Monday, February 25, 2013

Once more to the photo


Several weeks back I posted a little known photograph (there it is again on the right) that some have argued is a portrait of Vincent Van Gogh taken during the time he lived with his brother Theo in Paris.   The strongest proponent of the argument is Joseph Buberger, a photographer and historian of photography, who initiated a series of forensic studies of Van Gogh's painted self-portraits and compared these to the photograph in question.  Joseph and I have emailed a few times.  In Joseph's mind, the man in the painted self-portaits and the man in the photograph are unquestionably the same.  This argument has not been universally accepted, certainly not by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which Joseph complains will not give him the time of day.   I had my own doubts--I expressed them in my earlier post--based partly in discrepancies I noticed between the disputed photograph and one taken of Vincent when he was a teenager (i.e., the one in the next paragraph, on the right).   Obviously aging changes people, but to my eyes the man in the disputed photograph doesn't look like an older version of Vincent but a different person altogether.

Joseph does have an answer to this argument.  He claims that the earlier photograph was misidentified, and is actually a photograph of Vincent's brother Theo.  He can offer no proof of this misidentification; he simply makes the claim because he is convinced that the disputed photograph must be of Vincent.   I'm very happy that Joseph keeps pushing his case.  He should; and if his emails are any indication, he will.    If the disputed photograph is of Vincent, then it certainly needs to be included in the Van Gogh canon.   But it's hard to just readily accept the misidentification theory.  First, one would have to ask why the earlier photograph was misidentified by Vincent's own family and why the error was allowed to stand for so long.  Second, one needs to realize that there is yet another familiar photograph of Van Gogh, this one taken when he was a boy.   (That's it on the left.) In my eyes, the boy in the picture does indeed look like the young man in the photograph that Joseph claims was misidentified.  So, in my mind, if the photograph from Vincent's teenaged years was misidentified then the photograph from his childhood must have been also.  And how likely is that to have happened, by members of his own family?

It certainly is true that Theo Van Gogh bore a strong resemblance to his brother, but there are distinct and identifable differences between the two men.  The pictures that previously have been identified as the young Theo do strike me as legitimate, and they are by no means identical to the pictures that have been identified as the young Vincent.  See here two photographs that have long been accepted as being of Theo, one taken when he was a teenager and the other, years later, after he had became eestablished as an art dealer.  While I can easily say that the "teenager Theo" is the same man as the man in the "professional Theo" picture, I would not say that about the "teenager Vincent" photo, which Joseph argues isn't Vincent at all but really Theo.  Using Occam's razor, I have to conclude that the pictures that have been long established, and reprinted in numerous Van Gogh biographies, were in fact accurately identified.  

But this is only my opinion.  Is it possible that Joseph will, in the long run, be proven correct?  Of course.  For now I hope he keeps pressing his case, at least until the truth is clarified, one way or another.  By the way, another of Joseph's passions is to take photographs of radiant light. Follow this link to his online gallery.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Novel class check-in


We're about a month into Novel Writing Workshop at UCA, and so far I'm impressed and also a little amused.  It's the most unusual class I teach, in that it's structured so differently than the rest of my courses: no full class workshops, a much heavier production goal, and less of an emphasis on reading (even though they are reading three books for me).  Unlike the last time I taught the course, everyone who registered for it knew the deal going in: we weren't just going to talk about novel writing; we were all going to write complete novels.  So I've gotten no pushback about that--and no one has dropped the course.  And they've almost all met the word count goal every week.  What has surprised me is how quickly some of them ran into the mid-book blues, or,  as writer Chris Baty defines it, "the second week doldrums."  Baty is the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and his very entertaining book No Plot? No Problem! serves as kind of a primer and motivational message for those attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.  My students are writing 55,000 word novels in one semester, so we are reading Baty intermittently, applying his First Week-Second Week-Third Week-Fourth Week lessons over broader time spans.  The chapter we discussed last week was all about how and why to defeat the doubts, boredom, and malaise that inevitably infects a novelist after the initial heady, giddy, optimistic starting period of her book has passed.  Well, wouldn't you know it, in the days leading up to last week's class, I starting seeing Facebook messages from my students--they've created a Facebook page for the group--saying how they were utterly stalled or utterly bored or utterly out of ideas or convinced they'd made the wrong choice of novel to work on.   A couple were certain they should start new novels.

I tried to respond to my students' worries and ennui with words of encouragement and a few kicks in the butt.  Some of them, I could tell, needed to expand/complicate their plots and points of view; others needed to think harder about the characters they had already invented and the settings they had already established.      They needed to decide on back story, character identities, and physical appearances.  And some of that thinking needed to find its way into their novels as what I call "fill-in work."  Not only would this increase your word count, I told them, but more importantly it would give you a clearer sense of who and what you're writing about, which will allow you to proceed into future chapters with more confidence.  I echoed Baty's sentiments that despite being tempted to, they should not just dump their books: because then they'd just find themselves, a few weeks down the road, wanting to dump the new one.  Self-loathing is part of the novel writing game; there's no magical escape.  I told them about Heather Sellers's concept of the Sexy New Book and exactly how dangerous that Sexy New Book can be.   I told them about Sellers's strategy for dealing with the Sexy New Book.   First, she insists that the Sexy New Book is almost always a siren's call that will only take you away from what you really should be working on; that is, your current book.  Her answer: At all costs, ignore the call of the Sexy New Book.  On the other hand, she admits that sometimes the call of the Sexy New Book is simply too powerful to resist; also sometimes the Sexy New Book idea can actually be a good one.  So solution number two, as Sellers explains it in her book Chapter After Chapter, is to take the Sexy New Book out on a date.  That is, for one day allow yourself to think about it, plan it, do research for it, maybe even start drafting it.  That is, give yourself one full day to find out if this new book really is worth pursuing.  Most of the time, she says, you will realize that it is not.  Occasionally, you might decide that it is.  And then--but only then--you go ahead and give in to the siren call.   (This has worked out for her in practice.  She admits that her bestselling memoir on face blindness, You Don't Look Like Anyone I know, started as a Sexy New Book idea.)    In the case of one student this semester (because I knew I could trust her), I permitted her to follow a Sexy New Book idea, but I insisted she had to be fully up to the week's required work count by the time class time came.  (Amazingly, she pulled it off.)

I could be wrong, but it seems to me this "I-hate-my-novel" reaction came a lot of quicker and a lot harder to this group than to the group I taught last time.  Perhaps this is a function of their earlier, anticipatory, much more hyped-up optimism?  In any case, they are bravely soldiering on, finding ways to make the word count.  And I should clarify that more than a few of them are perfectly happy with the current states of their novels.   This seems especially true of my graduate students.  I guess that's not so surprising.  Their extra years worth of writing experience should give them more pluck and confidence and determination.  Yes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, it's one of the curious aspects of this semester's course that I'm teaching it to both graduate and undergraduate students.  I can't deny there's something of a "grad contingent" and an "undergrad contigent" feeling to the classroom, but for the most part the groups get along; the main difference is how more sanguine the graduate students are with their budding books.  Amazingly, this holds true for three out of the five who do not define themselves as fiction writers and who have never tried to write novels!

Despite their "second week doldurms," I really am impressed by my students' output this semester.  Thinking back to my own experiences in creative writing classrooms--both undergraduate and graduate--I can swear to you that no one ever asked anything of me like a 55,000 word draft in one semester.  Not even close.  And yet my students have more or less happily accepted my word count goals as a matter of course.  I think this represents a sea change in the landscape of creative writing instruction.  Without doubt, NaNoWriMo--which several UCA undergraduates do every year, in addition to their course work--has made longer projects seem like not the impossible dreams they once were.  This is a real and powerful contribution.   And of course it doesn't hurt that more and more creative writing programs, grad and undergrad, are offering novel writing courses.  That is, my students are not isolated lab rats suffering through an experiment of my own design.  They know they are part of a nationwide phenomenon, and they are reveling in it, even when they are stuck in the doldrums.  I was inspired to teach the course this way after attending an AWP session several years ago on the subject of "allowing novels in fiction workshops."  Of the three people who spoke, only one actually taught a specific  Novel Writing Workshop, and her students were all graduate students.  I asked a question to the panel about teaching such a course to undergraduates.  I remember the ascerbic look one of the panelists gave me when he said, "What do think your undergrads would say when you tell them they have to write a novel in one semester?"  Well, so far, both times I've taught the course, they've been more grateful than anything else.  And now, given that they all keep meeting it, I'm thinking that 55,000 might be too tepid a word count goal.  While there are several examples of good, successful, and even famous short novels--we're reading a couple this semester--the average length for a novel published in this country is 80,000-100,000 words.  It's what agents, and the marketplace, seem to expect.   I'm wondering if I should have them aiming for something closer to that goal.  So, maybe 75,000 words next time?

 Don't worry, students!  Just kidding!  Or am I?

(FYI, I'm writing along with my students, and my budding novel is at 32,000 words.  I'm certainly ahead of schedule, but that's good, given all the looms for me later in the semester.)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Creating Van Gogh does the Next Big Thing


I was recently included in an email chain letter to writers who also have blogs.  The idea for the chain, launched by Cathy Day and her blog The Next Big Thing, is to answer ten questions about a project you are currently working on, or one you have already completed, while at the same time linking to other writers' blogs where they answer these same questions.  In this post you'll find my answers to the questions.  Unfortunately, most of the writers I sent the letter on to were either already involved or declined to participate.  But I encourage you to follow the link below to my wife's blog Wordamour (this is her personal one, not the one she maintains for the Huffington Postwhere you can find her answers to the questions.  She has recently finished a World War Two novel called The Lost Son.  It features brothers who are separated early in life and wind up fighitng on different sides during the war.  It was inspired by a real life story in her own family--although her novel leaves behind family history to go its own way in some important aspects.  Read all about the novel and the story that inspired it by clicking here.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am once again teaching Novel Writing Workshop at UCA.  This means I'm making my students compose a short novel over the course of one semester.  And for the sake of esprit de corps--this class follows the idea of the "writeshop," a term Cathy Day coined--I am taking up my own challenge; that is, I'm composing a short novel right along with them.   I'll give a full update next week on how the class is going.  I mention it now only to say that the novel I'm writing for the class is so much in the process of formation that I can't possibly apply the ten questions to that book.  Not yet.  So instead I'll apply the questions to my Van Gogh novel, which I anticipate will soon finally see the light of day.  (Pieces of it have already been published or are forthcoming.)

Okay, on to the questions.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
 After an agent strongly pressed me to come up with a more compelling title for the project, I changed the name from Yellow to Days on Fire.  The color yellow is still suggested by the latter title but in a more active fashion.  The agent seemed to like the new title, and I've decided to keep it.

Where did the idea come from for the book?  I was teaching in Holland one summer and during a short trip to Amsterdam I visited the Van Gogh Museum (along with other prominent museums). Prior to that visit, I might have seen one or two Van Gogh paintings in the flesh at the National Gallery in Art in Washington, near where I grew up, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer stunning light that came off the paintings I saw in the Van Gogh museum.  Now I knew what all the hubbub was about.  My fascination with the paintings made me more curious about the man, and that set me thinking.

What genre does your book fall under?  That one is easy: historical fiction.  Although, as I've mentioned on this blog, I don't play absolute, strict adherence to what some would view as the "rules" of historical fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  As sexy and fun as it is, this is one question I'm going to have to decline to answer.  (Sorry.)  After all, if the book were ever to be made into a movie I would be the last person allowed to choose actors for it--there are people called casting directors--and, besides, I just don't know if I follow the movies and television as intensely as I  need to to effectively give an answer here.  I suppose what I really would like is a surprise choice, someone no one would expect to do the role, and then have that person do a smash up job.  Actors surprise you all the time, after all.  Think of the truly powerful performance by Bradley Cooper in Silvers Linings Playbook, for instance.  (For what it's worth, while Jennifer Lawerence has been garnering awards for her performance in that film, I think Cooper's was far more impressive, demonstrated a wider and more supple emotional range, the whole of which he carried off convincingly.)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  Van Gogh fails and fails and fails, costing his health, his happiness, his family, and a portion of his sanity, but in the end he succeeds where it matters to him the most.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  At this writing, while I'm still waiting to hear from a publisher in France that was recommended to me from someone over there, I anticipate self-publishing the novel.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  The whole process of writing, revising, cutting, shaping, adding, reshaping, and editing the book took so long, was spread out across so many years, that I'm not sure I can accurately answer this question.  But certainly it took me at least a year to finish a handwritten first draft.  (Believe it or not, that's how I like to compose first drafts, although this semester, for the novel I'm composing in class, I'm drafting straight to the computer.)  Probably it was more like a year and a half.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  Painters have not infrequently been the subjects of novels; both novels generally and historical novels in particular.  There's just something about the exquisite physical torture of trying to turn messy colored fluid into a seemingly concrete reality.  A well known painter novel is The Agony and The Ecstasy by Irving Stone, his "biographical novel" about Michelangelo.  (I think I like that term, because it certainly applies to my book.)   More recently, there was John Updike's Seek My Face and Harriet Scott Chessman's Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper.  The latter novel depicts the sad tension in the Cassatt household due to Lydia's illness.  It can be compared to mine in the sense that it is set in a similar time period and country (France) and tries to make real the world of those post-Impressionist painters who are only glittery names to most of us now.  But maybe most like mine in its humanizing of a famous but not quite understood figure (i.e. Vermeer) is Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring.  My novel is broader in scope than either Chessman's or Chevalier's but I think, like Girl, brings a new and sympathetic sensibilty to a subject who has been codified by history and popular opinion.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?  As I stated in my answer to question 2, it all started with that visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?  Well, Van Gogh wasn't nearly the nut case he is commonly understood to have been, but he did have the courage or stubborness or lack of temperance, if you will, to pursue his passions with almost blind servitude.  This is to say there were extreme elements to his personality.  I show those elements in the novel, along with his softer side; I think the combination makes for a compelling read.  It should also interest readers to see Van Gogh interact with well known artists like Signac, Bernard, and Gauguin.  The latter plays quite a large and important role in the last third of the novel.