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.
This is just positively gorgeous, Patry. You have such an...well, an eye for things. And a pen too :)
Patry, I read this earlier this morning, and felt speechless, without words in front of your words. So I'm back now to try to express my awe at this very moving and powerful description of a writer's muse. Thank you - this is inspiring!
Wow Patry. What an amazing story and congrats on having stories on Amazon too :)
I guess I never thought of it in the form of a recurring character, but I certainly have one as well come to think of it. Great post that got me thinking lots!
Quite a beautiful description of your characters, Patry. How lovingly you create and sustain them, and how sadly you let them go. What an amazing thing it must be to write the story of people you have so passionately breathed the breath of life into.
One might say that this affinity for characters is both the rise and fall of writers. For I seem to enjoy the company of those who come out often more than the people I'm in the company of--but then again, it takes all kinds to make a life, now doesn't it? All kinds...plus one personalized version of a Ms. Sadie Jenkins. Thank you.
Is she someone who you'd like to be? Or someone you'd like to learn from?... Human soul has such beauty and depth that you'll find no end in trying to explore it... This is just the beginning. Have a nice journey!
Wow, what an amazing story -- I've never heard of anything quite like that, and as a writer I haven't experienced it. I used to feel skepticism and secret bitterness when writers claimed their characters were so alive to them, but I've since learned to believe it -- but never have I had such a profound experience as this. Very cool!
An amazing post. I read a biography of Charles Dickens once that described how involved he got with the life of his characters, becoming depressed when bad things happened to them, etc. Although I like to write, I don't think I could do fiction, partly because I don't have the gift like Dickens and you, of being able to create characters that come alive and become independent beings. Congratulations for using your gift and having it recognized by others.
This post fascinates me because the whole process of writing fiction fascinates me--maybe because I can't imagine being able to do it myself. Thank you for sharing your special Sadie with us. This felt very cinematic to me. I could easily see this as a film...not just about her role in your fiction...but about the way she has graced your life...
Greetings of Peace Dear Patry:
Your words are moving and lovely :) Your inspirations are one that only few writers share. As a writer and spiritual person, may I commend to you my book Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Nove, a mystical adventure on the Sufi path of Love. You can red an excerpt at http://www.masterofthejinn.com
Love and Many Blessings,
Fascinating read, Patry. Did you move slowly when you chose to kill her off - did it take a lot of courage then to go through it, or did the intensity of this loss only show up after the deed was done? Very interesting.
Interesting on so many levels, Patry. Thank you for describing the process so well. I should be very curious to know how your relationship with Sadie progresses in the years to come .....
Ah...I feel like I knew her and lost her all in one post. What a muse!
jordan: thanks, sweetie, and congrats again on your book deal!
marja-leena: That's how I often feel when I read about your work as an artist--without words.
Melly: Someday you'll have to write about your recurring character. I'm intrigued.
r.d.: It's funny. I don't feel like I've created them. They just come in and speak their mind. I type.
C: Welcome! It's always nice to see a new face in the crowd. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Irina: you always ask the best questions. Yes, in many ways she is someone who I'd like to be--though I wouldn't want to live through her tragedies to get there. As far as learning from her, I've gleaned more than I can say.
laini: I love all my characters, as I'm sure you do, but this Sadie, she had VOICE, a voice that could wake up the dullest story and make it do the shimmy.
amishlaw: about Dickens: I once read that he was so effortlessly productive that he sat there with his notebook open, working on his work in progress while entertaining guests and participating in the conversation.
marilyn: If you know any screenwriters or producers, Sadie has always dreamed of Hollywood...Thanks for your comment.
irving: Thanks and welcome. As Sufism has long fascinated me, I will definitely check out your site.
sky: What an interesting question. Sadie lingered in the hospital for a few days, silent her hands folded on her lap, while someone from her past appeared to tell her deepest held secret. Around her a tempest whirled, while those who thought they knew her--including, at times, me--tried to figure out what do with the truth of her life. And then one day, when her friends came in to see her, the bed was empty. She would never explain or apologize. She was gone.
Mary: sometimes I wonder about that, too. Is she my Christmas Future? Will I sit on a box and talk to the birds? Barge into strangers' funerals in a bright red dress? Yes, it will be interesting...
colleen: If she were here, she'd say she was pleased to make your acquaintance (perfect manners, our Sadie) then she'd threaten to kick your butt at Scrabble.
How exciting, I love reading your creative process!
My hope is that if I can get to write well enough, a character will tap me on the shoulder, and tell their story through me.
Just as I hate authors who 'murder' their characters for the sake of emotional manipulation, and not because they just died, I also hate authors who make zombies of the characters who die. I give you great credit for letting her go, when her time came. It takes great courage, and I commend you for that.
Great post, Patry. I saw the first draft on Bloglines and was hoping you'd take it further. Can't help thinking that this belongs to the same family of phenomena as spirit familiars, mediums, channelers and the like.
Andrea: Thanks and ditto for yours!
zhoen: Oh god, I could never murder a character for convenience sake or any other reason. Murder, when it happens in a story, should be organic to the work.
Dave: I'm confused. YOu mean my shitty first drafts get posted on bloglines? Yikes!
A fascinating post, Patry. Even though the circumstances are different, I thought of Arthur Conan Doyle killing off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. (Doyle was tired of Holmes. You obviously aren't tired of Sadie.) When his reading public demanded more Holmes, he set The Hound of the Baskervilles in a time before Reichenbach. He later "resurrected" him. While the latter option isn't open to you, could Sadie Jenkins appear in a story set in the past, or in a flashback or memory? I don't know how time works with your characters, and I'd be interested to know.
Loved this, Patry!
Patry....I was in the Salvation Army store the other day. It is pretty close to the projects. It is across the street from that old gas station they shut down last year. I was going thru some boxes of things that had been marked down to a quarter each. There was a box with some fotos, old postcards and what looked like a journal or diary. I think that you will find the contents very interesting. I told the clerk to save it for you. They can only hold it till saturday.
Wonderful insight on the creative process, and in particular, how fictional characters can become very close to the writer who creates them. A good writer cares about his/her characters, about what happens to them, their successes and failures and so on. Writers become close to their characters as if they were real, living beings. The difference is that the writer also has the power to alter the realities of his/her characters to create a story that evolves accordingly. Nice.
Patry - If you hit "publish," it goes up. Removing a post doesn't take back the pinging or whatever, but if you post a second draft at the same URL, it will replace the first one. What I saw the other day ended with the sentence "To say I was lost, heartbroken, mired in grief for this character who had enrched my fiction for so long is an understatement."
I love the way you think. :D
Patry, I read the beginning of this the other day, then had to go somewhere. I needed to come back to this engrossing story of your writing process and Sadie. Thank you for sharing an insight into the inner workings of this process. Deeply felt and inspiring.
steve: Interesting idea...kind of like looking at old photographs of your parents taken before you were born. A possibility.
Suzanne: Thank you!
Fred: I picked it up yesterday, but I'm waiting for the right time to open the diary. I never knew how much a quarter could buy!
Scot: So true. Sometimes we also turn real people into fictional characters, forcing them to act the way they refuse to in life. That usually doesn't work out so well though. Thanks for your visit!
Dave: From now on I'll be a lot more prudent with that publish button. Thanks.
r: miss you. my fault, I know. my crazy life.
boulies: Thanks for coming back--and for taking the time to comment.
I'm going to visit Sadie at Amazon. She sounds like an amazing woman. I'm not surprised she was your muse.
Thanks, Patricia. The story is called "Limbe". I was reluctant to mention that it was being sold on Amazon because I didn't want it to sound as if I'd written the post in order to promote or sell the story.
As I said, I was neither informed that it was being sold, nor asked permission, and I certainly receive no royalties. (I'm not sure how this works, but apparently it can be done and happens to a lot of writers.)
And yet, the work is out there, and I'm grateful that it is being read.
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This is wonderful. I can't help but think that her life still informs yours in some way... or will. Such a strong relationship doesn't ever completely die, even if the person does.
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