I wrote almost everything I penned last year on the stiff university-provided couch in my senior house’s living room. My right elbow fixed on the armrest and my computer balanced on my legs, I’d type and read and retype and reread for hours until my eyes ached. To write consistently — that is, every day — is often a brutal task, one that demands constant attention and the patience to self-investigate, both of which are rarely in ample stock when you need them.
During these writing sessions, I found myself wondering whether I’d be able to make any of my pieces coherent, or at the very least finish them. At around the two- or three-hour mark, I’d try to allay some of my worry by staring, for fifteen minutes, at a cheap paper hang-up of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night on the wall across from me. I’d bought it at a campus poster sale eight months prior because I wanted to decorate the house’s drab-looking living room and prove to my three roommates that I was serious about turning our space into a place of convivial joy rather than just a spot to eat, sleep, and work. Something about the poster’s impressionistic style — the messy brushstrokes and central café’s sulfur-yellow lighting, the pearl-white tables and shadowy, faceless figures lining its terrace, the silver stars bursting in the sliver of sky over the background’s dark-lit Parisian façade — always calmed, reassured, and inspired me.
Van Gogh’s life is well-documented and notoriously unhappy, filled with unimaginable mental anguish, unstable relationships, and a final suicide at the age of 37, yet his work is gorgeous, lively, and, almost ironically, brazenly unwilling to accept misery as one of the many realities of existence. Each time I examined the poster of this very foreign café in my very familiar living room, I couldn’t help feeling a mixture of sadness for the truth of Van Gogh’s life and a palpable sense of hope — hope that, despite a constant fear of being unable to produce (and a number of traumatic experiences that have impeded some much-needed emotional processing), art is not precluded by difficulty, but instigated by it. If Van Gogh could create despite his struggle, then neither I, nor anybody else, has an excuse not to try.