What can Vincent van Gogh teach you about writing?

What can Vincent van Gogh teach you about writing?


On Writing

by John Magnet Bell

John Magnet Bell

Van Gogh's TARDIS by BBC

Van Gogh’s TARDIS by BBC


Van Gogh’s bright images wither in sunlight.

So if your bucket list includes traveling to Amsterdam and acquainting yourself with van Gogh’ssunflowers, you’d better go soon.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch post-impressionist painter, born in Groot-Zundert, home to the oldest licensed tavern in the Netherlands, “In Den Anker.” Zundert lies 10 meters above sea level, which in Holland is something like high ground. And that was my extremely lame joke for the day. Sorry.

Now there’s a Vincent van Gogh Museum in Zundert, and a monument to Vincent and his brother Theo.

Early van Gogh is depressing as hell. None of the bright colors he became famous for, none of that rippling energy that makes the wheat fields and night skies shimmer with a million elven strokes of the spatula. What magic they contain is bleak, dour and disciplined.

Two Peasant Women Digging by Van Gogh

Two Peasant Women Digging by Van Gogh

Two Peasant Women Digging Potatoes is the work of an attentive observer but, if Vincent had stopped there, you wouldn’t be reading about him now.

Compare Two Peasant Women with this 1887 selfie,

Van Gogh's Selfie

Van Gogh’s Selfie

or Country Road in Provence by Night.

Country Road...

Country Road…

At some point, van Gogh decided to stop following History. Instead, he would make it happen.What’s more amazing is, some people are uniquely positioned to reinvent art — they’ve got it all, time and money and an education — yet they become imitators, what I call ‘advocates for normalcy.’ Van Gogh wasn’t among them. His connection to the world was fraught with misunderstanding and pain. He felt like an outsider, but that didn’t stop him: along with a dozen others, he tore at the carcass of academic painting to deliver the phoenix inside of it. They invented the twentieth century. In a way, they invented us as we are now.

So, what can Vincent van Gogh teach you about writing a novel, story, or play?


“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”


Fight Club

I can’t conceive of a writer who isn’t intellectually voracious, perpetually dissatisfied with the gaps in their knowledge. Love is your window on the world, your starting point. People who hate shut themselves in. Why is it that ignorance and hatred go hand in hand?

Chuck Palahniuk had his character in Fight Club, Tyler Durden, say that we hold down jobs we hate to buy stuff we don’t need. Let’s not focus on the ‘stuff we don’t need’ right now. Instead, let’s think about what your work means to you. Does it make you think? Does it keep you growing and evolving as a person? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you held a different job? (Hint: if you answered yesyes, and no, you love what you do for a living.)

To be blunt about it, the kind of art that lasts demands commitment and more than commitment. It demands that you keep faith with the unspeakable weirdness inside of you. Popularity is no gauge for quality. Popular things lose their luster – how many huge hits from the 1930s are still around? I’m talking about 1930 and that wasn’t a century ago. Turn back the clock to the mid-1850s and you find that minstrel shows were the national art of their day. Do people still perform in blackface? No. Popular entertainment often expresses the worst[1] any culture has to offer, and that is why so many financially successful movies, books and songs fade from view after a while.

The crowd that feeds on the worst craves constant novelty and loathes History, Memory and Past.

Love entails vulnerability and openness. Also, that you be true to yourself. There’s no recipe for weird or unusual. It could be that you are entirely average or nondescript, but that too makes you a chimera of a human being. If you can love fiercely you have already separated yourself from the crowd.

Wheat Field with Crows

Wheat Field with Crows

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

Maybe it was Samuel Johnson who said that you must go through an entire library in order to write a book. (Sounds like him, so let’s assume.)

Getting a body of work together takes time. Each little victory makes you stronger, makes you better. A painting is the result of ten thousand movements of the hand pointing in one direction. It’s no different than a novel, a TV show or a space program.

A little discipline goes a long way. If you force yourself to write that first line you’ll want to write a second, and who knows where that might lead. Beginnings are the hardest, because a mountain looks so much more imposing before you climb it. Why do you think people talk about ‘conquering’ the summit of a mountain? You’re not really going to war against a geological formation – it’s just a really big rock and it’s got nothing personal against you.[2]

When you get to the top, you see the landscape around you. Not the steps you took. Raw hands, scraped knees, llama poop… None of that matters anymore. You’ve reached the summit!

Look, your life’s work may take you a lifetime. (Such was the case with Marcel Proust.) I’m not going to tell you to focus on the future and screw the rest; you have bills to pay, your car needs parts, your children need wine[3], but take the long view. Only you know how long it takes to do work that matters.

Let your mind carry you to the deeps of your truest self. Vincent did:


“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”


[1] Michael Bay, Uwe Boll, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Britney Spears, among others; I can’t think of a single writer to include in that pantheon – or pandemonium, as the case may be.

[2] I’d like to read a story someday where a mountain pursues a grim vendetta, chasing some poor sap all over the world. Hey, if the Final Destination movies can substitute DEATH for an actual slasher/psycho killer, why not a mountain. Just imagine the protagonist waking up to a mysterious rumbling and a marked commotion in the streets. He looks out the window and sees the mountain bearing down on Galveston, Texas, traversing the sea. And it’s coming for him.

[3] If you’re French and happen to live in the Simpsons universe.

Flash fiction by John Magnet Bell that you will find perfectly woody:

My Girlfriend’s Iron Petticoat
The Toll Booth Inside You
The Angels of Provenance

About John Magnet Bell

John is a professional translator, writer and photographer. He writes about writing and he writes unconventional flashes of fiction at his website, Start Your Novel. Why? John explains his passion here.

Twitter: @StartYourNovel
Google+: JMBell
Tumblr: http://johnmagnetbell.tumblr.com/
Website: Start Your Novel

Please support John so that he can keep writing epic prompts! You can buy his shocking art at society6: http://society6.com/johnmagnetbell

Salute The Morning, John Magnet Bell

Salute The Morning, John Magnet Bell

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About Stan Faryna


  1. Such beautiful pieces. I really like the vibrant colors.

    “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”

    That quote is AMAZING! Very inspiring!

  2. Excellent analysis. It’s been a while since I really thought about van Gogh’s work. You’re giving me a very fresh perspective here, John, and I like the way you tied it into current culture. Very interesting… and inspiring too!

  3. I must be strange because I see more beauty in the some what duller painting of the two women in the field. He left them faceless on purpose I feel. I know his style was not to place individual detail but I think in other circumstances he would have placed more. I think his message was “Faceless women toiling everywhere!”. Working the ground before they go in to the ground. I think he was pointing out the misery of a dull life which deserves dull colours.

    I find it a real shame that modern society feasts on popularity in themes with out realizing the significance. I take The Hunger Games for instance. People mock it as teen fiction but I find it extremely thought provoking and the Distopia placed in books as these and Orwell’s 1984 seem to becoming ever real the further in to this century we get.

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