Writing: What Makes It Real? August 14, 2011

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.

Recently I received a forwarded email containing the above quote attributed to Vincent Van Gogh. [1]  Given my readings of the translated letters from Vincent Van Gogh (VVG) to and between his brother Theo Van Gogh (TVG) and my acquaintance with VVG’s art, this sounds like something VVG would say.

Without any other context, what does it mean and how does such an implied artistic syllogism inform other art, such as writing?  In the strict sense, I believe VVG is saying he paints what his mind sees, not what his eye sees.  As to how this statement might inform one’s writing, let’s look at how we learn.

All of us learn by doing (kinesthetic), by being told (auditory) and by watching (visual), but to one degree or another, one modality usually predominates.  Reading this VVG quote one can readily presume, of the three primary modes of learning: kinesthetic, auditory and visual, that VVG was a ‘visual’ learner.  Studying VVG’s body of paintings it is easy to conclude he was an artist who saw the vision (its impressionistic view or mental impression rather than its representational-camera’s-eye view) and painted the picture his mind interpreted.

Writing a novel, to me is nothing more than painting the dream in words.  Although writing may not be a specific dream-state, for me, it approaches the otherness of the dream-reality.  It is a fiction based on mental input and thus is not real, but has all the sensory appearance of reality.  That is, after all, what we all are trying to do as artists, to approach our medium and produce a work in which the viewer, reader, movie or theater goer suspends their disbelief (that knowingness that what they are perceiving is not real), or more accurately suspends their own reality, for a time, in favor of involving themselves in the ‘reality’ of the make-real-fantasy on the canvas, on the page, on the stage or screen.  Thus, for me and other ‘visual’ learners and expressionists, writing a novel is painting the dream, the picture, with words or as I have often said, “I’m writing as fast as I can to keep up with the movie playing in my head”.

My writing is filled with images, I want the reader to be able to visualize the characters, their space, the scene as if the reader were watching a movie or creating their own movie in their mind as they read my words.  If I accomplish my writer’s intent the story will be visually alive for the reader.  ‘Visual’ people/readers like my description and the narrative context because it takes the reader into the how of what the character is doing: the making, the action, the kinesthetic.   The actual action, soothes the ‘kinesthetic’, but even they, as a reader, must be able to obtain from the written word the visual of the action.  The same holds true for the ‘auditory’, though you need to fill the reader’s ears; they need to obtain from the written word the sound engulfing the story.

I am going to make a layman’s leap to the conclusion that readers, for the most part, are either primarily ‘visual’ learners (reading does require visual acuity) or employ ‘visual’ learning as a necessary secondary adjunct to their primary learning style be it kinesthetic or auditory.

Again what does, “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,” mean to the writer?  It should mean that creating the visual, in words, for the reader allows them to inhabit your story.  It provides the platform (a faux-reality) upon which the reader can stand when they ‘suspend their disbelief’.  This quote should also alert you to the fact that painting and writing are very different.  A painting, though it may have illusory movement, it is still and has no auditory component.  Likewise, when writing a novel, we know the words on the page do not actually move or make noise, but they do have the opportunity to engage and appeal, in the mind of the reader, to all three modes of learning.

Thus to make your story real, to the reader, you should engage all three modes of learning or more specifically the three modes in which we process the information of our world.  To make it seem real, nay, to make it real the writer should keep three keys in mind:

1)  paint the picture for the ‘visualist’

2)  move the story with actual-doing; action, for the ‘kinesthetist’

3)  fill the picture and the action with sound for the ‘auralist’

To recap, when it comes to creating a believable story or novel, one should engage the reader’s three modes of processing information, e.g.:

vision makes it real — doing makes it real — sound makes it real

 [1] Given that Vincent Van Gogh was born in Holland it is assumed he spoke and wrote Dutch, possibly Flemish during his time in Belgium and spoke and wrote French during his time in France.  ’The published letters’ with his brother Theo, their correspondence, were in both Dutch and French.  Though it is likely, ‘the letters’ are the source [a search for the key word: 'dream' appears in 34 of the 902 letters but shows no match for the quote], as of this writing I am unaware of the origin of this quote or the language in which this quote was wrought and thus the attributed quote may suffer inaccuracy, which is a common vagary of translation itself.  For the present we will assume that the quote is both an accurate translation and was made by VVG.  If you would like to look at what appears to be the most exhaustive collection and translation of ‘the letters’ to date see: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ 

©rjs robertjsadler 8.14.11

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7 Responses to “Writing: What Makes It Real?”

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  3. Katherina Madore Says:

    this is why we use our brains

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  5. Sugel Says:

    ..I think maybe you could be a great writer without being a great reader but if you dont like to read why would you even want to write? I mean I do think you could not be an avid reader and have that first novel inside you like a Rowling or Meyer but I think once you make writing a career even if you werent an avid reader before you tend to become one.

  6. Robert Sadler Says:

    Sugel: I’m not sure you caught the gist of this post (i.e., a writer engaging all three modes of learning – how we process information in order to make the story real for the reader). But to your ‘Comment’: First, thanks for writing. Second, reading and writing do seem to go hand in hand. I happen to love to read and that did foment in me a desire to write my own stories, but wanting or liking to read has very little to do with the desire to write, per se. It’s the story inside you that wants to get out, that wants to be expressed that is, in my opinion, the reason why we write. Some writers just know they want to write and will search for a story to tell, others have stories they can’t get out of their heads fast enough. As for once making writing your career “you tend to become” an avid reader… I find that writing takes a lot of time and I’d rather use my time writing my story than reading someone else’s. But then on two recent flights I devoured Eric Von Lustbaders’, “Last Snow” and Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin”. Both great reads but, I was in a “Catch-22″ quandary; I just wanted to put them down and get back to writing my story.

    Regardless, if you are a reader; keep reading! If you are a writer; keep writing! rjs

  7. Solana DeLamant Says:

    We have discussed this issue often over the years. As you are trained as a visual artist, I think you approach the page as a blank canvas. My concurrent training is as a writer and as a dancer. Consequently, I see the movement of words of the page. Line breaks and stanzation are tools of the “choreography.” While these situations of our visions are not quite synesthetic, they do walk both of us right up to that border.

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