The Van Gogh Effect

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When Vincent van Gogh wrote to Emile Barnard in 1889 from the asylum in which he had voluntarily placed himself, he said he was suffering under an absolute lack of models. Alice Walker, in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens quotes this and discusses it in her essay “Saving The Life That Is Your Own – the importance of models in the artist’s life”. She highlights the need for writers and other artists to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop.

Her book helped me as a young aspiring writer hugely. There have been a number of books which have influenced me as a writer and my writing over the years, but none so much as this one. In her 19340s masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “a writer writes” which we hear everywhere; and as I commented recently, novelist Mary Wibberley said in her 1970s book To Writers With Love, “don’t look down”, Winifred Watson, 1930s author of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day said “you can’t write if you’re never alone”, all of which have been meaningful to me, but Alice Walker taught me that in spite of this, I need others to look up to and observe and learn from.

It has never been easier than today to find others for inspiration. The internet is full of tips, hints, writing websites, blogs, epublishing, circles, groups and webinars. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.

It is an odd thing, being a writer, because like other ‘normal’ jobs, sometimes you just don’t want to do it, you don’t want to write, or everything you write feels stale or trite or clichéd. Sometimes you hate being a writer. Sometimes you have written something so good, you become convinced you have depleted in one sentence the reserve of ability you have, and you will never be able to write again. We all know about the fear of the blank page. We all know how hard it can be to get your beginnings and middles and ends to fit neatly and seamlessly together into a cohesive and delicate whole.

Van Gogh said, “however hateful painting may be…if anyone who has chosen this handicraft pursues it zealously, he is a man of duty, sound and faithful.” It does sometimes feel as though, as writers, we are undertaking a Quest as we try to ensure our red herrings are subtle but present, and our sleuths remain believable and appealing yet somehow stand out from the crowd of other fictional sleuths.

Van Gogh went on to say, “what I am doing is hard, dry, but that is because I am trying to gather new strength by doing some rough work, and I’m afraid abstractions would make me soft.” We devote ourselves to plodding through our notes, our research, our first drafts and our revisions. At times it feels like hard, dry work. But we cannot leave it until later; if we do, we will lose our impetus, we will forget that special key phrase, that small detail on which the whole plot turns. So don’t let’s do it alone. Okay? Join a group, make friends, open up to others and as they embrace your work, you can embrace theirs.

Be careful with your criticism, remember their style may not be yours, their story may differ from yours, their experiences, their character – they are not you. But like you, they have a dream – so try not to trample, but to encourage. You may not ‘gel’ with everyone, but those you do, support them wholeheartedly. Try to keep an open mind. You may not like or agree with what people say about your work but listen to them anyway, consider what they say, don’t get miffed or precious: you need these people and they need you. Together we can get our work drafted, revised and rerevised, then put it out there into the world. More importantly we will no longer suffer under a lack of models.

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