until now. Like a real person, Jo keeps nudging me and asking, why did I do that? 

Ok, ok, I need to get the why right. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Words/Week:  I'll suspend the Manuscript Accelerator program while I take the Story Genius class. My goal shifts to 10 pages/week, though not all of it will be actual scenes as I'll be completing assignments too. In 10 weeks, I'll restart MA in order to complete a first draft of the manuscript this year -- still a stretch goal. 

Determine a book genre: Upmarket fiction? Literary fiction? Commercial fiction? This decision needs to come soon. If you're curious on what makes them different here's a good infographic developed by a literary agent.

Watching movies as research: One way I'm mixing up my research is to watch 19th century period movies for their settings, dress and mannerisms. So far I've seen Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh, and Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as a young woman in Paris. I welcome any recommendations of movies to watch!

Books I'm reading: I'm still in the thick of Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Four characters are duking it out; each has secrets they are keeping from each other!

Meanwhile, on the wedding front, Cristina, Jay and I checked out a KC wedding venue Tuesday night --  almost perfect! Just not available on the preferred date. Eric and Angie's wedding is about to hit 100 Days Before the Big Event. I decided to order three mother-of-the-groom dresses from Neiman's Last Call website so I can calculate how much weight I'll need to sweat off before June. Lastly, Juan and I are flying to Maui this upcoming Saturday. Freezing temperatures are forecast in St. Louis for that weekend. Darn it, so sad to leave town. 

I'll end with a blessing for Johanna (and you!)  from Mr. Emerson again: 

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. 

Get the why right!

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Ha!

There is nothing so annoying as to have two people talking when you're busy interrupting. 
-Mark Twain

Ha!

I was thinking about people that are annoying when that quote caught my eye. 

People that are the most irritating can often have the biggest blind spots in recognizing their own bad behavior. And, on the other side of the coin, the receiver of the bad behavior can be just as imperceptive, aggravation getting in the way of understanding where the individual is coming from.

Vincent van Gogh was really annoying. 

It's made me suspect that I would've been one of the people that avoided him. 

And it's made me all the more curious about the people that stuck by him for so long, especially after his death. What motivated the main character of my book, Johanna van Gogh, to believe in Vincent?

To explore her motivation, this week I read through a slim book, Vincent van Gogh and Paris, written by curator Nienke Bakker and published by the Van Gogh Museum. It describes the two years Vincent lived with his brother Theo (1886 to 1888) in Paris, which overlapped when Johanna would have met Vincent. She would have witnessed the incredibly close relationship the two brothers had. Vincent was four years older than Theo, but Theo financially and emotionally supported his older brother. 

Here are a few things Johanna would have learned about Vincent: 

He hadn't been able to hold down a job.
He'd moved back home with his parents. 
He got a girl pregnant.
At 27 he decided to become a painter.
He asked his brother if he could move in with him in Paris. Theo agreed but requested Vincent wait so he could get a bigger place -- Vincent came immediately anyway.  
He was antisocial.
He wore old workman jackets spattered with paint. 
He could be embarrassing in public. 
He would go on and on about his own ideas and big dreams; yet, had only sold one painting (to another painter).

What would you think if you heard that description?

And how did others see Vincent? 

  • Bombastic. (From friend and fellow painter, Emile Bernard): "[Vincent was] Red-haired (goatee beard, ragged mustache, cap of close-cropped hair), with a piercing gaze and an incisive mouth...his gestures lively, his gait jerky, that was Van Gogh with, always, his pipe, a canvas...Vehement in his discourse, given to interminable explanations and a great developer of ideas...and dreams, ah! what dreams! Huge exhibitions, philanthropic phalansteries (gatherings) of artists, the foundation of [artist] colonies in the south."
  • Ignored. (From model Suzanne Valadron): "I remember Van Gogh coming to our weekly gatherings at [Toulouse] Lautrec's. He arrived carrying a heavy canvas under his arm, put it down in the corner but well in the light, and waited for us to pay some attention to it. No one took notice. He sat across from it, surveying the glances, seldom joining in the conversation. Then, tired, he would leave, carrying back his latest work. But the next week he would come back, commencing and recommencing with the same strategem."
  • Oblivious. (From fellow painter Paul Signac): "We painted on the riverbanks; we lunched at an open-air roadhouse, and we returned by foot to Paris...Van Gogh, dressed in a blue jacket of a zinc worker, had small dots of colour painted on his sleeves. Sticking quite close to me, he shouted and gesticulated, brandishing his large, freshly painted size 30 canvas  [2.5' x 3'] in such a way that he polychromed (spattered multiple colors of paint) himself and the passersby."

What a character! Yet, somehow beyond these external eccentricities Theo recognized something in Vincent's talent. Somehow, Johanna did too. 

For almost a hundred years, museum officials and gallery owners have spoken fearfully of the "Van Gogh syndrome." The Van Gogh syndrome is the worry that in our own lifetime, possibly right here in our midst, there is a major, visionary artist at work, whom we totally fail to recognize. 

In the brief span of five years, from 1885 - 1890, Vincent's work would evolve into such an explosion of creativity that eventually he would secure a place among the greatest artists of our time. In order for that to come about, Vincent's work had to become recognized.

Getting Vincent recognition became Johanna's life mission. She saw beyond Vincent's personality. How and why she did this intrigues me. Pursuing this question fits the reason I'm writing this book for in everything I do I believe in pushing against the edges of limitation. In everything I do I believe in finding connection.   

How I'm Writing the Book
Writing Craft: This week I continued work on my book's outline, breaking it down into two parts: 1) external scenes and then 2) the point of the scene. In other words, a scene is not just action but needs to include what's going on in my protagonist Johanna's heart - is she angry, fearful, motivated? I learned in last week's Blueprint Sprint class that it's the internal motivation behind action that makes for a compelling story. This outline is very difficult to write. (I'm writing and revising with a goal of a 3-page outline and I've only finished one page.)

Writing Community: I found another writer group! The St. Louis Publishers Association is made up of more than publishers but writers, graphic designers, etc. Within their ranks I found a small publisher that will do small print runs of just 25 - perfect for advance copies and to give as Christmas gifts! The group meets monthly so I'll be checking out a meeting in December. 

Research: In addition to reading the book mentioned earlier, I saw the movie "Loving Vincent." There's a little buzz around it because it's the world's first fully painted feature film. The entire film is rendered by hand with oil paints. The plot is centered around an investigation of Vincent's suicide and so the film is both sad and beautiful. 

Let me come back to Mark Twain to finish this post. I described Vincent as bombastic, ignored and oblivious -- maybe the only similarity Twain would have with Van Gogh is being bombastic for Twain was most definitely NOT ignored or oblivious.  He was a keen observer with a sharp wit:

To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

Ha!

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