Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The power of pictures

Since I've been so busy these last months shaping my novel--pulling in scenes, writing a few new ones, cutting others, revising everything--I've been thinking a lot about the book's arc. What exactly is the story I'm telling? Yes, I'm showing Van Gogh's life, but--as I keep telling people--this is a novel not a biography. What's my plot? (We won't get into it now, but I happen to be of the opinion that the best biographies--the only ones worth reading--also demonstrate a clear plot. They treat their subjects as characters and try to tell the stories of those characters. It's the only way to a.) draw a reader in and b.) give a sense of the inner life/the "real person" of the subject of the biography. Biographies that are so concerned about being objective that they do nothing but hand over recorded, verifiable facts--and these can be long books, believe it or not--are almost not worth reading. Because for all the facts, you don't come away feeling that you actually know the person any better. I remember feeling this acutely after finishing a thick biography of Anne Sexton.) Okay, so that was a long parenthetical detour but it brings me back to my point: Out of the facts of Van Gogh's life, and Van Gogh as I have imagined him for the many scenes and chapters in my book, what story about him am I trying to tell?

Well, for better or worse, I think what I'm finally doing is telling a story of his triumph over the difficult craft of oil painting. More on this in another post, but the last scene of the book is not the last moment of his life. (In fact, I altogether leave out his last months in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he shot himself.) I focus instead on what I see as his supreme artistic breakthrough in the summer of 1888 in Arles. I want this book to be a picture of hard won artistic success. That certainly is a story with a plot and a climax. But what it means is that in many scenes I must capture the inner drama of trying to learn to draw, then trying to learn to paint, then trying to paint better, with Vincent only sometimes succeeding but having to persevere anyway. This means a fair amount of attention to the literal process of painting, as well as description of paintings: either paintings Van Gogh is working on or painting he is observing and learning from. What those paintings (or drawings) are and what he learns from them really must carry those scenes; they must push both my plot and my novel forward. Van Gogh had a mess of a life, for sure. He went to many places, met a lot of people, wasn't always on his best behavior, and took a fair number of personal risks. It's not as if I don't include some/many of these personal trials in my book. How can you not? But if finally my plot is about how Van Gogh broke through as a painter, the personal troubles structurally have to be considered less important. (Although in certain chapters, maybe several, the personal struggles and the artistic struggles are tightly related. This is most obviously true of his time in The Hague when he lived with the woman he called "Sien," and of the months in Arles when he shared the Yellow House with Gauguin.)

No real answers in this post, just a lingering concern. Is the power of pictures powerful enough to carry a novel? And do I need to focus the novel even more, cut out more of the purely personal material than I already have? And if I do that, will a reader feel like he/she wants to see more personal drama? Don't get me wrong. There's plenty of drama in the book. It's not just description of paintings. Show Don't Tell is all over the place, and there is a significant amount of dialogue. But I do also include some passages of color-heavy description. (In fact, the chapter headings are names of colors.) And finally the pillars of the book are those moments when Vincent makes crucial steps in his life as an artist: first, toward becoming a painter at all and then, later, mastering the medium. As with any book, the proof is in the doing. Whether my concept of the book's plot works will finally, probably, hopefully, depend on how well I write it. That's the thing about fiction writing--and what I tell my students all the time: You can get away with anything in fiction, as long as you do it well.


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