1.) Write every day. Every goddamn day.
What many don’t remember (or even knew to begin with) is that Vincent Van Gogh produced most of his body of work – over 2,000 pieces of art – in the last ten years of his life, and most of those were done in the final two years. He spent a majority of his youth teetering between following in his father’s religious zealot footsteps and drawing. He worked – rather unsuccessfully – as an art dealer, and then, at the tender age of 27, he decided to become an artist.
Now, many of us remember the time we “decided” to become writers – maybe we were in grade school and enjoyed the “Creative Writing” portion of our class schedule, or we were waiting tables in an urban café, or maybe we were working as an actuary at an insurance company – either way, there was a moment we said, “I’m a writer and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Then, we watched TV.
When Van Gogh made his decision to be an artist, he did something extraordinary: he created art. Every goddamn day. He drew, he painted, and he worked at it. And he didn’t just draw to draw or paint to paint – he worked with purpose, he worked to make himself better, and he worked because that’s what you do when you decide to be an artist. He experimented with coloring and shading, he studied how colors blended together or contrasted one another, and every piece he created was a means to the end of being better at what he wanted to be: an artist.
And, because of this drive and focus he was able to complete nearly a painting / drawing a day for nearly a decade.
Did all this happen because he just so happened to be uber-talented? Maybe. But, being uber-talented means nothing if you’re not putting your talent to work. Every day.
Bonus: Vincent also wrote nearly 800 letters – most of which were to his brother Theo.
So, in a relatively short period of time, Van Gogh created over 2,000 pieces of art (paintings and drawings), 800 letters (many of which worked as treatises on his philosophy on art and life), and inspired / influenced some of the better artists of the following century.
2.) Get the work completed, even under difficult circumstances.
This 1888 painting is called “Seascape Near Les Saintes-Marie-De-La-Mer”:
Seems harmless enough. It’s one of a series of paintings Van Gogh completed while in the south of France. So, why discuss it?
Within the fast & loose brush strokes and the rocky seas and layers of paint are many, many, many, granules of sand – sand that, ostensibly, was blown there on a windy day while Van Gogh was painting the above scene.
So while trying to paint a few boats on the water, Van Gogh was battling through high winds – high enough to blow sand into the paint. Did he stop? Nope. Did he say “This wind is fucking up my paints?” Nope. While most of us would simply pack up our blankets and books and leave a windy beach, Van Gogh stayed the course and completed this lovely painting in, what could only be considered, super-annoying conditions.
And then, to top it off – as if to say “fuck you, wind” – he signed his name in bold red and then dropped the proverbial mic.
(Actually, I have no idea why he signed in red – it was probably to embolden the use of greens and blues or whatever, but I just like to imagine him thinking nothing was going to stop him and then running off, leaving his supplies behind as a sacrifice to Aeolus.)
The point is, just get the job done. Sand in your paints (and, probably pants) or not.
3.) Give voice to the voiceless.
“One must paint the peasants as though one were one of them: feeling & thinking as they do themselves.” – Vincent Van Gogh
While beginning his path towards being an artist, Van Gogh chose to draw the people he saw in the countryside everyday: the farmers, fishermen, diggers, sowers, plowers – “the men and women I must now draw constantly.” He found them to be beautiful, authentic, and incredibly inspirational. While the subject matter wasn’t wholly original (see Jean-Francois Millet, 1814 – 1875), his dedication to the craft of depicting the “real people” of the countryside speaks to his commitment to being a better artist.
Vincent didn’t just paint and draw these folks because he’s a nice guy, it was also part of his personal training regimen – exercises he performed in order to hone his skills. He chose a subject matter that was dear to him and he chose people with whom he could portray in moments of intimacy. Again, it was a means to an end: He wanted to be a more complete artist and was able to work his way to that end by practicing his craft on the local peasants to whom he could relate.
We’ve seen similar portraits of “average” citizens by some of the great denizens of modern literature: Charles Bukowski, Philip Levine, Suzan Lori-Parks, Sam Shepard, Maya Angelou. What these writers (and the many other writers not mentioned) have in common is they are using the people they feel so comfortable with; their works depict the people the respective writers related to most, the people who occupied the same world.
Sometimes, writers tend to try to imagine and portray worlds and people with whom they have no real relationship. There are times when we shy away from writing what we know and try to paint foreign (to ourselves as individuals) backdrops with characters who would never invite us to their parties. Which is fine – to a point.
Don’t reject the tremendous amount of influence you were given by the people you grew up with: neighbors, relatives, community members, etc. Who you are as a person and as an artist / writer, is directly related to the influence by those around you – even those you may not have had direct contact with.
Like Van Gogh choosing to bring peasants to the forefront of his work, you too can paint the “average, hard-working, Everyman” (or, whatever descriptives you would choose) within your own life. Chances are, you wouldn’t be who you are without them.
Bonus: Playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) says, “Write what you know about what you don’t know.” This is a good way of giving yourself permission to inject your worldview in everything you create.
Tyler Whidden earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in 2011 and his thesis play, Dancing With N.E.D., has seen audiences in Washington, Ohio, and New Jersey. He currently lives in Athens, Ohio with his beautiful wife and their boy, Booker. You can learn more at TylerJCWhidden.com