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, role models, people he aspired to follow and to learn from. He was faithfully working on his painting, turning out canvas after canvas, but had no one close by who could help him grow as an artist.
Alice Walker, in her collection of essays entitled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (such an inspirational book, I still have the battered copy that I bought in 1989 in London’s Tottenham Court Road at a bookshop specialising in feminist and womanist works) quotes this moment in Van Gogh’s life, and discusses it in “Saving The Life That Is Your Own – the importance of models in the artist’s life”. She highlights the need for writers–and all artists–to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop our skills. Her book helped me hugely as an aspiring writer in my late 20s.
There have been a number of special books which have influenced me as a writer over the years. Here are some of them. (Some of them are quite old now, but I think you can still get them…)
In her 1934 masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “A writer writes” which writers 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, ‘I wrote a book’, but an ongoing, permanent relationship with words. This book is considered a little out of date by some or a bit patronising, but for many writers, Brande’s book is the seminal work aimed at writers who are right at the start of their writing journey, or who have lost their creative impetus and need a fresh perspective.
Writing a book can be compared to climbing a mountain, and the higher you get the more scary it feels if you stepped back from the process to look at what you were doing. So, as Mary Wibberley in her book To Writers With Love said, ‘Don’t look down!’ – just keep moving forwards until you reach the end. Or should that be, THE END. She also commented that finding your story is rather like creating a sculpture out of a block of stone. It takes time, and you shape the story roughly then polish and hone, several times. This book was another huge help to me as a new writer.
Alice Walker taught me that in spite of this need writers often have to be alone to concentrate on their writing, we also need others to look up to and observe and learn from, to share our journey with, to laugh with, to cry with, and everything in between. I–and you–cannot grow or function in isolation. And life’s journey is too hard to spend all your time alone.
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. My advice is to dig into these writing groups, make friends and be kind. We all need the human element. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.
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… ‘hard, dry…’ Sometimes you hate being a writer. Sometimes you write something so good, you can’t believe it came from you. Or you become convinced you have depleted in one sentence your entire reserve of ability, 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, and you can’t even remember what a verb is.
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 only write when inspired, then you’ll probably never write a thing.
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. And more than one viewpoint is valid. 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, sharing one another’s triumphs as well as the doubts.