The Van Gogh Effect – or the need for a role model

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. He was not talking about people to pose for him to paint, he was talking about people to look up to, professionally, people he aspired to follow and to learn from.

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 too–to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop our skills. Her book helped me hugely as an aspiring writer. There have been a number of books which have influenced me as a writer and my writing over the years.

In her 1934 masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “A writer writes” which we hear everywhere, and you may think it’s an obvious statement to make, but think about it for a few minutes, it’s deeper than you think. It’s not about writing being just a one-off event, but an ongoing relationship with words.

And as I commented recently, novelist Mary Wibberley inspired me when she said in her 1970s book, To Writers With Love, “Don’t look down”. Winifred Watson, now almost unheard of, but once an uber-successful author (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and many more), 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. I cannot grow or function in isolation.

It has never been easier than today to find others for inspiration and support. Many of my closest friends are other writers I have come across through conversations on social media. And they have got me through so many tough times, times when I felt discouraged, or felt like giving up, or felt like nothing seemed to be working. I am so grateful to them. If I ever win an award, my ‘Without whom…’ speech will be long and tearful. The internet is full of tips, hints, writing websites, blogs, epublishing platforms, how-tos and advice, writing circles, book reading groups, as well as technique and knowledge webinars. But we all need the human element. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot if difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
― Stephen King: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Another inspiring work for me has been Stephen King’s On Writing.

It is an odd thing, being a writer, because just like other ‘normal’ jobs, sometimes you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to write, or you’re fed up with everything you write: it feels stale or trite or clichéd or flat or bumpy or… 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 that you will never be able to write again. Other times you feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall, desperately trying to get an idea out. 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. Loathing may be present for at least a third of the book. You may well come to dread the very thought of looking at your draft again. But look at it you must, for the good of the book, and your writer’s soul. And you have to make yourself do it even if you don’t want to. You can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike. As many well-known and successful authors have commented, if you wait for inspiration you’ll probably never write a thing.

“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”

― William Faulkner

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.” Like him, we devote ourselves to diligently 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. Therefore it’s important to keep going, keep moving forward. But you don’t have to do it alone. 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. One harsh word or thoughtless comment can make someone give up writing for weeks, even months, so be kind, be gentle. We creatives are sensitive people. 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, edited, rererevised, proofed then put it out there into the world for the reading public.

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