Fairies, feelings and a bit of feminism

I wonder if we are all wrong about each other, if we are just composing unwritten novels about the people we meet?
— Rebecca West

I know I do. Consider these folks:

  • The young Parisian train ticket agent. Did he truly not understand "Round Trip" in the middle of my broken-French? Or did he sell us One Way's on purpose? (We get stuck behind automatic security gates that stubbornly remain shut, even though we mimic scores of other train travelers that scan and exit the sliding gates in one smooth motion. My Husband's New Yorker-instinct kicks in. I watch as he steps aside, a stranger scans his ticket and as the man steps forward my Husband slips behind him, and is out the other side! Husband turns and looks at me through the barred gate. I swallow, step aside as a woman approaches my gate. She scans, it opens, I ghost behind her. Freedom!

  • The annoyed Bairro Alto coffeehouse waitress. She calls me back, waving the book I'd sneakily (so I thought) left on the table. I am trying out my secretive "Book Fairy" sleight-of-hand skills (to fairy-like leave a book in each European country for someone to find) when she busts me. Leave no books behind! (Must not be a fairy-believer. It's okay. She yelled at me, but it was all in Portuguese. No offense taken.)

  • Or, finally, a Lisbon taxi-driver. Late at night he drops us off at the corner of a dicey dark street, waving vaguely that our restaurant is "over there." (We'd passed the same Irish Pub twice so suspected he was lost, but really?-- pointing us into the street?) We are the dummies because we get out only to discover the restaurant street address doesn't exist. (We pull out an iPhone and turn on roaming cellular for GPS. It's a block north.) Still.

It's a miracle we're home in one piece. And, of course, I'm just skimming the top handful of characters we met.

But now that we are back--from four weeks of travel to Barcelona, Lisbon, Provence, Paris and Amsterdam--jet lag is giving the gift of lots of strange awake hours to sort out and reflect on the people and bits and pieces of our trip.

You already know my book drove our itinerary. I've finished the first draft of an historical fiction story about Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the famous artist's sister-in-law who spent a lifetime making people aware of Vincent's talent. The story is about Jo, and pulls from historical events and people around her and her life in France and the Netherlands.

So in planning the trip, I wondered whether it would truly make a difference to actually walk where she walked, to trace the geography of her travels, to see the buildings where she lived, to face her husband's grave where she must have stood. Would Jo leave hints of herself in the places left behind?

Here's one instance of what I found:

  • Vincent and Theo's graves lie side-by-side along a wall of the Auvers-sur-Oise cemetery. We took an early morning train from Paris and are visiting on an appropriately drizzly dark-cloudy day. Auvers is the town where Vincent killed himself in 1890. Theo died in 1891; yet, it wasn't until 1914 that Jo moved Theo's remains from the Netherlands to lie next to Vincent's. A little map on the cemetery gate points us in the right direction to find their graves. We hop around puddles on worn gravel paths, a patchwork of rectangle graves fan out across the grounds. My husband spots the Van Gogh grave plots first, toward the back of the cemetery along a wall. The same Dr Gachet whose portrait was painted by Vincent planted ivy across the plot so the brothers are united under a single comforter of plush, deep-green tightly woven vines. Someone's tucked a few plastic sunflowers into the ivy; raindrops glint on the yellow. I stand in the drizzle, staring at the gravestones, imagining Jo in her long skirts doing the same. "Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890." "Theodore van Gogh 1857-1891." Droplets in her hair. Mud on her shoes. She was 52. A grown son, widowed for a second time, international fame procured for Vincent--all had transpired since the death of her newlywed love 23 years earlier--what was she thinking? What was she feeling?

Sadness? Gratitude? A wash of loneliness? Of love?

I could imagine each feeling. No, I felt each feeling. The question is: Can I write it so that you feel it too?

At the Van Gogh brothers' gravesite.

At the Van Gogh brothers' gravesite.

Outside the Lisbon Metro, getting ready for a   "book fairy"   drop, where I'll walk away in hopes the book will be picked up. I put a ribbon on it to catch attention. (It was gone a 3 minutes later!) Juan does market research by drinking absinthe in Paris. Vincent van Gogh's favorite.

Outside the Lisbon Metro, getting ready for a "book fairy" drop, where I'll walk away in hopes the book will be picked up. I put a ribbon on it to catch attention. (It was gone a 3 minutes later!) Juan does market research by drinking absinthe in Paris. Vincent van Gogh's favorite.

How I'm Writing the Book
Ready, Set, Second Draft: On Monday I'm back in the writer chair to start cranking on the second draft.

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Once again, Celeste Ng has written a beautifully layered story with a tender, empathetic dive into each of her characters’ minds in Little Fires Everywhere. Our stars are Mia, a photographer/artist, and her teenage daughter Pearl who come to settle in perfectly planned community named Shaker Heights where the Richardson family lives – a family that will intertwine with Mia and Pearl. Ng’s ability to hop from one point-of-view to another is done so flawlessly that the reader can glide quickly, gathering up the missed connections, the wrong assumptions, mistakes and discoveries of the characters from the delicious vantage point of anticipating their next moves. At the end of the book, I especially enjoyed the little descriptions of insight Ng shares about each character, framed as a mixed-media photographer would create. The photos added another dimension to the rich ground Ng had already prepared for us. I truly enjoyed this book. A terrific second novel from the author ofEverything I Never Told You.

Personal Stuff
Meanwhile, we'll go to KC this week to visit our Daughter and Son-in-Law to catch up. Of course we all stayed in touch during our travels via group texts:

Son-in-Law to Husband: Your daughter would like you to bring her gifts of fine wine and cigars from Europe.

Husband to Daughter: Your husband posted that we should bring you something from Europe. There are some great chocolatiers that I am considering.


Son-in-law: She is in dire straits on the cigar front.

Meanwhile our little Grandson is GETTING BIGGER and I am grateful he is coming to visit for Thanksgiving (and his parents too)!

Next blog I will tell you about my fangirl excitement in meeting with the Van Gogh Museum Senior Research Director (Sounds groupie-worthy, right?) Our meeting is still resonating. He has such a deep empathy for the hostility and indifference Jo faced when she persisted in promoting Vincent. Today, we'd call Jo a feminist, though I think she would have defined herself more broadly as an advocate for all who are underprivileged.

This brings me back to Rebecca West (British author, journalist and book critic) for a favorite quote:

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.

Be different!


How to begin to innovate

Discontent is the first necessity of progress.  
-Thomas Edison

There is something untidy about a new idea. 

Like a splinter just below the skin's surface, it can persistently irritate and whisper: There must be a better way. 

I was thinking about innovation and my protagonist, Johanna, when the May 2018 issue of Fast Company arrived in the mail. On the cover it announced 2018 winners of world-changing ideas. A couple of examples: 

  • Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) -  small freestanding dwellings on the same grounds as a regular home are an affordable solution to housing shortages. 

  • Patreon - a membership platform enabling creatives (artists, musicians, etc.) to find "patrons," or fans, that make regular financial contributions to fund the artist in exchange for exclusive content.

Two-hundred forty finalists were culled from 1,400 submissions across 12 categories from consumer products to urban design to energy to transportation and more for this competition. Though the article doesn't go in depth into how and why each innovation came about, the ideas break through entrenched assumptions about the way things need to be. For example, the ADU smashes the assumption that a house needs to be on its own plot of land. Patreon shatters the premise that an artist's income is dependent on single buyers. 

So, it's easy, right? Innovate by simply challenging assumptions. The problem is, introducing new ideas can be tough when those assumptions, or the status quo, are backed up by entrenched interests and an organizational structure that profits from it. 

This is the challenge Johanna will face in my book. She will need to think innovatively, against an entrenched status quo. 

During the 19th century, Paris served as a European mecca for artists. The French capital was the largest metropolis in Europe; artists flocked to the art scene established by its famous Ecole dex Beux-Arts, the must-attend academy for all up-and-coming artists. The academy emphasized teaching techniques used by the Old Masters.

The Ecole had an administrative arm, the Academie des Beux-Arts, which held an annual exhibition called the Salon, the most important place for artists to present their work. Showing at the Salon was the only way an artist could make a career: they were eligible to win prizes, to secure government commissions and to qualify as a lecturer at the Ecole dex Beux-Arts or to be a civil servant at the cultural ministry of the Ecole. 

A jury selected the artists for the Salon. Acceptance of an artist meant that their artwork would be hung in plain view. If their work won a prize, it drew the attention of the press where critics wrote in detail about each winning artist in magazine and newspaper articles. Tens of thousands of people attended the public art showing each year giving exhibiting artists wonderful exposure to the public and buyers.

Clearly, competition among artists to get into the Salon was fierce, so winning artists strove to fit into the criteria the jurists were looking for. 

How can Johanna possibly promote her brother-in-law Vincent's work when it didn't fit into the "establishment"? 

Though Vincent's work was not like the mainstream Impressionists, they had been trying. Theo, Vincent's brother, was a partner in an art dealership and tried for years to solicit buyers from his connections, but was ultimately unsuccessful.  And, on his own, Vincent tried to sell his work by getting permission from local cafe owners to hang his paintings on their walls. Only one person bought a painting -- a fellow artist. 

So, by the time it's up to Johanna to decide what to do with Vincent's art -- after both Theo and Vincent are dead and she has inherited all of Vincent's paintings and drawings -- all the usual sales channels have been tried. The assumptions she will need to break through -- the only way to sell is through a Salon connection, women don't belong in business, Vincent was not a legitimate artist but a mentally unbalanced man, Jo is a bad mother for not returning to her parents as a widow, and on and on -- are lining up as I'm thinking through a number of scenes. She is confused; she is a mess. She does not have clear answers yet, but I do know one thing she will have. 

A persistent feeling, an irritation, a discontent, an impatience not to give in to conventional thought. 

The beginning of innovation!

How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius: Week 7 (of the 10-week class) and we'll still be on the opening scene. I am being challenged to go even deeper in thinking through the action of the scene and its consequences, and, under the surface, why the scene's action matters to Jo and what she is realizing as a result.

Books I'm reading: I finished the novel Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter, on my iPad. Whoa! A serial killer emerged and Slaughter masterfully had me second-guessing whether each guy in the story was the secret murderer. Next up is a (gulp) 500-page Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy, for my W4 bookclub. Finally, still reading the non-fiction Chaos Monkey by Antonio Garcia Martinez. I decided to set it aside for awhile since the investment book club meeting has been pushed into May. 

Meanwhile, on the wedding front this upcoming week Juan and I will drive to Kansas City to check out the downtown venue Cristina and Jay have chosen for their ceremony and reception (Cristina calls it "industrial elegant"...hmmm). I asked Cristina if there will be enough room on the dance floor for my interpretive dance and she said, ".....maybe."  

On another topic, this past week Juan and I attended a fundraiser for our friend Tiffanie's non-profit, Fighting H.A.R.D - Fighting Against Hit and Run Drivers. Tiffanie's sister, Jameca, was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver.  Since then, Tiffanie has established her organization to raise awareness, educate and provide resources to families of victims. Please click on the link behind H.A.R.D. for more information. 

On my last note - it was easy to think of Thomas Edison as the individual to quote in this week's blog on innovation. His inventions are ideas that broke the mold in their time -- the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, movie camera, and electric power distribution to name a few. He liked to say, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." But the quote I'll close with is even simpler:

There's a way to do it better - find it.

Challenge an assumption!


Bon Voyage

We're back!

How will we know it's us, without our past?
-James Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath

Reflection on this trip to Paris and Amsterdam started 72 hours ago. Ever since, I feel as though I've been surfing waves of history.

We returned Friday night after 12 hours of flying (we connected through Dallas to get back to St. Louis). The gift of air travel is suspended time. Slipping from time zone to time zone the hour on my watch felt irrelevant and between dozing and watching a few movies a mental slide show of the last two weeks shifted and sorted itself in my thoughts. 

I had made the trip for work but tucked in a personal goal of conducting research for my book while in both cities.  By exploring the idea of basing a book around Johanna Van Gogh, the sister-in-law who brought Vincent's work to acclaim after his death, I'm starting with the artist, Vincent, himself with lots of questions: What made his paintings so admired? What influenced him? How did his painting evolve? What was his relationship with his brother Theo, and through him, Johanna? 

Why wasn't Vincent recognized in his own time?

Like scattering puzzle pieces across a table before fitting the picture together I have bits of info sliding around in my imagination. One of the clearest from Paris is a scene of struggling artists come alive.

Imagine a group of men clustered around a cafe table arguing. They are in Montmartre, an area that sits on the crest of a hill overlooking Paris. Once farmland it is now the location of a growing labyrinth of streets, cafes and clubs on the outskirts of the city. Over wine and cigarettes the men debate artistic styles. Pushing against the boundaries of classical art taught in their art institutions, they debate unconventional ideas about color, subject, technique and light. Scathingly criticized, they are not professionally successful and live in exile from the main artist community.

In fact, the word "impressionism" came from a harsh critic of Claude Monet's work, who called his work only an "impression" of art versus classical reality. 

Later this period (1872-1914) would be called the Belle Époque (beautiful period) but this community of future greats -- Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Degas, Bernard, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others -- had no idea. They struggled with poverty, worked other jobs, labored to paint and evolve their artistic expression in spite of the lack of recognition.

Sometimes they banned together. For example, in 1873, unable to find art dealers to support them, a group of four (Monet, Renoir, Piassaro and Sisley) created their own society, wittily named "The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers."

Other times they directly supported each other, like when Theo and Vincent purchased three of Gauguin's paintings for 900 francs just when he needed it.

I imagine the group expanded and contracted as individuals moved in and out of Paris -- making friends, exchanging contacts, influencing each other. This avant-garde artist community started before Vincent got there (1886-88) and extended long after him. I had imagined a vibrant community, a "golden age" breaking through boundaries of expression; yet, now realize I'd romanticized it by ignoring their poverty, doubt, jealousy and pressure from family alongside small breakthroughs of recognition. They had no crystal ball to assure them that one day their art would hang on museum walls. And, no doubt, there were artists among this group whose names we do not know, whose art did not break through.

Perhaps this is a setting or context for the book? 

This brings me back to Johanna. She's in these ruminations somewhere. She -- but for her circumstance of being the widow of Vincent's brother -- would not have played the role she did. Like a comet Vincent streaked across the European landscape driven to create as he did, churning out his paintings in a single decade. In his last five years, from 1885 to 1890, he lit up the sky in the world of art. Blink, and we'd have missed him. Blink, and without Johanna's unsung role to bring Vincent's paintings to recognition, he could well have been among the other Montmartre artists we do not know.

Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research:  I need a better research note-taking strategy. At this stage my notes are now strewn in journals, along margins of books and on printed out references. My nemesis has always been the afterthought of organization. (I'd rather jump into exploring ideas instead of setting up and obeying an electronic filing system.) I definitely need to create a visual way to see the context of events and how they might impact my characters. Here's an idea from an interview with author Margaret Atwood:

"Atwood believes the social context into which you are born informs your entire life. 'One thing I do for my characters is I write down the year of their birth, and then I write the months down the side and the years across the top, and that means that I know exactly how old they are when larger things happen... So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression. That’s going to have an effect on you.'”

I'm going to try this as one way to capture information. If you have any ideas, Jamie, I welcome them!

Books I'm reading:  My head's still spinning from Love's Fiery Prescription and Love's Fiery Resolution by Yvonne Kohano. They were excellent page-turners on the long airline flights. Next up, and fresh from this trip, I'm going to return to dipping into The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (this is just one of several versions), as well as starting Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for my book club. And I have more airline travel to do it because tomorrow we leave for a week in Oregon to celebrate a family wedding. (All the Paris laundry is done, just need to pack.)

One final note, Juan and I visited Montmartre on our first day in Paris. It's no longer on the outskirts and today teems with artists. Three hundred registered artists live in Montmartre and there's a 10-year artist waiting list to move there. Tourists crowd the streets and markets where paintings can be purchased and quick charcoal portraits sketched. Hardly the exiled world of starving artists I've been describing. The vibrant creativity drew us in and we wandered among the canvases for a while. The memory of that sunny afternoon is vivid. As Steinbeck said, 

Many a trip continues long after movement
in time and space have ceased.

Passez une bonne semaine! (Have a good week!)