The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

A Post and a Prompt from the Road (Provence) September 22, 2009

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:56 pm

This prompt came from my recent writing retreat in Aix-en-Provence. I recently fell in love with Vincent Van Gogh, and since he spent many years painting in Provence, it was only fitting that he should inspire our writing session one afternoon.

Many people don’t know that Van Gogh was a wonderful writer. Some of his letters to his brother have been published in an autobiography titled, Dear Theo. The prompt below is a collection of excerpts from that book. What follows is my response to his writing, as well as a response to my visits to St. Remy (where he voluntarily entered an asylum) and earlier in the week, Auvers-Sur-Oise (where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound).

Note: the repeated phrases are intentional; to use this prompt, it’s best to read his work out loud, like a poem.


Van Gogh: Words

(Adapted from his autobiography: Dear Theo: Intimate Letters to his Brother __________________________________________________________________

. . . pain, which sometimes fills the horizon. . .takes on the proportions of a hopeless deluge.

About this we know very little

it is better to gaze at a field of corn, even in the form of a picture.

We are still far from the time when people will understand the curious relations, which exist between one fragment of nature and another

Some, however, feel it silently, and that is something.

Try to walk as much as you can, and keep your love for nature

Painters understand nature and love her and teach us to see her.

If one really loves nature, one can find poetry everywhere.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Patience, you will tell me. And I must have it.

I have been painting in the cornfields in the hottest part of the day.

I notice the sun sometimes has a strong effect on the grain, which soon becomes very yellow.

the cicadas are singing fit to burst—a harsh cry, ten times stronger than that of the crickets—

and the burnt-up grass takes on lovely tones of old gold.

Here we are in September already; we shall soon be right in the autumn, and then the winter

But there’s nothing sad in this death; it goes its way in broad daylight

with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.

Do you know what I hope, as soon as I let myself begin to hope?

that a family will be for you what nature, the clods of earth, the grass, the yellow corn, are for me

that is to say, that you may find in your love for people something not only to work for, but to console and restore you when there is need.

I know well that healing comes—if one is brave—from within

Grief must not gather in our hearts like water in a swamp.

Patience, you will tell me. And I must have it.

The olive trees are old silver, sometimes nearer blue, sometimes greenish, bronzed

whitening over a soil which is yellow, rose, violet-tinted or orange, to dull red ochre.

towards sunset it generally grows a little calmer; then there are superb sky effects of pale lemon

I got up at night to look at the country. Never, never had nature seemed to me so touching and so full of feeling.

and the mournful pines with their silhouettes stand out in relief . . .with effects of exquisite black lace.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Today was real spring; the fields of young corn, with the violet hills in the distance, are so beautiful

and the almond trees are beginning to bloom everywhere.

I started right away to make a picture—big branches of white almond blossoms against a blue sky.

These days are like a fresh revelation of color to me.

This morning I saw the country again after the rain—quite fresh

I have a new period of light before me.

all the flowers

the cicadas. . . abide; and here they still sing in ancient green.

And the blue sky never tires me.


What I wrote in response:

Why you, I think, why you?  A painter from another century, a man I did not know. What have you unleashed in me? Some sad story I carry like a kidney stone, pressing, pressing, coarse calcium, jagged edge against pink flesh. You bring up the deep sadness of loneliness and loss I have worked so hard to keep at bay all of my adult life.

But who am I crying for? The painter who saw the world in swirls of bright light, the teenager who wanted to die, the fifty-six year old woman who lost herself to dementia, the forty-two year old man who died of AIDS? How did you get rolled into one ball of sorrow, and when does this grief end?

I don’t want this lens of tragedy anymore, but here I am, looking through it again; here I am, weepy and nostalgic. Here I am swimming—drowning—in empathy.

We all feel pain. We all feel pain. But the self-loathing, the self-blame, the thought that you had nothing to offer: that breaks me inside. I can’t look at your paintings—full of color and life—nonchalantly. I love them as I feel I love you: stranger, painter from another century, broken man.

It’s the life half-lived that hurts to imagine. The realization that at fifty-six she couldn’t remember where she lived and wandered the neighborhood in frustrated tears, looking for home. It’s the way his liver—only forty-two!—shut down, swollen from years and years of prescription cocktails. It’s that teenage boy full of hope and possibility—he was walking possibility—the way he saw life as something that only ends in pain and loss. A despicable theft of the self.

Life half-lived. What part of me isn’t willing to come forward, to reach through that bleak space between then and now? What part of me still exists in that hopelessness? (But we know, don’t we? We know.) Because he still shows up occasionally, the one who says, “I don’t know how to do this; I can’t, I won’t be able to.” And I am consumed for a while by this fear, this bleakness.

His double-life: bong hits, crushes on boys, and the dream of helping others, right alongside driving that family Datsun off the steep road on Mt. Diablo, or taking a handful of pills, or dropping himself from the top of that parking garage and landing on the hard pavement below.

This is a sort of elegy, isn’t it? Viewing your paintings, walking the same paths that you walked, the desire to inhabit your light-filled landscapes. Your lovely yellows, your gorgeous blues. I’m trying to reach into you, to rescue some part of you that knew, surely that knew, that life was worth living, that you must survive to bring the world more and more of the beauty only you saw, the beauty only you could see. The part of you that challenged old beliefs and created new possibilities. That said in the language of color and light: look, look, look. That loved flowers, as I do, and people, as I do. As that teenage boy did. The one who couldn’t see the possibilities ahead. The one sitting on his bed, crying, alone.