Originally uploaded by patryfrancis.
I was about twenty-five when I wrote a story about a character named Sadie Jenkins. She was old; I wasn't. She was black; I'm not. She had endured experiences that I was sure would have crushed me; she survived, tougher than ever. She didn't suffer fools; and I--well, unfortunately, I do. She knew things that I couldn't possibly know.
It may sound disingenuous, but I have no idea where Sadie came from, or how she came to exert such a large influence on my writing mind. I had never known anyone like her, but for ten years, Sadie Jenkins owned my fiction. Without her, my work was flat, and labored. As soon as she entered a story, it practically wrote itself. She didn't have to be the main character--at least not all the time. All she had to do was to stroll into the fictional living room, shake her head at the mess the characters had made, and walk out. Instantly, a story that had been etched in stagnant black and white, gushed with color and movement.
Sadie kept secrets from me for years, but eventually I unearthed every last one. The final revelation came only after she died--the way it often does in life. To say I was lost, heartbroken, mired in grief for this character who had enrched my fiction for so long is an understatement. When I moaned about my problem to non-writer friends, they suggested the obvious: Rip up the death story. Resurrect Sadie. Problem solved.
But writer friends knew otherwise. Death is as serious and permanant in fiction as it is in life. If Sadie Jenkins was as real and true as I knew her to be, her demise could not be reversed. I continued to mourn. For at least a year, I wrote nothing.
And then one day I got excited about a new project. The novel rose in my mind like a great cathedral, complete with setting, complex characters, elaborate plot, and theme. On paper, however, my great cathedral was more like an empty house. I was probably 100 pages into it when I realized what it lacked. The story, the prose desperately needed the fire and spirit that Sadie Jenkins had effortly added every time she poked her head in the door. But not only was Sadie dead, she had no place in this particular novel. It was set far from the drab housing project where she spent her final years, sitting on a box by the dumpster conversing with the birds, or walking off toward town to attend a stranger's service in her bright red "funeral dress".
But as it turned out, I wasn't the only one who'd been influenced by the life changing glance or harsh wisdom Sadie J. dispensed. There were a whole legion of characters from the Sadie stories, whose fates had been altered by her presence. Though I couldn't bring the old lady back, I could transplant one of her friends and acquaintances into my new novel.
Thus, Sandra Perez, a young welfare mother with three children whose choice of men frequently drew Sadie's ire, grew older, lost a couple of her daughters to drugs, and made the decision to change her life before the neighborhood scourge claimed the third. How would she effect this transformation? Where would she go? Well, into my new novel, of course.
To my amazement, the graft took. Sandra didn't have to stay long to do the job. Simply by entering the novel's pages, she loosened tongues, broke up clunky glaciers of prose, and enlivened every character she encountered--much as her mentor had done in the past. By the time she expired somewhere in the middle of the book, she was at peace--and so was I. Sandra had done her work, both as a character-- shepherding her third daughter toward academic success and strong relationships, and as a muse, opening up both story and author.
And yet, as much as I loved Sandra, she will never be Sadie Jenkins. To this day, Sadie remains so real to me that no one could ever convince me she didn't exist. How she drifted into my stories in that red lace dress and haunted me for a decade remains a mystery, but I will always be grateful for having known her.