Author Lynn Freed speaks in a clear voice in an age of angst, baring her heart in eleven essays, a combination memoir and reflection on the writing life and the blurred edges between the two. A native South-African, Freed is an award-winning author of five novels and a short story collection, a woman with a unique voice in the modern world.
Sharing the sources of her inspiration and the myriad ways autobiography shapes fiction, Freed tackles her topics with refreshing candor, examining the writer’s role in defining and molding characters. Using her practical experience, Freed makes a strong case for those who suffer for their parents’ “benign neglect,” a condition that allows the writer-in-training to observe society and her response to it: “My sense of male entitlement has carried easily into every sphere of my life.”
Freed’s childhood fascination with witches and goblins is replaced by the nightmarish images of the Holocaust. Given unlimited access to every volume in her parent’s extensive library, these are the stories that are etched in her consciousness, hinting of a much different world beyond fairytales. As the third daughter with two beautiful sisters and a number of miscarried infant brothers, Freed is “treated with amusement, like a sort of wild card.” Enjoying this particular cachet in the family hierarchy, the author says, “The bolder I was, the better they liked it.”
Unable to perform the usual adolescent flirting rituals, a facile jousting with words is the only tool the young girl uses in engaging the opposite sex. Freed leaves home for New York and everything beyond, her South African roots evident over the years in her speech, carrying with her the memories of apartheid and Jewish history, armed with an active imagination and sharp wit.
These essays are full of lessons: fiction does not come out of ideas; fiction is achieved through creative failure; longing for an audience guarantees none; and the truth is the life at the very heart of the failure. One of my favorite essays is “Taming the Gorgon,” a piece that speaks to a mother’s role, barrier or conduit between her child and the future: “When I came back to where I had begun… my mother had come along with me. And so had her voice.”
Freed boldly states that “writers are natural murderers,” suggesting we must kill off anyone whose opinion matters, anyone who will restrict the work “down to the heart of the matter within.” And she talks about motivation: “Revenge, for the purpose of fiction, concerns power… the power to expose… the power to understand.”
The challenge is to find the proper subject in a chaotic memory, to focus and refine, “What the writer must know is how things happen, not why.” Certainly, this is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of writing about those we know, which is all we can write about with any authority. The author’s honesty is refreshing, one of the reasons this book is such a delight to read.