Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Vincent's wife, Part Two

By the time the summer of 2006 rolled around, I'd been planning on writing this book for five years and working actively on it (i.e., reading about my subject) for close to two. I'd even taken a three week trip to Paris and Provence in the summer of 2005 to get a boots-on-the-ground feeling for those places. (I would return twice more.) But I still wasn't sure exactly when I would start writing the thing. In order to get a summer stipend from my university for the 2005 trip I practically had to claim the novel was all but finished. Truth was, it hadn't even started. What I wanted to accomplish with the novel, that I knew. I knew how I wanted to organize it. I knew too some stylistic motifs I wanted to pursue. And I knew, of course, the outline of Van Gogh's life story. And I think I probably knew how I wanted it to end. (More about that in a later post.) But when I would actually start writing it, I didn't know. How much reading did I have to do before I was ready? Another issue is that I was busy revising my novel Burnt Norway, but that's another subject.

By the next summer, 2006, I had read a great deal more, taken extensive notes, and at least in a cursory way imagined a number of specific scenes. There was an amount of undeniable energy pushing up from the center of my mind, telling me to go. I decided that a good time to start would be at summer's end, that transitional period for those of us who, because of our academic jobs, still run our lives according to the school calendar. Until then, I had stories to work on, and besides, we had a long East Coast road trip planned during which writing would be next to impossible. Wait until you get back, I said; wait until summer ends. Well, funny how things go. I found myself, at some point in late July or August, at my father-in-law's house in Troy, New York, near the end of what had been a laborious, multi-city, multi-family excursion. (If you're married, you know the routine.) I had brought books with me on the trip, more than I could ever finish of course, and also a few notebooks. Just in case. In case of what, you say? Well, I wasn't sure myself. All I knew is that on a previous summer trip, completely unexpectedly, I started a cycle of stories about Nantucket Island. Feeling like I was on to something, I ripped through the openings of about eight different stories in the course of a few days. I brought all that back with me, and over the following months I finished every single one of those stories. Many have since been published. So you never know.

During that stay at my father-in-law's in 2006, I found myself one morning, the only one awake, notebook open, coffee mug and pen in hand. I may have been reading letters recently about his Hague period, but for some reason I had been thinking a lot about Vincent's "wife" Sien, especially about the corrosive influence of Sien's mother: her insistent interference, her determination (as Vincent portrayed it)--no her need--to keep control over her daughter's life, even if such control was not in the daughter's best interest. A number of scenes were already floating around my mind, scenes to demonstrate the mother's meddling. And that morning, I simply couldn't not write it anymore. I had to get started. And so I did. The scene was not the first scene of the book but rather one which I knew stemmed from the novel's middle: Vincent comes home from a long day painting to find Sien and her mother drinking and gossiping in a corner, keeping their conversation from him, regarding him as an enemy. A mere two paragraphs or three on a single sheet of lined notebook paper--maybe a page, a page and a half at most. Not a whole scene, just the beginning of one. That's what I wrote before the crowd began to wake and the day began. But I still recall the morning like a revelation. I had started. I had put something down. Having done that, I couldn't stop. There was nothing to do but press on. And so I did. And now, here I am, more than three years later, with a revised draft of the entire (very long) mansucript on my computer. Yes, I have a lot more shaping and cutting and editing to do. There are a lot more decisions to be made. That's what this blog is about. But whatever decisions I have already or will make; whatever comes of this project; indeed, the very possibility that something might come of it at all, stems back to that morning in 2006 when I finally stopped dawdling and got started.

Afterword: The scene which finally got me rolling I actually cut from the book--with some nostalgic disappointment--about a month ago. A good lesson there: If it gets you started, it's done its job. It doesn't have to go all the way.


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