Stephanie Harrison discusses Vincent Van Gogh, (un)tidy endings, and writing complex characters in creative nonfiction with editorial assistant Sarah Mullens

Stephanie Harrison’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in dozens of journals, and she is the editor of the anthology Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (Three Rivers Press, 2005). She has received grants from the Ohio Arts Council, the Florida Arts Council, and the Greater Columbus Arts Council.

Sarah Mullens: I am excited to talk about “Reconsidering the Sunflowers,” your essay that just came out in the Fall 2023 issue. In the piece, you cultivate such intimacy with the family moments you share—the father character hitting golf balls in the yard, his scribbling “I am lost” in the assisted living facility. Just devastating. I’m wondering how, in general, you think about complicating and humanizing characters on the page, especially when they’re family members? 

Stephanie Harrison: Ha, yeah, especially when they’re family. I think about this a lot. Well, complicating is not hard, especially where my dad was concerned. Humanizing at times was difficult. In general, though, I would say for any character, what I always think about is finding that one scene that kind of says it all about a person. 

When I taught beginning fiction, that was always my first assignment to students: a 500 word scene that featured a parent, a grandparent or some other parental figure. Someone who raised them, who they obviously have a complicated relationship with, as we all do with our parents. I’d ask them to find that scene anybody could read and say, “Ah, yeah. I get that. I know that person.” 

 When I would assign it, I would show the first couple of minutes of Terms of Endearment. You know, that Shirley MacLaine movie? Very often that “scene that says it all” in movies is right before the opening credits as it is in Terms of Endearment. If you haven’t seen it recently, the scene is: Shirley MacLaine is outside of the bedroom where she has her baby daughter in a crib and she says, “She’s not breathing, she’s not breathing.” Then she comes into the room and almost even crawls into the crib, but she disturbs the baby so much the baby starts crying and Shirley MacLaine is like, “Oh, good, she’s fine.” 

SM: Ha, oh that’s hilarious. 

SH: Yeah, it is. And it’s a perfect encapsulation of the story. The whole movie from that point on is an extrapolation of what you have just seen about those two characters. And so when I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I’m always kind of looking for those scenes where you read it and you can kind of say, “OK, yeah, I get this guy.” And in this case it was kind of my dad. 

 I was really trying to just be the witness, the watching girl. Most of the scenes are really not about me. They’re not about our relationship in particular. They were all just me, sort of watching him and saying, “Yeah, here he is. This is how he was.” So hopefully those scenes are both complicating and humanizing. 

SM: Yeah, they really are. And yes, the piece opens on that scene of the watching girl. Which of course does a lot of characterization for the father character. And I love that you used that as a sort of guiding principle for the narration throughout the piece.  

SH: Yeah, pretty much. I didn’t want it to be about us or our relationship. I really wanted it to be a character study of him with me just sort of observing him the whole way through. Because actually to go back to doing that with my students, I often found that when they would write about their parents, they were really writing about themselves. And I would always have to say, “You know, your parents don’t switch off when you leave the room. They are actually real people who have full lives that don’t actually always involve you.” 

SM: Yeah. I think you do that beautifully, particularly with this kind of obsession that your father seemed to have had with Vincent van Gogh, the ways that he allowed that obsession with painting and with Van Gogh, and the messiness to overtake his ability to maintain relationships with the rest of the family. Are we meant to read Van Gogh as a mirror character for the father here? 

SH: It would be difficult to overstate how large of a character Van Gogh was in our family. We have all, separately, without talking about it, made pilgrimages to the Van Gogh Museum. In fact, I was just recently talking to my mom and I hadn’t even realized she’d been in the Netherlands. And she said she’d been to the museum. And she walked through and she could kind of breathe and say, you know, “Yes, this is it, this is it, this is it.” 

If you’ve been to the museum, the paintings are done chronologically. So you sort of walk through his mind as you’re working through it. And anyway, he was huge in our family. I think because my dad always just wanted to point to him and say, “See, I’m not crazy. I’m like him.” And I found it very interesting when I started reading about Van Gogh and especially his letters about how much he did that himself with Adolphe Monticelli. And so when I was writing this I didn’t really think of Van Gogh as a mirror. I really was sort of thinking in terms of that Joan Didion line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And that was my dad’s story about himself, that he was stepping into the shoes of Van Gogh. But it was particularly interesting to me to see that Van Gogh did that too. He was stepping into Monticelli’s shoes and saying, “I’m not crazy. I’m like him.” And with my dad, we were all being asked to buy into that story. That’s what this piece is all about. I don’t know if that answers your question! 

SM: Absolutely. It also deepens my understanding of the piece. Initially I hadn’t even read Van Gogh’s Monticelli projection as related to your father’s projection onto Van Gogh. It’s blowing my mind a little bit, to be honest. 

And in so many ways it does feel like this essay’s threads are working so seamlessly together. You have the opening scenes of the father becoming a painter, his admiration of Van Gogh, the Sunflowers painting hanging at the top stairs. You have the mental health condition that your father develops that parallels Van Gogh’s mental health condition. And then you have this scene where the doctor in your father’s facility is sort of insisting on thinking about your father’s painting practice as a key into his own mental health.  

I’ve never had this happen to me, but some people talk about how essays will just sort of “come out whole.” Is that what happened with these threads, or did you find these connections through the process of writing? 

SH: Yeah, I’ve never had that happen either. It was actually so much the opposite of that. I really wondered if I would ever finish it. With memoir in particular, there’s just too much material, just too much. Cutting through the noise is so hard. And in terms of the ethics of writing about real people, the beauty of writing about my dad was that he really wanted me to write about him. He asked me to over and over. He would always just say, “When are you going to write that thing about your dear old dad? When am I gonna be your book?” So that took a lot of the pressure off, that he really wanted to be the subject. However, it was still so difficult and for a really long time I had a different framework. He was big on finding things that he could identify with, you know, and characters that he could identify with. He used to always tell my sisters and me, “There is no problem in life that a movie can’t solve.” And so when we would have a problem, he would diagnose the movie. 

SM: Ha, I love that. 

SH: Yeah, it was really kind of funny. One time my sister went to him with a problem and he said, “The Whales of August.” My sister told me, and I’m like, “Wait, which one of us is Betty Davis?” So yeah, he always he always found a movie that fit. So for a long time I thought I would write about him using movies and kind of footnoting movies, a kind of David Foster Wallace thing. But it just didn’t work and I found myself always veering towards dark humor, which is the kind of thing that you do in these situations, just try to find the funny. At one point during one of the really, really dark periods, working with my sisters, trying to keep my dad out of jail or wherever—it was always something, it was always something—one of my sisters turned to me and said, “Don’t you dare turn this into a funny story.” And so, in terms of the ethics of it, that changed a lot of how I had to view it. I couldn’t turn it into a funny story or a dark humor. I had to try to tell it as straight as I could. So I settled on the retrospective voice, which I find very difficult because when you write in the retrospective voice, it almost feels like you’re trying to be wise. I really had a hard time with that. But long story short, it did not come out whole. It was really a long process. 

SM: I find it interesting that your dad was begging you to write about him. Do you think he saw that as a way to be immortalized somehow? 

SH: Yeah, he really did think he was a genius. So, he thought, Why wouldn’t I write about him? And let me also say that he had an artist sensibility. So, however he would have come out on the page, he would have been fine. Because he understood. He would have said, “Hey, kid, okay, that must be how you see it.” That would have been his reaction. So it freed me up a lot. I mean, not everybody is gonna be like that, but yeah. My dad was. 

SM: That’s really its own kind of gift in a way. That he gave you that freedom to get your own truth on the page. And that relates in a way to the ending, which I wanted to talk about. You end “Reconsidering the Sunflowers” on what I feel is this very haunting and symbolic dream scene from the night before your dad died. What were you thinking about when you decided to end the piece there. What do you think it means to end within this narrator’s dream?

SH: Yeah, it’s funny that you should ask about the dream because one of the writing teachers that influenced me the most is Lee K. Abbott. He had a number of rules, one of them being: no dreams. He was mostly teaching fiction. But he thought dreams were cheating in fiction. You can make whatever happen, why use a dream? But having said all that, I was so afraid of leaving it a dream that I added another scene afterwards, which I ultimately cut. 

SM: Oh, a post-death scene? 

SH: Yeah, I’m a gardener, but I’ve never been able to grow sunflowers. And it just happened that I planted sunflowers and they grew for the first time right after my dad died. And they happened to be the kind of sunflowers that are in the painting, which are not the regular tall sunflowers. They’re Teddy Bear sunflowers, which I accidentally planted. And so, anyway, I kind of had that whole rebirth thing. The cycle of life. But ultimately it wasn’t necessary and I left it at the dream. Which, I guess, is generally true. I almost always end up cutting the last scene of whatever I write because I overwrite.

[SM]: I think you still get a bit of the rebirth, right? I found it to be such a skillful choice to end right before the father dies. We know he will die because it’s indicated in the piece. But you’re ending on this dream, on this narrator losing a burden versus a death. So, yeah, maybe you don’t get the sunflowers sprouting from the ground, but it still, to me, feels like a hopeful way to land the plane. 

Do you typically think about ending these multi threaded essays on a symbol, are you, you know, trying to create a kind of openness? Do you have any sort of guiding principles for endings? 

SH: I would say I’m almost always trying to wrap it up because, especially when you’re writing memoir, it just gets unwieldy, so I’m always trying to wrap it up. And like I said, I almost always cut the last scene so that I can leave a little bit of openness. I never want it to feel like it’s overly wrapped up. 

SM: Right, not too tidy. 

SH: Yes, not too tidy. And ending in a death would have felt extremely tidy. 

SM: Yeah, I think you landed on the right timeline in the end. Thanks for spending some time talking about this essay. We’re so happy to have it in the Fall issue! 

Sarah Mullens is a first-year MFA candidate in nonfiction and Hammond-Schwartz fellow in creative writing at Colorado State University. She’s an editorial assistant at the Colorado Review.