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Flatbush Flashback

Sonja, My Muse


Just about everything I've ever published in a book, newspaper, or magazine I've rewritten 10 or 15 times, sometimes more. That's what I have to do to get my sentences to sound natural, as if they flowed effortlessly from my computer. To paraphrase Thomas Edison: Good writing is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.


When I wrote "The Life of Sonja," a tribute to the artist Sonja Wagner, which ran in The Village Voice, something miraculous happened. I'd been thinking about her a lot since she was diagnosed with a terminal disease and given only a short time to live. I wanted to write something, but wasn't sure what to say or where to publish it.


Early one morning in late January, a few days after Sonja's birthday, as I was walking on The High Line, a fully formed paragraph popped into my head—the first paragraph of what became "The Life of Sonja." When I got home, I keyed the paragraph into my computer, and the rest of the story, more than a thousand words, flowed effortlessly, in a way that hasn't happened with an article of that length in longer than I can remember. It was as if a muse had dictated it to me, and I wondered if that muse could have been Sonja.


I knew I'd written something that captured her spirit and personality, so I sent it to the editor of the Voice, explaining the situation. I wanted Sonja to be able to read it while she still could. I wanted it to be a celebration of her life, not an obituary. The Voice got back to me in less than 24 hours. They were going to run it ASAP. I spent the next day in a frenzy running around Manhattan photographing her artwork to illustrate the piece. It appeared on the Voice website February 7.


A few days later I visited Sonja at a rehab facility in the Bronx. She was doing well that day, sitting up in bed and not needing oxygen. Just as I'd hoped, she was able to read the tribute, critiquing and commenting on it as she went along. "The Life of Sonja" gave Sonja a great deal of pleasure. She was thrilled to see her art alongside another piece about Edward Hopper. And then, in true Sonja fashion, she asked if I could score her some weed.


When Sonja died in the early morning hours of March 3, the Voice asked me to add a postscript "for the historical record." So I did. And now it's official. Sonja, my muse, has entered history.


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