Recently, my brother-in-law made an online comment referencing research of historical subject matter. He indicated that if he is going to reuse an article he wrote twenty-years ago, he will meticulously review the details before releasing the revised edition to insure all information is up-to-date. I am not an historian, but I have spent some years teaching research methods and immediately appreciated his thoughts on the matter. The need to review the material might be obvious to him, one of the most respected historians in the country, but the work is too often seen as redundant to the average student or reader. I’ve had students say to me, “Well if he died over a hundred years ago, and this article was written fifteen years ago, what difference does it make?”
Here’s one example which instigated my concern about finding the most recent expertly researched information available:
Every month for quite some time now I find an extra thirty of forty dollars in my checking account from an ebook I wrote about Vincent van Gogh. This seemingly small amount of money adds up, but more importantly the sales have drawn the attention of bookstores and some libraries and this spring my publisher in Tallahassee, Florida is reissuing the paperback edition. The original book came out fifteen or so years ago, and the Kindle edition about eight years ago. After the first few printings, and certainly after the online version was released, the printed version went out-of-print. Sad, but normal. But recently, interest in the actual book version has drastically increased, so, reissue. Yay for me. Yay for Vincent. Poor guy; he’s been dead 128 years now.
So here’s the thing: The book is a first person account from Vincent’s own letters to his brother, Theo, and other artists. I edited them down from 2000 pages to about 160, but the words are his. The only subjective interjection I did was in brief transitions throughout the text to help the narrative flow and have some semblance of a standard rising action, crisis, climax progression.
It was the resolution which is more troubling. The prologue to the book covers the time between Vincent’s gunshot wound and his dying a day and a half later. I wrote the prologue based upon documented accounts from his brother, two doctors on the scene at the time, and many of the most respected art historians and experts on van Gogh’s life, including a curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. When I did this research, thirty-years ago or so now, I was confident in writing as Vincent as to the details from the gunshot (considered suicide at the time) to his death. But since my original research and writing of the prologue, new information has come to light. Without spending too much time here going into detail, let’s just say it is not probable that he killed himself, the mortal shot more likely coming from an intellectually-challenged teenage friend of his from the local town. Where they found the gun, what was and wasn’t found at the scene of the shooting, and Vincent’s own vagueness all became clear only a century later, though doubt of the original account arose from the start. Most startling is the suggestion in a found document of one of the two doctors that the wound itself could not have been self-inflicted.
Well, what is one to do? He wanted to die, he did say that.
So in preparation for press, I had to readdress the prologue and create a more neutral voice from our protagonist. Also, in most of his letters when referencing people who, in one way or another, were not accepted in society very well—much like his teenage friend outside Auvers, France—he showed rare moments of sympathy and concern for them. I brought slight more attention to those moments than he did in his letters so we might better appreciate his keeping the probable cause of death to himself.
In any case, it got me thinking about something completely unrelated: what did I once consider to be true about myself, my life, my path, which now, with new information and age and experience, could be considered obsolete?
Oh how I was decades ago is clearly not how I am now, but along with that are the decisions I made then which affect me now. They must be analyzed and contemplated, and, if necessary, abandoned. At least altered some. It is okay, I believe, if I am going to be true to my own brief narrative and create the best protagonist I possibly can out of this too, too sullied flesh, to do some more research and see if I might need to update my information. Maybe I can make me more decisive now than I used to be; maybe more mature; certainly less insecure.
I’m well aware of the truth that I cannot relive the past, and I am not even trying to change my course at all. No. I’m simply suggesting that at some point in the past my methodology set me on a course toward now, toward tomorrow, and if I take a brief pause to evaluate that past with the new information I have about life, I might be able to proceed more successfully than I would have still riding on the information gathered from a textbook I have been using since my youth.
I can remember times my mental history would record I was weak, paranoid, and even felt hopeless. But now, sometime later, it is clear revision is required. I know now the weakness was exhaustion, the sense of helplessness was a cleansing of false realities and misunderstood truths. I wasn’t falling apart; I was shedding the parts of me I didn’t yet realize had died. Every dynamic character goes through an epiphany, none realizes it at the time.
I might change the character trait which up until recently was impatience. I’d add a few more details I recently discovered about confidence and instinct. I can’t change how I was in the past, and certainly not what anyone else knows or perceives me to be. But the me yet to come has not yet been written, and after close scrutiny to the facts of my life up until now, I can guide the character development somewhat.
After all, everything until now has just been a prologue anyway to whatever comes next.