Learn by going where you have to go
First off, the most important thing I have to write is thank you. Thank you for reading this blog. Though I cut back on the frequency mid-year, I think about you and this hardy band of subscribers often. What I know for sure: I would not be writing my book, if not for this support. Thank you. And now...
Happy Christmas Eve!
I learn by going where I have to go. -Theodore Roetchke from "The Waking”
If you read this on Monday morning, think of Juan and me on interstate 70 headed west towards Kansas City, our Christmas destination. Gifts are shipped, cards are sent. A few stocking-stuffer parcels are tucked in the trunk. We’ve left behind our cat, Tasha, who has an automatic round-robin food dispenser set up to rotate and pour out pre-measured kibbles twice a day. (I imagine her cat-crouched before it when we’re out of town…staring it down and daring it to turn.)
In some ways, this scenario is a microcosm of this first year of writing in this first year of retirement. Speeding forward towards the destination of writing a novel, and yet spinning a bit (a lot) in the process. Roethke's quote, "I learn by going where I have to go" is a good description of this year of writing and learning, doubling back and moving forward. . As the weeks have gone by, again and again, pre-conceived ideas about the story have been forced aside. I've had to strike a balancing act between researching facts about Jo's life while also allowing the story to unfold. The genre I'm writing is fictionalized biography -- based on a real person, yet fictionalizing events -- and in some cases, people.
When I first looked into writing my book, i came across an interview with a biographer who described Johanna van Gogh this way:
"She was the perfect spouse, and it was like she was bred for that. For a guy like Theo...it was important to marry a wife who was...well instructed, she had good manners and she would know how to do the household and how to keep everything tidy. Of course there was love between the two, but she was a girl who was getting prepared throughout her life to find a good husband."
Though the biographer does go on to give Jo her due, the description didn't sit well with me. Through my 21st-century sensibility, the phrase "perfect wife" rankled. It also didn't square with how Jo herself described her marriage. Here's an excerpt from a letter Jo wrote to her sister Mien four months after she'd married Theo:
"He [Theo] is so good and kind and I love him..But in saying this I am pronouncing a eulogy on my husband but not on marriage -- you say 'is it not pleasant to be your own boss?' -- well you are infinitely less when married than when you are unmarried...You have infinitely less freedom -- nothing, absolutely nothing belongs to you anymore, and I can assure you that it has been difficult for me to get used to that, me who was as free as a bird! You gain a great deal of love, but only at the expense of a great number of sacrifices."
Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo Van Gogh and Jo Bonger (p. 33) I love that passage.
These are not the words of a passive "perfect wife." Jo's voice calls out from the page, doesn't it?
So, as I write forward I've been cautiously supplementing my research bit-by-bit with passages such as the one cited. The new information can help. For example, there are times when my writing stalls out and I struggle to find words. I've come to recognize that when that happens I need more "inputs" to get going again -- a bit of research, a podcast, a book, a marketing blog. Notice that the inputs are all over the place: I've found that when a chapter is stuck and I set it aside, the back-burners of my mind still work on the problem, and an idea inevitably connects and solves the issue. My last chapter was like that; I had to rewrite it three times until it finally came together.
Next time you're stuck on a problem, try increasing the "inputs" and see what happens...
In the case of my last chapter, struggling with it felt like I was spinning, going around and around in the same section -- it certainly didn't feel like progress -- and, as a result, I became increasingly frustrated and scared (What if I can't finish??). In hindsight, though, I can see that the repetition helped. Gradually, the writing became deeper, adding Jo's internal thoughts behind the external action. In the scene Jo is learning news about the plight of some children in a nearby town, which takes her into thoughts about her own son, in turn giving the reader insight into some decisions she's made. Will I revise this scene in the future? Maybe. But for now, it's good enough to move on.
Again and again, I'm learning that if I'm persistent, keep the inputs coming), allow myself to "go where I have to go" an answer will reveal itself. Suddenly, new connections between ideas emerge.
But I'm cautious about research, too, because I don't want facts to get too far ahead of the narrative drive of the story. If I start to relay only what happened in her life, and not why it happened and how she's thinking, then I'm afraid that I'll have squandered the chance to write a story worth connecting to.
Progress = two steps forward, spin.
How I’m Writing the Book Resetting Goals for 2019: I had hoped to finish the first draft by the end of the year; it didn’t happen (see above!). I’m developing the project plan for 2019 now. In addition to finishing the manuscript, it will include a schedule to read all 902 letters between Vincent and Theo for insight into the brothers' relationship. Juan gave me a complete official six-volume set of letters a year ago for Christmas.
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: The close-calls-with-death memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O'Farrell, has an intriguing structure. The table of contents is not chronological but instead is listed by endangered body part and year in which she nearly died. Skipping back and forth through her life, O'Farrell stitches together scenes and people and experiences that are both comic and revealing. Once I got over getting scared by her descriptions of near-misses (she does make it, after all!), I couldn't put the book down.
The clock is ticking toward my daughter's March 2 wedding. The groomsmen's suits have been fitted; Cristina's dress is being tailored; the venue, the food, the band are all finalized. However, I do not have a mother-of-the-bride dress. So, when Cristina mentioned the "special occasion dress" website JJ's House, I was ecstatic! Easy shopping. I found four dresses I liked and ordered them, planning to return three, of course. A few days later, in my inbox, a little note from their customer service: Was I sure about my order? All dresses are custom-made and non-returnable. Yikes! Just what I need: four pearl-grey ballgowns. I cancelled the order. I'll circle back after New Year's for possible sales. Meanwhile, kudos to their customer service!
A final word about progress with another quote from poet Roethke:
Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley.
Moving forward! I hope you're having a beautiful holiday.