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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‘So, where do you get your ideas?’

I know I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before, but it’s one of those questions that never goes away.

Where do you get your ideas?’

This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be, ‘Everywhere!’

But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’

Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else, someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know you.’

An overheard snatch of conversation, ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory, a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident.

I have based two full-length stories on dreams, three short stories and one novel on songs, a poem on a piece of art, a novel based on a documentary I saw on TV about ancient tapestries, (Opus Anglicanum: Latin for English work), and another about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a couple of  trips to Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, MC of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy!) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About Faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.

I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written page upon page of ‘I don’t know what to write’, like lines that we had to do at school, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with.

If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until something fits and makes a pleasing and meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.

That’s where I get my ideas.

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Routine – the nemesis of creativity

I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, to allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.

I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give security. And if you feel secure, you have the freedom to be creative.

All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But. Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.

Now I am tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog fairly to-the-point (wow, who’d have thought it?).

Sometimes, I just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for ‘everyday’ working writing, you need focus, not indulgence.

Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.

Why?

If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased confidence and positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.

Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go straight away with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.

As I’ve said already, routine planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results, you see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues.

For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked.

They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach mid-April, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.

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