“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?

Why is drifting so hard? At least, for me. I remember floating in a swimming pool as a child struggling to keep my eyes shut and limbs completely at rest, trusting the vague movement of the water to carry me to the coping. Not so hard when you know the proximate limits of the area you’re floating in; ‘though I often cheated with a peek , and then a surreptitious adjustment on course with my hands. Even then, I couldn’t stand drifting for long.

Now, add a much larger border to the picture—a bay many miles wide, or worse, the ocean, and the freedom to drift without care is almost impossible—at least for me; ‘though I admit I had friends who could relax into the challenge of letting go far better than I; something Emily Alden apparently got into for at least a brief period.

So, what’s my problem? Did my competitive, ‘all-girls’ school’ teach me to be too goal-oriented? Surely Emily Alden, who defied all the 19th century prejudices against careers for women in music, was nothing, if not ‘goal-oriented’.

Am I not trusting enough in my own ability to make it to the other shore with only the tides and salt water to carry me? Emily’s leap of faith out of the practice room onto the world stage certainly carried no guarantees she’d make a safe landing.

Am I too impatient, wanting to know I’m taking the shortest route between two points to have what I want sooner? With all her drive and rebellion, Emily certainly learned from her music that time and luck had to blend together first for her to have what she wanted in the end.

Being a drifter, like those lovely, gnarled pieces of marine sculpture we discover on the shore, would seem the only way to let things develop as they should: slowly, freely, and naturally. In the sequel to Certain Liberties, Emily goes astray in her attempts to stay close to the path she thinks she’s chosen. I’ve learned a great deal from Emily about the importance of drifting, reminded of her early triumphs over control management. I have time now, before editing her sequel, The Gilded Cage, to fortify myself against her frustrations and struggles later on.

The beauty of driftwood is its ability to suggest so much about life without trying. Accepting that one must have faith in the peripatetic force that carries us all, I hope to follow my character’s example and use a lighter touch on the controls. A bit of drifting now and then,can be most welcome, as Emily Alden apparently discovered in her search to hold onto certain liberties she could have had just by letting go. *

* I hope you’ll read about Emily’s life with her violin in 1800s New York City when Certain Liberties is published. I’ll let you know when it’s on the horizon, not wanting the opportunity to “drift” past too far.

7 Responses to Drifting…

  1. Thank you, Sidney, for shedding a positive light on ‘drifting.’ Besides that drifting is so hard, too often it implies “drifting apart” or “drifting away,” usually from a good quality to its absence. I have a beautiful piece of driftwood on top of a bookcase in my apartment that I haven’t pondered for years — decades. I think the time has come to re-admire its beauty.

  2. I’m not a writer but I think goals are survival skills that we’re born with.
    Drifting or letting go are other traits that resemble fear verses freedom that we must learn going through life using those survival skills.
    Maybe Emily’s violin was her drift wood that kept her going.

    • Ah, yes! I think you’ve hit on it. Hanging on for dear life to her violin even as a child. Well done. I didn’t see that myself and I created her! Thank you, Carole.

  3. I so appreciate behind the scenes work of a writer. This essay is reassuring in recognizing that out characters not only have lives of their own and independence, but return to us insights we were not conscious of.
    Perhaps a secondary or even essential goal for writers is having a good and trusting relationship with their writers. Seems you and Emily have that.


    • I think you mean a good and trusting relationship with our characters. I’d agree, but it’s not always a clear path. We can carry all the same emotional baggage we do with other relationships. And talk about control…once we start trying to control our characters all is lost. Witness Edith Wharton with her characters’ names. They were what they were, like it or not. Our characters demonstrate the same independence. Thanks for reminding me!

  4. Goal oriented here !! Guess was well trained so even deathly ill have to be up and about etc..with goals for the day..

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