Narrative Medicine Rounds: Nellie Hermann on Creativity and Crafting van Gogh

Last week, Nellie Hermann, creative director of the M.S. in Narrative Medicine program, spoke about her latest book The Season of Migration at Narrative Medicine Rounds, a free lecture series at Columbia University Medical Center. Hermann’s novel focuses on a young Vincent van Gogh before he began his career as a painter. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, van Gogh traveled to the Borinage in order to become a minister. In The Season of Migration, Hermann imagines this liminal period in the iconic artist’s life, exploring the nature of creativity and humanity through his introspective journey.

Hermann says that her interest in van Gogh sprang from a love of his letters. “I really just fell in love with his voice, and I had had no idea what a beautiful writer he was,” she tells the crowd. As she read his personal correspondence, she began to identify with his struggle for identity. “I was 27 at the time, and I just really related. I said, ‘Oh my God, the most famous artist in the world didn't know what he wanted to do with his life.’” She says that that was the moment she decided to go deeper into his story. “[That idea] just stuck with me. It felt like I was working against the clock. ‘Someone's going to write this book if I don't get to it!’”

She says that writing the book was as much of a delight as reading van Gogh’s intimate letters. “It was really a pleasure. [In retrospect,] I see a lot of similarities in the character of Vincent and myself that I didn't necessarily see as I was writing it. I think I sort of deluded myself into thinking that I was inhabiting this real person who really lived – but of course I was inhabiting a character.” She says, “It allowed me to put more of myself in [the book] because I was thinking I wasn't writing about myself.”

During the question and answer portion of the talk, one audience member asked about the significance of creating a work that is “based on a true story.” Hermann says, “I don't know the answer. I've had that asked of me for both my books,” she says, referencing her highly autobiographical debut novel The Cure for Grief. “What isn't based on a true story? Pretty much everything is.”

Another audience member inquired about the ability to cultivate creativity, as van Gogh does in the book and as Hermann herself does as an instructor for the creative writing classes in the Narrative Medicine program. “A lot of creative writing exercises, people feel very uncomfortable with them at first. But I think if you have ideas and you have a series of them over the course of 14 weeks, it becomes more comfortable to do the creative work.” She suggests that creativity is something that one can build, like a muscle. “It's about getting into the habit of looking at things and responding to the world.”

She looks back on her writing process for crafting her second novel: “Most of the book I wrote in periods of time when I was alone,” she says. “I either had writing residencies or was at my family's house in Cape Cod. I don't think I could have really occupied this voice had I not had the space and time to be in it all the time.”

As for the daunting task of rendering the renowned painter as a character, she says that the journey was complicated. “I found, in inhabiting him, I only grew in my affection for him,” she says. “Some of the early comments I got on the [first few drafts of the] book were, ‘You love this guy too much.’” She says that she began to make him an unlikable character – self-involved and even rude. “Does this look anything like how he really was? I don't know. But he definitely was a very internal person,” she says. “I think I am, too.”