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Digging for Why
“If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” — Emile Zola
To live out loud!
As in, not shutting up about why you're here. As in, interrupting everyone within ear shot when you are consumed by your need to communicate. As in, ignoring polite chitchat--in fact, rejecting eloquence and appropriateness and perfection--and following gut instinct to spill out your unedited thoughts and YELL until you're heard.
OK, that's my 4-month-old grandson. (He just visited.)
But I am also describing when my novel almost died. When I had a "live out loud" conversation that left me wondering whether I'd made a gigantic mistake writing my book. After spending 15 months writing the first draft, then weeks doing follow-up research--for that matter, after giving up a 22-year profession to write--I had a conversation that literally told me to stop.
Tell any tale but not my tale.
Here's the story.
Amsterdam was the last city on our trip to Europe this fall. My husband and I were a little suitcase-weary and ready to get home, but on our itinerary was a meeting I'd been waiting for all summer. An interview with a Senior Research Director at the Van Gogh Museum. I'd had a recurring thought for months that I should talk with someone from the museum. A ton of my research had come from its rich reservoir of books and research archives. I thought if there would be anyone who would appreciate Jo's achievement in saving Vincent's artwork, I'd find that person there.
So, earlier in the summer I sweated over a carefully worded email request for a meeting. After an agonizing delay, I received a response: This director was very busy with the launch of a new biography on Jo and had very little time. However, we could meet for 30 minutes. He gave me a date, time and street address for the museum's research department. The email exchange was in July; now it's October.
The day has arrived.
It's about a half-hour walk from our hotel to the meeting's street address. I worry this will be the day our GPS directions get tangled up by the canals (it's happened before). We take a cab.
The museum research department is in a nondescript grey building on a side street, in the Museum Quarter, where a football-field-size green is surrounded by three of Amsterdam's major art museums: the national art and history Rijksmuseum, the contemporary art Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum. Half a block away from the green the cab drops us off in the rain. We spot no building signage, so we check the street number--it's right--and lean on the doorbell. We're buzzed in.
In the foyer straight ahead is a worn staircase. To the left runs a long hall of open offices, blocked by a locked glass door. To the right are more offices, also behind glass. We approach a security guard who checks the roster for our names and asks us to wait. Later I find out that the building was a girls' school for domestic skills--cooking, sewing, managing a household--so now my memory includes the impression of hundreds of girls dashing up and down that staircase. But in that moment, all I think is that I am in the epicenter of the Van Gogh worldwide operation. In it are the people that keep careful watch over the Van Gogh name (I find out they have software that alerts them instantly to every social media mention of Vincent worldwide). In it, researchers hunt down corroborating information to piece together ever-expanding details about Vincent's life. In this building are experts that have dedicated their entire professional lives to Vincent van Gogh. Vincent IS their lifework.
My pulse starts to race from the voice in my head:. Novice writer. Never published. Greenhorn. Amateur. Fraud.
The security guard motions: He wants the umbrella.
I hear footsteps behind me. A young woman steps from the staircase and smiles, "Please come." My eyes rest on her black ballet-slipper flats and follow. The stairs are discolored, worn white in the center of the steps. We are climbing too fast. My heart is in my throat. I've forgotten what I'm going to say. In seconds we round the last stairwell corner. A familiar man sits facing us in a wheelchair--the grey hair, the glasses, known to me from my Google searching--my hands fly to my cheeks. It's Him!
Honestly, I am the biggest nerd. I rush to the man to shake his hand and he flinches back a bit. Probably not used to groupies. It's just that in that moment I'm overwhelmed to meet the person who has had such a guiding hand, who's been such a door opener into the minds and hearts and innermost thoughts of Jo and Vincent and Theo. A person whose work has brought them to life for me.
Intellectually, I know this man is not alone. That he's worked with co-authors and teams of people. It's just that his name's been so consistent, appearing again and again in so many bylines, that its come to signal "friend."
If there's anyone that will understand my book, it's him.
I release my grip on our handshake. My husband and I step aside and the director wheels into the conference room next to us. My husband widens his eyes at me: Get it together! I smooth my jacket with sweaty hands and follow them into the room. I select a seat kitty-corner to the director.
On the table is a copy of my email. Our eyes lock. He leans toward me and starts in. For years writers and filmmakers and artists have come to him about Vincent. Wild stories that treat Vincent unfairly. Over the years he's read phony diary entries and spurious letters as though from Vincent or Theo or Jo. His eyes narrow. He's seen ridiculous lies and false claims that either make him angry or deeply sad. He's told his staff not to show him everything that's misstated anymore--it's too painful--especially because the flagrant lies are manipulating the Van Gogh name. All for personal gain.
My eyes are locked on his. My mind is racing. Like flipping through Rolodex cards each thing I've made up in my book jerks to mind. Each character, each circumstance. Each decision I have Jo make. Each made-up conversation. Yes, research is helping me to be historically accurate to the times and what I call the "tent poles" of Jo's life. Yet, the story that's tapped on the keyboard is not biography. It's fiction.
"They can write their stories," he said. "People can write what they want, but why drag Vincent into it. People use him for their own interests."
He isn't accusing me outright, but his eyes don't leave my face. He is talking about me. One of his fingers pokes at my email.
Warmth starts at my neck and rises to my temples. I am guilty of "using" Vincent. Jo, too. My story would not exist without the real story.
He continues. Now the false stories are increasing around Jo, he says. An Argentine film is being made about her. "What's the first thing they'll do?" the director says, "Take her clothes off." He closes his eyes and grimaces.
I am still listening closely, and I am thinking, "Why am I here?"
Why did the nagging thought reoccur again and again for months to meet with this man. Why did I write and rewrite that email? What's at stake? Do I want approval? Assurance? He is a guardian, a steward. Clearly, he loves Vincent and Jo and Theo, people he's spent a lifetime reading and deciphering and pondering about their innermost thoughts and desires and heartbreak.
What is it that I'm here to hear?
I glance at my watch and my heart drops. Our 30 minutes are nearly up. Wildly, I realize I've barely breathed a word.
I slide the 3-inch-thick biography of Jo across the table toward the director. The day before, right after the speed train from Paris got us into Amsterdam, we'd made a beeline to the Van Gogh Museum so I could buy the biography before this meeting. (The book had been released during our European trip). In the museum shop, the attendant confirmed what I'd dreaded: the biography is only available in Dutch. So, that night, painstakingly using an iPhone app, I'd translated the biography title ("All for Vincent") and the 26 chapter headings. At least I'd have a clue about the book contents.
I nudge the book. "Did Jo have any enemies?" My voice croaks.
His face relaxes. "No specific man, but many men." He turns to the fly leaf and translates a quote from Jo: "It is so fine at the end of my life, after so many years of indifference, hostility even, from the audience against Vincent and his work, to feel that the fight has been won." The director raises his eyes and we smile.
"She won the fight," I say.
And then we start talking. I ask a question, then another, and another. We flip through pages of the book to photographs. A few times he admits he'd wondered about my question too, but hadn't found the facts to answer it yet. My husband joins in with his own inquiries about the Van Gogh family and foundation. He and I share our adventure when two years ago we'd gone to see the second largest Van Gogh collection by the wealthy Helene Kroller-Mueller on her estate 90 minutes from Amsterdam. "Did Jo ever meet Helene?" I ask, for the women had lived at the same time early in the 20th century.
"Never!" the director exclaims. "By that time, Jo was a very wealthy woman, but lived frugally. In a tiny house. Helene wouldn't have taken her stairs."
I glance at my watch again. It's an hour later! Hurriedly, I reach into my husband's backpack for a small gift box. Inside is a man's pen, the barrel is a beautiful Vincent van Gogh-like cobalt blue. Surprised, the director refuses it. "It's small," I say. "Like a gift from Jo. A gesture of thanks for your time?" He accepts the gift.
A flurry of thank-you's. Another heartfelt handshake. We slip down the stairs, get our umbrella and are back out in the rain.
Why had I gone there?
Over the next day or so my husband and I recount the meeting. My husband assures me that he interpreted it as a message not to slander Jo and to be true to her character. This comforts me a bit, but I am still ruminating. After all, who am I to say I can write this story? The truth is I'm not sure at all about what I'm doing. I could have bitten off a bigger story than I have the ability to write. I'm no art historian. I'm still learning the very basic building blocks of writing craft. Maybe I've waited too long. There are countless reasons to give up.
Except that I think that I have something to say. There is a "why" hidden in this story that I am trying to find. And, even as I write this, I know that sounds super trite. Maybe I thought the research director would tell me the why? Well, if I did, he didn't.
That Sunday afternoon my husband and I have stuffed our dirty clothes into our suitcases. We have an early flight in the morning and I'm waiting for my husband to finish changing into a nice shirt for the last dinner of our European trip. I open up my iPhone to flip through email when I see the director's name in my Inbox. My heart skips a beat. He's had second thoughts. He will want me to stop.
I read: "I liked talking to you last Friday...Maybe I have been a bit too explicit in expressing my thoughts on the balance between facts and fiction. Of course you can write a good novel with free interpretations and suppositions, but I'm afraid I've seen too many artists overreaching themselves or getting carried away in worlds that are too far from the historical one. I wish you lots of inspiration. Please feel free to write me."
Tears spring to my eyes. Below the email is a cartoon picture, a friendly drawing. "Thank you for the pen!" I smile and re-read the email slowly. This time I notice the subject line on his email: "Keep on writing." Perhaps that's my why.