Sunday, September 19, 2010

A novel experiment


I've mentioned several times on this blog that I teach creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. My students are great, talented and up for anything. They have to be this semester, as I'm trying out a brand new experiment in my Novel Writing workshop, a 4000 level class that I've taught before but am teaching quite differently this fall. When I've run the class in the past, all I've asked is that my students start novels, the first 3-4 chapters, which we workshopped over the course of the semester. And too they read books about novel writing and gave reports on those books. It worked, sort of. They all planned out and did start novels, and they did learn a few things about the artistry of novel writing. But they never really confronted the other and perhaps more important fact of novel writing--that it's an endurance test. It's that fact and not a lack of artistry that keeps most would-be novelists from being actual ones.

So this semester, having seen too many promising novels simply stop at semester's end, and inspired by a provocative session I attended at the AWP conference a couple years ago, I'm asking a lot more. Both from them and myself. This semester my students aren't just starting novels but completing them. That's right, they'll each be writing a full novel (albeit a short one) over the course of one semester. And I'll be right there in the trenches with them. This semester I'm going to write a novel of my own, start to finish (or a draft, at least). To do so I'm going to have abandon my usual longhand first style of composing and go straight to the keyboard. (In fact, I already have, because we've already started.) I'm also going to have to shove a few other favored activities aside. And I know I'm going to have to be fiercely efficient when it comes to knocking off my other teaching and university responsibilities. But I've got to do this. Because I can't ask my students, who are plenty busy with their other classes and their own projects, to take on the challege of writing a whole novel in a semester if I'm not willing to join them at it. Plus, what an opportunity for me. Having recently completed my Van Gogh novel Yellow, a six+ year project, I get to start and finish another one in a relative blink of an eye. What a refreshing concept!

Will it be a great novel? Will theirs? I don't know, but that's not really the point. The point of the class is to learn about novel writing, and there's no better way to learn than to actually write one. So that is what I have to ask of them and what I am asking of them. To feel it and fight through it every step of the way, start to finish. When the semester is all over, not only will they have finished a draft of a novel, but they'll really know and appreciate all that someone must rise to, deal with, and overcome to complete a major creative project like a novel. Of course, plenty of revision will be ahead for them once the semester is over--for me too--if they want to truly complete their novels, but at least they will have the experience and satisfaction of getting through a whole draft. That's a significant accomplishment, especially considering that completing the first draft seems to be the biggest obstacle against novel writing for most of my students. Many of them start and stop one. Then start and stop another. Then a third. And so on. (They've told me this themselves.) But this semester they'll have no choice but to finish. And I think the prospect really excites them.

I've adopted the National Novel Writing Month plan, with some alterations. NaNoWriMo partcipants must write a 50,000 word novel in a month; my students will write a 55,000 word novel in a semester. Why 55K? Well, last spring the Writing Department ran a novella writing course. Because 50K is considered the upper limit for a novella I felt I had to ask my novel writing students to go beyond that. Thus I tagged on another 5K. I've broken down the whole semester for them, with 4600 words due every week (except the last week when I merely ask for 4400). We will also be reading a couple of short novels and will talk about how the authors of those books make their novels do such good work in 50-60K words. And while workshopping has to be less of a concern--production has to be the emphasis--my students will form small peer groups this semester and will periodically share their developing novels with members of their groups. So far so good. I've had remarkably few complaints and seen a lot of energized, committed faces. They're ready for the adventure, and a couple weeks into it I'm already seeing sizeable (and growing) word counts. I'm proud of them. And I'm sure it's going to be quite a ride before we're done.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The debate continues . . .


I hardly knew that when I mentioned my decision to portray Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel Yellow that the subject might cause such commotion in the blogosphere. My new internet friend Svend Hendriksen--I mentioned him in my last post--continues to send me various proofs of Vincent's lefthandedness. A couple of them certainly bear repeating in this space. First, Svend recommends that I look at Van Gogh's famous Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, a picture the painter cared so much for that he made multiple copies. Svend, with his engineer's eye for detail, points out a few telling features of this painting: 1) the water pitcher on the rear table sits with its handle pointed to the left, a position only favorable to a lefthander; and 2) Vincent chose to put his pillows at the far end at the bed, a position more advantageous to a lefthander. According to Svend, a righthander would naturally put the pillows at the lower end, as getting in and out of that end would be easier for a righthanded person. Svend has sent his analysis to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and presently awaits a response. Svend also references Van Gogh's pictures of potato and peet diggers. About 90% of these drawings portray the diggers as digging in a lefthanded fashion, an unusual abundance given that most of humanity is righthanded.
Meanwhile, a lengthy and informative comment from "Stuart," coming in response to my last post, points out that Gauguin's famous picture of Vincent working in front of an easel shows Vincent holding the brush in his right hand. Now, one must be careful to take at face value anything that Gauguin said, wrote, or painted. Notice his apparently invented account, published in his memoir Avant et Apres, of Vincent publicly charging him with a razor blade. Notice too his taking credit for advising and influencing Vincent during the creation of the Sunflower series, when that series was completed before Gauguin even arrived in Arles! That said, we can't simply discount the fact that in Gaugin's painting he portrays Vincent as a righty. From this and other evidence, Stuart wonders if Van Gogh was ambidextrous, sometimes using his right hand and other times his left. (See Stuart's comment to get his full explanation.) A new and fascinating possibility! If anyone has an addtional insight to add to this unexpectedly hot topic, please let me know. You can comment on this post or email me at

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Van Gogh the lefty--verified!


I posted several weeks ago about my reasons for portraying Van Gogh as a lefthander in my novel. My choice was based solely on Van Gogh's personality profile, backed up by my amateur's knowledge of the theories of handedness. (And, admittedly, some personal projection, as I myself am lefthanded.) What a pleasant surprise then to receive an email from Svend Hendriksen, a Danish gentleman currently living in Greenland, who has looked into the question of Van Gogh's handedness with considerable attention. Svend tells me I'm right: Van Gogh was undoubtedly a lefthander! And the evidence can be found in the paintings themselves. Svend calls my attention most particularly to an 1888 self-portrait by Van Gogh. (That's it over there). Notice that Van Gogh holds his palette in his right hand, indicating that he paints with his left. Now many would (and do) look at the portrait and say that since Van Gogh must have employed a mirror while painting the picture, what we see is a mirror (that is, reversed) image of the man. Thus, they conclude, he painted with his right hand. And Svend reports that the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam does describe Van Gogh as being righthanded. However, Svend points out that the button on Van Gogh's coat is on the same side as the palette he holds, and on men's coats of the period this button would have always been situated on the right side. In other words, this evidence suggests that Van Gogh in real life, not just in the portrait, held the palette with his right hand. It's perfectly possible that for the sake of his painting he corrected the reversed image to show the world how he really worked: with his left. From what I know of Van Gogh generally, it is not hard to imagine him being stubborn on this point.

Svend has passed along a number of other interesting tidbits about Van Gogh, for instance that photographs of the man's paint box reveal that he kept it quite full. As Svend says, it's "a huge volume for a poor man's palette." Well, certainly paint was dear, an expense that Van Gogh avoided for years by concentrating solely on his drawing. But when he began painting he sacrificed almost everything else--food included--to keep himself supplied. And looking at his effusive, glorious pictures, especially from the Paris and Arles periods, it certainly looks as if he operated with a full box. Svend's comments make intuitive sense.

Svend, by the way, was not trained as an art historian but as an explosives engineer. He served for years in the Danish army. Yet he now brings his mechnical know-how to the study of paintings. His story reminds me of a phenomenon that I find profound: There is something about Van Gogh--his story, his paintings, his personality--that draws people to him like a magnet. Not only professional art historians but informed amateur sleuths and everyday idlers alike. For instance, the man who owns the house at which I stay when I visit Arles, a science teacher and devoted amateur astronomer, has done considerable work studying Van Gogh's use of constellations in his night paintings. He has even advised academics from America on the matter. Amazing how this Dutch painter, who struggled so and was so little known in his lifetime, has attacted and keeps attracting such a broad, enthusiastic audience. Perhaps this simply proves that Van Gogh knew exactly what he was doing all along: painting not for his time but the future. Indeed.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Van Gogh in the Middle


As we all know, schools are starting these days--at least here in the U.S.--and that means too the beginning of football season. In fact, tonight I will be taking my youngest son and his friend to Estes stadium at UCA to see the Bears' season opener. With football so much in the air and on the news and in people's hearts--at least here in the U.S.--I think, strangely enough, of Van Gogh. And I think of the position of middle linebacker, the man at the exact center of the defense: midway between the sidelines, midway between the defensive line and the defensive backfield; the man with the most leeway of anyone on defense to circuit freely and make whatever plays need to be made. That could mean rushing up to help the line stop a running play, or dropping back to help cover a receiver, or blitzing to try to sack (tackle) the other team's quarterback. A successful middle linebacker sees and understands the field as a whole, and the developing play as a whole, and he uses his roaming freedom to enhance the whole defense.

It may be a stretch of a metaphor, but I feel safe in calling Van Gogh the middle linebacker of the Neoimpressionists working in Paris in the 1880s. That is, he moved freely between factions, between cliques, between individuals, and between styles, with only one end in mind--and it was a good one: learning and absorbing as much as he could. Having just spent several years working alone in the Dutch provinces, and then a few disappointing months in Antwerp, he was not just willing but eager to listen, to watch, to discuss, to experiment, and to change. And he refused to let interpersonal squabbles--replete with their petty resentments, paranoid suspicions, and blatant attempts at empire building--distract him from his purpose. He set up walls against no one, was willing and able to see value in the working practices and painterly results of many different kinds of artists. Whereas almost every other leading neoimpressionist eventually chose a particular camp to belong to, and thus allies to swear by, Van Gogh stubbornly resisted making such choices. He felt that he could and did learn from all of them. Certainly in his paintings from his Paris years we see him trying on and trying out many different artistic gestures. He did not carry all of these gestures with him to Arles--by his own admission, he "abandoned" much of what he learned in Paris (something of an overstatement, actually)--yet it was by carrying on these experiments at all that he grew as a painter; it's why his Paris period counts as the one in which he learned and grew the most. It was in Paris that Van Gogh became a modern painter. And he grew the most because he circulated the most. Whereas Van Gogh's associate Emile Bernard became a disciple of Gauguin and thus turned his back on the Divisionist group of Seurat and Signac and Pissarro, and whereas Seurat despised and scorned Gauguin and thus avoided company with all members of the so-called "Symbolistes," Van Gogh had friends in both camps. He literally worshipped Gauguin and for a long time was terribly close to Bernard, yet he ate and drank with Signac, and he admired Seurat's breakthroughs deeply. He did not fully buy into the optic theories behind Divisionism, but he did see the divisionist method as an excellent way to vary the texture of a painting. A quick scan of his Paris paintings reveals the number of works in which he played with and tried to learn from this method.

Finally, sadly, Van Gogh's attempt to stay above the fray wore him out and depressed him. His resentment over the exaggerated factionalism and trivial backbiting among painters in Paris drove him out of the city. At the very least, it played a significant part in his decision to leave. Probably playing into that decision too was the realization that he had learned as much from these people as he could, and the fear--which he wrote about in his letters--that if he stayed in Paris much longer his health would be ruined and himself turned into an alcoholic. (Much drinking among the painters in Paris of the day, not shockingly.) Shortly after moving to Arles he wrote Theo about how much better felt in his body and how much more at home. (Van Gogh was always fundamentally a rural person.) Ironically, however, only eight months later he suffered his first epileptic attack--if that's what it was--an infamous breakdown greater and more devastating than he ever could have imagined in Paris. At that point, the linebacker had taken more than enough shots, and it was all he could do to get up and off the field with dignity.