“She could let that force carry her without trying to understand it perfectly or making it do her bidding.”
–Emily Alden in Certain Liberties
What a surprise to come across writing of one’s own, forgotten in a stretch of time. The discovery serves two purposes: one is the most welcome affirmation that the work, remembered hazily or not at all, is quite good. This is in direct opposition to the unwelcome recognition when I first started back to writing, that the work was frighteningly, embarrassingly horrible; and when I say ‘embarrassingly’, I assure you I was the only reader, and so had only my own taste to satisfy—which I most certainly did not! The second purpose is to shock me into admitting I don’t remember it. In fact, I can’t swear “I” wrote it, and most unnerving, I don’t know what “I” intended.
Reviewing a final draft for an editor the other day produced just such a reaction: ‘I like this, but who the hell wrote it and what were they trying to say in the context of the story?’ Most unsettling of all is this question: how did I, the true author, place a thought like that in my protagonist when it’s as far from my own temperament as I can imagine?
Most honest authors (the other kind don’t count in this discussion) admit they keep writing themselves into their characters, and especially their protagonists, over, and over again. So where in heaven’s name did that quote at the top of this essay come from? How could my main protagonist in Certain Liberties, Emily Alden, have an attribute I’m unable to attain for myself? Albeit one I’d love to have. But that’s it, isn’t it? I couldn’t get it myself so I gave it to her. I knew she couldn’t hold onto it long, but at least she had it for a while.
So what is this elusive adaptation that Emily occasionally catches sight of? The ability to drift—to let go and let herself fly, unaided; floating wherever the current takes her—without trying to control her trajectory. She and I both recognize how bad we are at that; how often we grab hold of the rudder to steer our course, when we don’t even know yet where we want to go. But apparently, there was at least this one time that Emily figured out how to drift, and I spent lots of time rereading that section of the manuscript the other day, trying to piggyback on Emily’s success. After all, who deserves a free lift more than the one who created her?