I did some additional reading in the new edition of Best American Short Stories, guest edited by Salman Rushdie, and found another excellent story: “Buying Lenin” by Miroslav Penkov, in which an old Bulgarian communist grandfather and his capitalist grandson butt heads. There’s one tiny bit of authorial manipulation (in my opinion), but otherwise, I thought it was a compelling story about characters who seemed fresh and complicated. (See my previous thoughts on BASS here.)
Also complicated was the “story of the story”—the author’s note at the back of the book that explained the genesis and writing process of the piece. This one was especially notable, I thought, for its discussion of persistence and revision, and of how in the end, it’s the writer who needs to feel satisfied. Writing to please a workshop, or writing group, or teacher is never quite enough…we write to satisfy OURSELVES. Listen to the comments of other readers, yes, but when you know your story isn’t quite working, listen most closely to that voice inside you, even when it means more work, even at the risk of being sentimental or some such other “workshop” sin. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Here’s an excerpt from Penkov’s note:
“…The first line of the story came to me then, verbatim, as it is now. Wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, to write about the two ends of the chain—and old man painfully obsessed with his ideals and his past, and his grandson fighting to escape this same past and these same ideals? I knew that grandfather and grandson would come together in the end and that a strange, absurd cause would unite them. Wouldn’t it be funny, I wondered, if someone tried to sell Lenin’s body on eBay, and if someone else could buy that body? What an awful capitalist thing to do.
“I wrote a version of the story in two days and thought—that was that. I had not bothered to fulfill my initial idea, and now this was the story of an old Communist fanatic, whom I, as a writer, had failed to take seriously. I had left him a character in a twelve-page story.
“I presented the story in my first MFA workshop, and most of my friends liked it fine. At the back of her copy Ellen Gilchrist, who then led the workshop, had written only, ‘Send it out for publication.’
“A week after that, a visiting writer I admire greatly came to our program. He liked the opening paragraph but said the story ought to be about the grandson. He said the story, in its present form, was a political allegory no one would read. The characters, he said, came from a world where people worry if there will be food on the table. In America, he said, people worried about new cars. It’s never too late, he told me, to go back to your undergraduate psychology major and get a master’s.
“Instead, I expanded the story, put much more of the grandson in, and thought—that was that. My workshop hated the new version.
“They said the grandfather had lost much of his charm and eccentricity. I rewrote again. I was, as Americans might say, frustrated. I printed all scenes on separate pages and spread the pages across the floor, and rearranged, and rearranged, and in the end felt like a fool. I let a month go by, then sat down and wrote more scenes. Hunting for crawfish, which I knew my great-grandfather had loved to do, and the final letter. It is a preachy letter, sentimental, as workshop folk might say. But as I wrote it, I wept. I was the grandson, away, facing death, alone. It is an awful thing to weep along with the characters you write. It is a terrifying blessing.”
The story was published in The Southern Review before being reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2008.
May your own writing today feel like a terrifying blessing.