On my thirtieth birthday, it rained all day and I was in a mood to match. I spent the morning babysitting, as most thirty-year-olds are wont to do, then spent the afternoon feeling terribly sorry for myself. I had decided to spend November revising my novel — forty thousand words of it, anyway, and it wasn’t going well.
Every time I sat down to work, all I could think about was what someone might say in a workshop. Would they wonder why this character was granted forgiveness, or why this other character chose to protect his daughter so fiercely? I worried about querying. Would agents like it? Would they think it was purple? Too self-indulgent or bloated? Maybe too spare, or perhaps both. I would sit in front of my computer and think to myself I don’t know how to do this. Or I never knew how to do this or How does anyone do this more than once?
For the first time in my life, writing had taken on a new weight. The more the people around me talked about agents, editors, querying, and publicity strategies, the further I got from my own work. The thing I had been doing since before I could even read — telling stories — was getting swallowed up by the idea of advances and whether or not my story was salable. It didn’t feel like mine anymore.
After I failed to accomplish anything, I walked in the rain with my husband to the movie theater. Loving Vincent was playing and I had been waiting to see that movie since I first heard about it years before. When I saw the title on the marquee, with my birthday coming quickly, it felt like kismet. It was not lost on me that I was around the age that Van Gogh had been when he began painting seriously and first took up oil as a medium.
I had loved Vincent since my tenth birthday, when my mother sent me postcards from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I convinced my classmates to write a skit about artists, bandaged Kurt’s ear and made a frame out of spray paint and cardboard tubes. We put a poster of irises inside of it and he waved a paintbrush around while I was dressed as Monet, an eyeliner mustache above my lip and a raspberry beret on my head.
In high school, I wrote my college application essay about Lust For Life, Irving Stone’s novelization of Van Gogh’s life. I carried his letters with me in my backpack everywhere I went. I argued that I disliked Monet on principle, that his work was pretty but not deeply felt, a stance I still take today. I preferred the urgency of Van Gogh’s work — the way he painted like he was running out of time.
In college, my best friend and I went to school two and a half hours away. She sent me postcards — Vincent’s self portraits, with Henry Rollins quotes in a scrolling font on the back. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you. She chalked a nighttime beach for me that look as much like Wheatfield With Crows as it did the dunes in Duxbury. My freshman advisor taught a seminar on Van Gogh, Degas, and Gauguin. For my final project, I dove deep into Vincent’s letters and wrote about his third Sower. She asked me if I would reconsider my major so that I could study further with her.
As I sat in the theater, watching each hand-painted frame flash on the screen, my eyes welled with tears. Andrew squeezed my hand but could not tear his eyes away from the art. Each of the characters I had fallen in love with in portraits came to life, expressing their love or ambivalence for Vincent.
When I first applied to the Grub Street Novel Incubator, it wasn’t the encouragement of my friends, or Incubator alums that worked on me to hit send. It wasn’t because they thought I was talented that I sat down every morning and typed frantically, trying to churn out a draft in only three months. The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason to remain ashore. Those same words that were a comfort to me when I left for college. When I boarded a plane to move to Scotland. The words that motivated me any time that I was scared or tepid or downright averse. When I felt the doubt creeping up on me, it was Vincent who soothed me. If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.
Van Gogh painted for himself. He painted because of his terrible need — shall I say the word — of religion. He painted because he could live without god, but living without the power to create was a fate worse than death. When he was certain his work was nothing more than a burden to those who supported him, he persisted. When he was rejected, ridiculed, and told to give up, he endured. Loving Vincent is a film that ostensibly explores the great questions of his death — did he shoot himself? was he murdered? why would he do it? But more than that it, reminds the viewer that Van Gogh’s greatest accomplishment was his faith. Not in God, and not in the artists around him, but in himself and his drive to produce work even if that work went unrecognized by everyone around him.
When I left Loving Vincent, I was still in foul mood. The rain had gotten colder and sloppier, that awful wintry mix. I said goodbye to my friend and Andrew and I walked home in silence. Over the week that followed, I slowly began to make progress in my revisions. I started to put aside my thoughts about agents, editors, and bookstores. I stopped worrying about whether or not other people would like what I was writing and asked myself if it was getting closer to the story I wanted to tell. I reminded myself that I could write because I loved writing. That publication was not an end goal but rather a means to an end. What do I want? To keep writing.
I thought about Van Gogh as I finished the last draft of my manuscript. I thought about the fact that he sold one painting while he was alive and that it was used to patch a hole in a chicken coop. He never stopped, despite never being successful. And so as I recalled the stories about him that are recounted in Loving Vincent, I found my own feet again. Vincent was a painter because he painted, not because his pieces hung in museums or art shows or fetched millions of dollars. (Though the Portrait of Dr. Gatchet was the most expensive painting ever sold at the time of its auction.) Likewise, the voice in my head telling me I could never be a writer was silenced the moment I began to write. OK, maybe not in that exact moment, and it might come back soon, but for a time, I found my own voice again and was able to accomplish something that no one can take away from me. I will always be someone who has written a novel, and that’s the goal — not the recognition, not the reviews, and not the royalties.