TRACKING THE MUSE
Miroslav Penkov | The Myth of the Muse
I would very much like to begin with the beginning; about the way I write, or view writing. But I don’t know where and how writing begins, so I will start with this instead: From the time we are very little, in school, Bulgarians are taught to believe in the Muse. We believe in things like inspiration, like writing in a flow, and we deem re-writing not just as unnecessary, but as going against the whisper of the Muse Herself. Bulgarians are certain that writers, at their best, relinquish all control and merely listen to the words that float in the ether. We view our poets as shamans, as oracles who create only in moments of divine or devilish ecstasy. As a result, our great Bulgarian writers have reached a state of deification and their work is no longer questioned or viewed critically. They have earned eternal immunity by proxy of their muses. Their stories and poems are presented as flawless to the Bulgarian children in school, and this flawlessness in return bores the children to death and so they grow to hate the stories. But this is an entirely different question and appears here only so I can begin by saying—hardly.
In an ideal world, a story should come out of its characters. Many wonderful writers say that they simply allow the characters to act, then record their actions. By saying this, of course, the writers are being especially humble once more shifting the focal point away from themselves. Recording a character’s actions is really no different than listening to the whispers of a muse. But I believe these writers are speaking of those ideal moments when writing feels precisely like following someone else’s dictation.
“Tobacco Wedding,” published here in Blackbird, was a story that felt very much like recording something I saw while I was writing it. It is a story that fiction workshops would call plot-driven. The narrator finds himself in one dramatic situation after another, chased by bride-stealers, betrayed by his own family, which he in turn betrays; he changes his faith twice, gets married, twice. The story is heavy on dialogue and heavy on elemental action. But I can only hope that this action, these events, spring naturally out of this particular character, and are not forced upon him just because I, as a writer, wanted to pack in one story a he-goat, a preacher and a stealer of brides.
Before any muse, before any inspiration, I would like to put honesty. I am twenty-five and have only written stories seriously for ten years now, so let this discredit all my boastful statements—but I have never purposefully treated a character of my own as a character of my own. I treat them like actual people, with all the honesty I am capable of.
Sometimes the characters appear quickly and clearly from the get-go. I wrote a story not long ago, which is, to date, my favorite of all I have written. This story is an extreme case of writing in a flow. In five minutes I knew precisely who the main characters were, what troubled them and why. I knew with great certainty what would happen from beginning, to middle, to end. I went home and wrote from six in the afternoon until four in the morning and did not go on only because I feared my writing had turned sloppy without my realizing it. This is the closest I have come to a manic episode, with my brain firing so violently that later in bed, I could not sleep, could think of nothing but the story. And so after two hours of resisting myself, I went back and finished it. And even after that I could not sleep and kept rereading, and there was a great deal of tears and emotion, because the story had come from a very deep place and had touched a nerve that had never been touched before.
I often yield to sentimentality, which is among my biggest flaws when I write, but I have cried like this only once before, writing a story called “Buying Lenin.” But “Buying Lenin” came out slowly and with much pain. I went through many, many revisions until I was finally in foolish despair, with a version that I would still be rewriting if I hadn't had the sense to proclaim finish! Fortunately Bret Lott published the story in The Southern Review and later Heidi Pitlor and Salman Rushdie picked it up for the 2008 Best American Short Stories. But at the time of writing it I was too confused to really know if it were a good story or not. The multiple rewrites had completely misted my brain. But most other stories I write lie in the middle—neither too slow to come about, nor too explosive. Ideally, I can write about a thousand words a day and go through the first draft of a story in about a week.Finally, a word on writing with foreign words. At least this is what most people are interested in asking me, when they find out I write in a language that is not my mother tongue. A few years ago, just before I started my MFA at the University of Arkansas, I understood something with delightful terror. Literature, though firmly founded in language, transcends words. There are elements like character development, point of view, plot, that are universal, that stand above language, and thus one can create sensible literature, meaningful art, even with second-rate English. Honesty dictates this confession—if I fail in my stories, it is not because I write them in a stepmother tongue. It is shameful of me to use this foreign language as an excuse. And if it is a shame to use the language as an excuse, then it is equally shameful to use it as a reason for self-praise.