Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890


Freewriting Exercise

Sitting down to my computer this morning I felt compelled to do some freewriting, just to string together some sentences and see what would bubble to the surface. I have been preoccupied with finishing two poetry manuscripts that I hope will eventually see the light of day, along with editing an indie documentary film. As a result, I’ve had to take a break from working on my long-term memoir-in-progress, so I’ve missed writing prose.

I don’t have anything profound to say in this post, except something that will be obvious to many of you—that writers need to trick themselves into creating something, abandoning the editor voice in their heads and just letting the ideas rip. Writers need to give themselves permission to write bad sentences, bad paragraphs and bad first drafts—all of which can be fixed later.

On this morning, my three-year-old son is sleeping nearby, and I hope my tapping on the keyboard will not awaken him. The coffee pot is fired up and I am ready to face another day.

This freewriting exercise may not have been very productive; it yielded no potential literary heroines or ideas for publishable works. But seeing the clumps of words accrued on the computer screen still pleases me.

I also wanted to post something fresh because I’ve switched to a new theme—Ryu—after being inspired by seeing Muhammad Shahab’s clean and elegant blog.


Poetry Pals

I can’t seem to get enough of writer Charles Bukowski these days.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

I recently finished reading his novel Hollywood, a fictionalized account about Bukowski’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie Barfly.

I then ran out to the library and checked out two poetry books by Bukowski—The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems and Come On In!: New Poems.

I don’t even read much poetry but I felt I needed more Bukowski books in the house, like I wanted to keep my friend around for a while. Bukowski seems less like a deceased author and more like a buddy spending his vacation with me. When I’m engrossed in a Bukowski work, I often picture him sitting in my living room and reading aloud from his book while taking sips of beer from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Miller High Life.

Anyway, that’s just a fleeting image. The writing speaks for itself. And I’ve only read up to page 57 in The Flash of Lightning, but here’s a poem I found worthy of sharing. I hope you enjoy it too.

Born Again

this special place of ourselves
sometimes explodes in our
I got a flat on the freeway yesterday,
changed the right rear wheel on the
the big rigs storming by,
slamming the sky
against my head and
it felt like I was clinging to the
edge of the earth,
30 minutes late for the first

but strangely, something
about the experience
was very much like emerging reluctantly
a second time
from my
mother’s womb.

Bukowski, Charles. The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems. New York: Ecco (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2004.

I also ran across an old interview with Bukowski in the New York Times in which he discusses his style of writing and being a lucky late bloomer.


Saroyan Shopping List

My latest stumbled-upon literary discovery at Syracuse University’s Bird Library revealed a clue to a mystery I will never solve. But I was thrilled to find it pressed between the pages of William Saroyan’s The Assyrian and Other Stories.

Books on shelves at Syracuse University's Bird Library. Photo by Steve Sartori.

Books on shelves at Bird Library. Photo by Steve Sartori.

I was searching through the stacks on the fifth floor one morning last week, before heading to work. I wanted to pick up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt and The Human Comedy by Saroyan. After I grabbed The Human Comedy I decided to peruse the large selection of other Saroyan books resting on the shelves nearby.

I flipped through The Assyrian and decided to check it out as well because the book contains an essay written by W.S. called The Writer on the Writing. In it he talks about his writing philosophy and the prolific short story work he produced in the mid to late 1930s.

I found his words to be inspiring.

He writes: “Anxiety at work is what tires a writer most. Writing without anxiety is certain to do the writer himself good; which takes me back to what it was I had hoped to achieve for myself when I wrote so many short stories in 1934-1939. I felt that it was right to just write them and turn them loose and not take myself or the stories too seriously. I had hoped to achieve an easier way for a man to write: that is, a more natural way.”

(Saroyan, William. The Assyrian and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949. Print.)

He goes on to say the writer should have “implicit faith in himself, in his character, and in what he is apt to write. He must believe that it is possible for him to achieve writing as good as he might ever achieve by writing easily, swiftly and with gladness.”

However, the sage advice from Saroyan was not the only thing the book divulged.

Inside I found a 3×5 index card dated 9/30/03. A shopping list was written vertically in blue ballpoint ink on the unlined side of the card. The list was divided into two areas; one section had the word “CVS” next to it and listed the following items numerically:

1. tea
2. Saltines
3. candy!! (double exclamation points)
4. Advil

The second section mentioned “Carousel Saturday?”—pointing to a possible trip to the mall. Carousel Center was the former name of the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse. For this part the list read:

1. black turtleneck
2. penny loafers
3. socks
4. handerchief (misspelled for handkerchief).
5. beret

A shopping list written on a 3x5 index card, found in the book The Assyrian and Other Stories by William Saroyan.

A shopping list written on a 3×5 index card, found in the book The Assyrian and Other Stories by William Saroyan.

I tried to imagine the person who made out this list. Was it a man or a woman? I narrowed my hunches to either a young professor or a graduate student (both male) picking up some needed supplies and clothes at the beginning of a fall semester. Maybe this student was pursuing his MFA in creative writing. I pictured him with brown hair, a tall, thin frame and wearing his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers while reciting a manuscript at a cafe poetry reading.

Finding the list made me think that in another life I would have made a good library detective, sort of like Mr. Bookman (Philip Baker Hall) in that popular Seinfeld episode.

I’m not sure why these little discoveries inside books amuse me so much, but they do. Maybe my life is so boring I need to live vicariously through other people. Or maybe it’s just the element of surprise that excites me. It’s fun to uncover something that has been hidden in between the pages of a book for many years.

The only due-date stamp for The Assyrian and Other Stories is Oct. 24, 2003, so I wondered if I was the only person to open this book since then.

I also consider the index card a timeline marker for its owner. It proves he was here; this was a snapshot of his life on Sept. 30, 2003. He existed in a fixed place at a set time. He bought candy and tea and Advil and probably looked stylish in his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers. He was alive and had dreams.

Our shopping list author is not the same person today. He is older and may have a wife and kids. Perhaps he applied the advice of Saroyan in his own creative work. Maybe he completed his MFA and now teaches creative writing at SU. Maybe he published his own short story collection or a couple of novels. Maybe I will find his books in circulation in this same library.

Unfortunately, maybe is as far as my investigation will take me. I’m left with only suppositions, as answers to the mystery of the index card and its owner elude me.