This past weekend, I was lucky enough to find myself sitting in front of a Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While sitting, I was also talking on the phone to a certain teenager whom I happened to birth in 2003. This teenager was 3,000 miles away from me and the Van Gogh, and he had called to ask me whether he should retake the Bio test on which he had earned a 10/25. He wasn’t sure if he should.
“I’m not sure if I should,” he said.
I looked at Van Gogh’s self portrait. He didn’t look well. Probably teenagers had impacted his mental health. I rubbed my ear and gave my inner Helicopter Mother a mental shove to make room for my inner Mother of Perpetual Pseudo-Patience.
The latter gently said, Do NOT tell him what to do. If you are always telling him what to, he will never learn how and what to do without you telling him what and how to do it. And then you’ll wake up one day and you will realize he is forty-eight years old and still lives with you and still expects that you will make him hash browns and a banana smoothie for breakfast.
“OK,” I said into the phone, “what are the pros and cons of retaking the test?”
Helicopter Mother rolled her eyes and snorted.
“I mean, it’s nice,” I continued, “that Ms. C. is letting you do a retake. Tell me what you’re thinking about your options.”
“I’m not sure what I’m thinking,” he said.
I tugged on my ear some more. I needed a Monet or a Manet or something more soothing than Vincent Van Gogh’s self portrait staring at me. How about one of those Degas dancers? A flock of those Degas ballet ladies would help neutralize the Wild West boy brain on the end of the phone line. Maybe.
“Well,” I said, “what would it look like, hypothetically, if you took the make-up test? Would you need to set that up with Ms. C. or could you take it at any time?”
“I dunno,” he said. “If I do it, I guess I’d go to the extra study session after school on Tuesday, then maybe do the retake on Thursday or Friday.”
A pause. He was waiting for me to say something.
That’s right, the Patient Mother whispered. Act casual. Play it cool. Ask questions, don’t lecture.
“Huh, well, that sounds like a good plan.” My voice was melted butter, only more patient. “Are there any downsides to retaking the test? Other than the hassle of studying?”
I heard him thinking. “Probably not,” he said. Then he sighed. “I think I’ll do it. I’ll set it up with Ms. C. on Monday.”
As if the whole thing was 100% his own brilliant idea.
After hanging up, I gave dear Vincent Van Gogh’s portrait a virtual fist bump. He just looked at me, unimpressed.
My knowledge of art is pathetic, but I do sense when a painting or a sculpture is trying to tell me how to think. I don’t like—any more than a teenager likes—a lecture. I like a painting that’s a gift, one that presents itself to me and seems to ask only, Hey. What do you think?
I think that’s why I like Van Gogh. He’s not a know-it-all or a bossy-pants. He presents his work and possibly a few (optional) questions, then he offers me some breathing room.
In this work for example, I think Van Gogh is asking me, What did this big-bellied guy have for lunch? To which I answer, The Appleby’s all-you-can-eat buffet.
And in this one, Van Gogh lets me wonder: If she’s so bored with the book she’s reading, what’s stopping her from closing that one and heading to her local library?
As writers, can’t we also use our stories as a vehicle not to preach but to ask questions? Or even better, to inspire our readers to ask questions of their own? Shouldn’t our job not be forcing a theme or a message but presenting the reader with the opportunity to mull over the questions a good story inevitably poses? Unless a story is a parable or a fable or a satirical piece, isn’t it best for a writer to ask questions rather than force an idea down a reader’s gullet?
And just as we shouldn’t try to control the reader by writing sermons in the guise of stories, shouldn’t we also understand that when we hang our stories on the wall of the Metropolitan Museum of Goodreads, we must be ready and willing to receive any response from any reader? I am certain that Van Gogh didn’t know he’d be handing me a painting about which I would ask, “What did this guy eat for lunch?”
But that’s what dear Vincent got. Sorry, mi amigo.
Can we accept that our job as writers is to write the best story we can, then hold it in our open hands, extending it to friends and strangers to do with it what they will? We can no more tell our readers how to receive a story than we can tell readers what to think about a story’s message. I mean, right?
Of course we writers can be noodling over a theme or our own personal meaning of whatever story we are writing. When I give someone a gift, I give something that I think and hope she might like. I don’t give a gift for the sake of giving a gift. But once the recipient unwraps it, I have no say about how she receives it or what she does with it.
In the case of my son, he called me with a story of his own, one in which he was exploring his own questions, his own conflict. His read-between-the-lines message? I need to make a decision. I need you to help me process my options. But I do not need you to smack me over the head with your message.
Or maybe that’s just my maternal interpretation. Maybe I am reading too much into his phone call. Maybe I have misinterpreted it though if I have, I guess that’s my prerogative. My son can’t control how I interpret a long distance phone call taken just a few yards from a wall of real Van Goghs.
And what about that self portrait? There VVG is, with that yellow hat and those vacant eyes, and I feel like I can feel the depth of his despair. Was Van Gogh’s message in his self portrait, perhaps Help me? I think so, but that’s just my interpretation. That’s just what I do with the freely-given gift of his art.
Your turn. Do you find yourself dabbling with a message or having an agenda as you write? What specific questions are you asking through your work in progress? Are you bothered by books with a heavy-handed message, or are there some you have enjoyed, in spite of an overt message?
Thanks, friends, for sharing.
Sermon photo compliments of Flickr’s Medpro.