That Thing Van Gogh said about Fan Fiction

One of Van Gogh's self-portraits in the Musee d'Orsay
One of Van Gogh’s self-portraits in the Musee d’Orsay

This past weekend I found myself in Paris, wandering through the Musee d’Orsay. If you don’t know it, it’s not far from the Louvre, an old converted railway station on the left back of the Seine that became a museum in the 1980s. Its main claim to fame is that it houses a huge collection of extraordinary works from the Impressionists – Monet, Manet, Renior, Degas and on and on and on. It’s really an extraordinary museum.

Leave it to me, though, amidst all that French artistic excellence, to get inspired by the Dutch guy. But yes, it was in the Van Gogh rooms where I was staring at The Siesta, which happened to include an audio accompaniment, that I had some of those “deep thoughts” I tend to have in museums.

I plugged the code for the painting into my English-language audio device and listened to the narration. The piece was a reproduction Van Gogh had done of another artist’s work, Millet. Van Gogh commented on doing this type of activity – painting after a previous artist but applying his own interpretation – in a subsequent letter to his brother:

“What I’m seeking in it, and why it seems good to me to copy them, I’m going to try to tell you. We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and to be nothing but composers.
Very well – but in music it isn’t so – and if such a person plays some Beethoven he’ll add his personal interpretation to it – in music, and then above all for singing – a composer’s interpretation is something, and it isn’t a hard and fast rule that only the composer plays his own compositions.”
-Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo Van Gogh circa September, 1889
The Siesta
The Siesta

I stood there a moment and stared at the colors Van Gogh chose to utilize, the subtle ways he had departed from the original work, keeping its essence yet making it his own, and started thinking about the famous artist’s comment about music as it related to writing. It struck me as true that musicians have the unique opportunity to practice their art by performing the great works of those who came before them – Beethoven or Mozart, etc. And that Van Gogh had discovered a way to do this same thing in the world of painting.

But what about writing? I’d heard that Hunter S. Thompson had once re-typed both Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby just to immerse himself in the flow and rhythm of his idols’ words. But you can’t do much with this kind of exercise, can you? I mean, you can’t really “perform” a previous writer’s work. All you can do is copy it. And if you copy it, if you merely re-type it, well, that might be an interesting little project, but you aren’t adding your own spin to it, your own color and interpretation. You aren’t “performing” the work.

I mean, as far as I know that’s true. I confess I’ve never re-typed another writer’s entire novel. And probably never will.

So, it doesn’t really exist in writing, this concept of performance, I told myself.

Then I realized…wait. What about Fan Fiction?

Some Monet, because I really shouldn't post about a French museum without him.
Some Monet, because I really shouldn’t post about a French museum without him.

Honestly, I’ve never felt like I understood it before. But I have been thinking about it some lately. Neil Gaiman’s most recent collection of stories, Trigger Warning, contains a Dr. Who story, with the Matt Smith Doctor and Amy Pond and everything. As Gaiman has written a couple of episodes of the real show, this is probably more Authorized Fiction than Fan Fiction but still, the idea of it intrigued me, as I’ve always been a big Dr. Who fan.

It occurred to me: what a great way to practice the art of writing – to take someone else’s characters, their rich world and continuity – some other art you really admire – and to build on top of it by telling your own story with your own spin, adding your particularly unique color and style.

So I realized…maybe Fan Fiction is this great form of writing practice. Maybe Fan Fiction is an opportunity for a writer, like Van Gogh was doing nearly 150 years ago as a painter, to take another artist’s work and perform their own interpretation, to change the colors, to play with the form. To add to the compendium. To keep its essence but layer your own style over the top.

And suddenly I thought maybe I understood Fan Fiction a little better.

"Small Dancer Aged 14" - Edgar Degas. Because art.
“Small Dancer Aged 14” – Edgar Degas. Because art.

Then there are comic books, one of my first loves of writing and reading. I’d love to write a comic book some day. WOULD. LOVE. I even have plots in mind for some of my favorites – Swamp Thing, Daredevil, Fantastic Four – and almost always they would be stories fashioned after some of my favorite comic writers, inspired by their work with the same characters and worlds, but with my own spin, with my unique color palette applied over the top, like a layer. Or, maybe, like viewing the same world through a different prism, a new interpretation.

Oh, and then there’s reading, where each reader brings his or her own perspective to any writer’s work, acting as the final collaborator so that no book is interpreted exactly the same way when read by different people. This, too, is a sort of performance of the writing, I think. And audiobooks. And movies.

That Van Gogh was on to something, I think.

I’m on the plane back to the States and I’m really tired, so too many deep Van Gogh thoughts might not be the best idea just now. I think I’ll stop here. Besides, if I talk about Fan Fiction too much longer, Fifty Shades of Gray is bound to come up and none of us needs that, I’m sure.

Instead, let me get back to writing up my Swamp Thing proposal. And finishing my Dr. Who story.

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