In the winter of 1878, Van Gogh entered the dark region of the Borinage as a lay-preacher, where he gave away his money, his clothes and even his bed to the poor. The church dismissed him. He was no longer allowed to preach. His brother had encouraged him to make drawings of the landscapes he admired, so Van Gogh laid down ten commandments for himself as a guide through his School of Art:
Only do what you like
Do it thoroughly
Examine yourself closely, for you are riding a race horse
Spare neither whip nor spur to get all you can out of your horse
Choose your medium cautiously
Choose your first milestone cautiously
Then your second one
Then your third always with care
Then choose as recklessly as you can
And if you reach it you will never have passed the first
I founded and conducted a writing program for suicidal adolescents at a psych hospital for ten years (www.360westproject.com). Below is one of my many encounters.
Mason is gothic. He has long stringy black hair. He wears black clothing and a trench coat. He has acne, which is intensified because he doesn’t shower very well. At times he mutters to himself. He paces. He walks to the large plate glass window in my classroom and pushes his face to it, leaving behind greasy marks for the housekeepers.
He’s here because he has hallucinations coupled with bi-polar episodes, which is a schizoaffective disorder that is hard to treat. He says he likes his hallucinations and doesn’t want them to subside. He says people should be able to choose their mental states as long as they don’t harm themselves or society. He has a point, I guess.
But America—the sweet mother of freedom—has little patience for people like Mason. We dislike gothic tendencies. Gothic people seem weird to us, so the doctor started him on Geodon. The plan is to knockout the hallucinations while treating his mood disorder as well. Will it work? I’m not sure. But since the doctor’s intervention he’s pacing a lot. His hygiene is getting worse. His hair is getting greasier by the minute. His face more infected, his mumbling more acute. He’s worried that the new medicine will take away his hallucinations. He doesn’t want this.
A day later, he crashes from the manic state he was in when he arrived here. He was funny then. He talked more. Jack Kerouac would’ve liked him then. Mason never yawned or said a commonplace thing. He burned, burned, burned, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. Mason was “desirous of everything at the same time.” He talked insistently. Would not shut up. Could not stop talking. Now he mutters to himself. Gone is that desirous pressured speech. Is it a bad thing? I’m not sure.
When he came to the hospital, he said he saw black bugs. He said words would pop loose from their moorings in sentences and levitate on the page. They’d bounce around, and then scramble the sentences. Sure, he acts a little strange sometimes, but he’s nice strange. I’ve never seen him upset, never seen him lash out, and he writes like a young Edgar Allen Poe. When I call him Edgar Allen, he lights up and smiles. He’s the kind of kid you’d like to protect from the world while thinking the world may need protecting from him.
Below is one of the many poems he wrote in my class.
My wife takes daily walks in our rural community. She follows the red dirt road around the farm. Sometimes alone, sometimes with our two boxers, not ever thinking a puppy might emerge from the woods and follow her home. I was sitting on the porch watching as the black Aussiedor (black lab and Australian shepherd mix) puppy pranced along behind her like she’d hit the lottery. And we named her Lucky, because she is lucky she found us, but we have recently felt the lucky ones. She’s brought much happiness to the farmhouse.
Lucky has a broken tail and was full of every worm possible. Probably dropped off by some numbskull, some redneck, somebody who didn’t give a damn if she lived or died. But she lives like royalty now.
The day the puppy followed her home, I had been working on a story, “The Luck Genome Project,“ about a man who purchases a luck gene. The luck gene is supposed to make him lucky in all his endeavors, especially book publication. So it was so ironic when the puppy got lucky and found my wife on the same day I finished the story. And it really felt weird when my wife said she wanted to name her Lucky. (She had no idea I was writing the story about luck.) So maybe, just maybe, luck has really arrived.
William Faulkner, the great southern writer, said, in his Speech of Acceptance for the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature:
There are no longer problems of the spirit…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat…He must learn them again…Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but the glands…Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man… The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton