Welcome to The Seeking Series - a limited run of essays by emerging literary voices that brings writers into conversation with the journeys driving their creative process. This is lucky installment number two. Check out the rest here!
Bula, Baby: To the Muse
By Vittoria Benzine
Kava tastes like Earth’s essence distilled in a chilled drink, bitter but clarifying on the palette. Speckled with splashes of sediment, most of my friends liken the elixir to mud. Kava, scientifically known as Piper methysticum, “is a crop of the Pacific Islands consumed for its sedating effects.” Wikipedia explains that “The root of the plant is used to produce a drink with sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant properties.”
Last night, I am drinking the strongest concoction available at a kava house in the East Village in four fell swoops, following it swiftly with the second strongest. I take this second drink to go so I can chase sips with American Spirits and traipse the streets where I got sober twice — Manhattan, river to river, between 14th Street and Houston. This strip of concrete is the crash pad where I truly arrived.
I am listening to a specific playlist with just four emoticons in its title to further embrace the aura. It’s a strange playlist I made in thirty seconds during a dental appointment in April 2019. The dentist recommended I listen to some music while she filled four cavities in one sitting. The tropical fruit emojis signified some kind of peace, paradise, because I was scared shitless.
Passing City Cinemas’ Village East theater, I pause in the place where I quit drinking for the first time, one night in December 2017, after watching My Friend Dahmer. Enraptured by a carnal desire for Ross Lynch’s take on repression (I am not attracted to Ross Lynch or Jeffrey Dahmer, just the actor in the role— this seems necessary to clarify) I lit a cigarette upon ascending to street level.
I’m going to find a gorgeous guy to fall in love with, I thought to myself. I can still picture the rapid-fire mental effigy that sprang to meet my desire — his eyes and hair the same espresso tone, his glasses, the books arranged behind him. Standing in this very spot last night, three years later, I laugh and tell my former self how seamlessly this figure will appear over and over.
Kava makes me moody like alcohol always did without impairing my cognitive functions. I was not a happy party girl, I was a tragic figure floating out to sea, teetering over balcony edges. Alcohol put me in contact with a caldera of molten emotion within me and decimated my ability to control it. Willing myself to sink into the kava’s lull, willing the sensation to take, my efforts to establish communion between past and present serve some greater search. For gnosis. Pure feeling. Raw materials from which I can craft an essay due the next day. This essay, in fact.
Writing about myself varies markedly from the experience of writing nonfiction about someone else. In the latter case, the subject presents me with the pieces necessary to puzzle together their story. Writing like that is its own kind of art intertwined with an element of bootcamp. My deadlines maintain a warrior’s pace. However, creative writing from the heart requires me to summon the marble from my own proprietary chasm before chiseling it into a sculpture. A sculpture is really only as good as its marble. I think people say that.
My philosophy on the craft of writing looks like this:
Without endurance, none of it happens. There is no such thing as a ‘writer,’ only a person who writes. Raw endurance trained into clockwork is the most important skill, especially operating from scratch in a society that considers this career a luxury for any who dare adopt it. As such, endurance occupies the greatest surface area on the pyramid even though it’s the most base, most foundational facet.
Technical talent elaborates upon the ability to execute, bringing the writing to a new level that’s slightly harder to attain because it requires studying, reading. Language is an improvisational instrument in my opinion, but if you’ve never spun to a syncopated beat, you won’t know the dance steps within you. An increased repertoire of technique allows the work to adopt new dimensions of power.
Once one learns the rhythms of their own proclivities for language, possession of thought remains the final component. Possession of thought is the secret sauce that separates great novelists from keyboard jockeys. It is the ability to command a conversation with the muse, to remain aware and infatuated with its ceaseless dialogue shrouded just below superficial perception. Possession of thought decodes the shared human lessons expressed in the fractal shards of our individual experience. Whether it can be attained on purpose at all comes down to a discussion of tabula rasa — where does the human personality originate?
Ever the optimist, I turn to kava, a flighty tool towards achieving a deeper connection with my own emotions. Kava reacts to the state of my stomach and the chemicals at play in my mind. Sometimes I choke down bowl after of bowl to no avail, leaving with no euphoria, just a headache and intestinal heaviness. Tonight though, I’m measuredly pinpointing the sensation surrounding the second half of age twenty three, an era of dental offices and tearstained pillowcases, Elk County and zebra cakes I would run my tongue over until they alchemized into memory. I must have written three to five personal essays in that timeframe with the assistance of a steady kava stream, stumbling home one night each week in zonked out bliss while marveling upon the slow-motion solemnity of these abandoned industrial Brooklyn streets.
What I’m seeking is a quantifiable muse, a ride or die bonfire that sets the work aflame each time. The standard I strive for is pure magic. Pyschoactive substances have always served my search for a shortcut to the source.
In some circles, pouring a sedative root tea down my throat so quickly it makes me dry heave might qualify as a relapse. Unlike those circles, I measure each habit’s sustainability according to its interaction with my work — anything that increases the pace of production can stay, all hindrances face merciless cuts. My search takes no prisoners, my journey scoffs at rest stops.
Vittoria Benzine, 2018. Photo courtesy Grant Goldsworthy.
Accomplishment is not the end in itself. I wrote with intention for three years before alcohol took over. My intentions in high school predominantly sought upward mobility. I wanted a life greater than the options immediately at hand. While I still hold an element of that, my work now carries words imbued with my genuine soul (at least to the best of my ability each day.) This lifestyle is predominantly based off principles I have picked up empirically — that in itself is a belief system.
It wasn’t the actual disengaging from alcohol that yielded real magic in the three years that have ensued since. It was the action of it, the seizing. An energy of agency self-replicates. Fulfillment comes in the act of accomplishing, not the accomplishment — those rumors are true. Maintaining an unattainably idealistic goals for writing’s societal impact and working as if you like those odds. Ending each day with dial turned one notch further, the volume growing louder on the muse’s lingering siren song.
As much as one must learn what to do, I think they also must know how to do it. The execution is an art too. Life becomes an exploration, regarding each area with curious purpose. My direct relationship to kava is open-ended, nebulous, and not particularly communicative. By comparison, I imagine alcohol a separate entity I am often moved to shout down. Kava embodies one element of the conducting process, emotionally relocating myself to moments once filed for later processing. It is just another tool intended to transport, and it’s best utilized with intention and practice. I planned for a week to write this essay in one shot the night before it was due, mapping the memories I’d call upon. I outlined this essay days prior and meditated on that outline for entire afternoons before scrapping it at the last moment, riding the muse’s whims instead. Just as the action of it all began, I drank the strongest kava one can find in Manhattan, and then the second strongest. Then I listened, waited for it tell me what I needed to say.