By Sari Friedman
If I’m lucky, something spectacular happens at some point in my writing process. I fall in love. Sometimes I’m in love with my protagonist, but not always— it’s impossible to predict which character, setting, technical aspect or plot sequence will fill me with that combination of tender regard, affection, allegiance and the desire to start writing a sonnet.
As I wrote my first novel, which is about a New Yorker who starts to remember her past-life 4,000 years ago in the Land of Canaan, I fell in love with the antagonist’s manipulative pyrotechnics. I loved the technical challenge of revealing the conniving of a hurt-causing personality. I’m not conniving in real life. I'm nurturing and empathic. Strangers have been known to call me “Mom.” But this meant that I’d never understood how a hurtful personality could function. And that led to my sometimes being very hurt. In practical terms, and even when the red flags were waving and the signs were on the metaphysical equivalent of a forty foot high billboard, I could never just “expect” cruelty.
During my writing process, my confusion and fear of this kind of personality were transformed into a sort of comprehension. The process of creating a “mean” antagonist taught me what I needed to know in art and in life. Dreaming up dialogue and “family of origin” issues, exploring the frosty plains within an unempathic mind, turned out to be therapeutic. I will never love cruelty, that’s not going to happen. But I benefited from the self-healing and solace that can come from understanding and wading through the mud that can be found in a human heart. I learned something. I became more whole.
As I write my second novel, which is a YA about a sex-trafficked teen, I feel love again. This time I’m besotted with an outspoken secondary character’s dialect. I’ve never spoken in her dialect, but I love her unique voice. As Gustave Flaubert replied, when asked who the “real” Madame Bovary was, c’est moi. Yes I'm creating something new, but art is manifested from the rich raw mess of an inner life.
I’m not the only writer who falls in love with aspects of the worlds she creates. That’s the literary experience. Every character has a path, but it is the writer is who creates those paths. The answers are there. Whether poetry or the words that light up a nightmare… art is challenging, glorious and terrifying as life. The aches and ecstasies are the same.
Being a writer is hard. The need to write usually feels like addiction. My first novel took years to finish, during most of which I was impoverished. This novel got a great agent, but it’s still unpublished. And the subject area of my current writing project is stressing me out — the sex trafficked teen protagonist may, or may not, have the will to save herself. Her journey is uncertain and it's an uphill climb to hear her voice at all, to patiently draw it from my unconscious and past the bossy double Virgo editor I also carry around. Fortunately the secondary character in this novel, with that voice that I love, is helping me out. With that love lighting the darkness, I can go on.
Sari Friedman is a Pushcart-nominated writer who earned an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in New York. She recently moved from Berkeley, California to Tel Aviv, Israel, where she's writing her second novel and still feeding street cats. More info at www.sarifriedman.net.