distil // thoughts on writing

Tuesday, February 9

I’ve been enjoying the writing of Shoko Wanger recently (of ‘Sho & Tell’ blog). She writes a beautiful narrative essay series* called 'POV' where she reflects on memory and being in the moment and ‘learning to embrace a quarter-life crisis’ (among other things). Her essays remind me (and reinforce my conviction) that writing that draws on real life, on personal experience, isn't something irrelevant or self-indulgent when it's done well: instead, looking honestly (and with curiosity) at your own life and then offering up what you notice to others... it’s actually extremely valuable work.

‘It’s not often,’ I wrote in my journal back in December when I first stumbled upon her blog, ‘that you read another’s words and think: “well, yes – that’s exactly it! Thank-you.” That, as I see it, is the purpose of writing. (Or at least a purpose.) The purpose of writing truthfully. To leave space for (and trust in) the possibility that your words, observations, life might do the same for another.’

I was thinking a bit about that idea again after my brother, Evan**, shared the poem Nothing is Lost by Noël Coward with me. In the poem, Coward writes that nothing is ever forgotten: not really. Everything that’s ever happened to us (‘sorrows and losses time has since consoled,/Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes/Each sentimental souvenir and token...’) is all still floating about in our subconscious somewhere, ‘waiting to be recalled...’

It’s an interesting thought. And I am always kind of bawled over when someone says something, or I overhear something, or I taste something that sparks a memory. When I remember something I forgot I knew.

That’s kind of what he’s talking about. Nothing is lost. But what the poem makes me think of is the idea that nothing is ever wasted either. Blunders, mistakes, blips – embarrassing moments where you muddled your sentences, those hours where you got lost in the dark in the city in the rain – nothing, really, is wasted. Or it doesn’t need to be at least. 

There are many many aspects of ‘being a writer’ that could, potentially, drive one insane: the clock ticking, the solitude, the blank-page-blank-head problem, the question: ‘how’s the writing going?’, the pain – actual physical muscle-tightening pain – that comes every day from trying to pull ideas out of your head and down into words: like you’re trying to lasso the moon out the sky and pull it through a keyhole. But one aspect of writing that probably keeps me sane is that voice that says, in the middle of real life difficulties: 

'Don’t worry. You can make something out of this. If nothing else, you can write about this later.' 

NB. I’m not talking about over-sharing via paper, or thinly disguising real life gripes as fiction. Absolutely not. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than reading writing like that. I’ve read too many stories recently where the main ‘character’ is clearly just the writer with wig on.

What I mean is... I think I’m learning that the trick to writing well – or really: the trick to being an empathic person, because maybe that’s actually what I’m talking about, and that’s what kind of writer I want to be – is being able to look at your own experience and find a way to distil it down till you’re not necessarily talking about particulars anymore (THIS happened THEN over THERE). Good writing, I think, is when you’re able to capture the essence of experiences (the colour and texture and sound of them) and turn them into words that ring true.

NB.2. I’m also not saying I’m very good doing that – at distilling experience. But it’s something I’d like to learn how to do because I see it in the writers I like and in the people I admire most: the people who are open and authentic and honest without being attention-seekers or needy.   

I also like the idea of a writer’s brain being an ‘experience distillery’. (If any illustrators read this blog, please draw that idea for me.)


*Here are three essays from Sho & Tell you might like: 'Triumphs', 'Busy', and  'Roads'.

**Evan, incidentally, has also just started a blog: 'Coffee with Philosophers' and he's a pretty good writer so you should read it. 

The pictures in this post are by: Fumi Koike

(Also, ps. Thank you for your feedback on my last post. And apologies if this one seems a bit waffley ...I also realise it’s another ‘here are some thoughts after reading a poem’ piece. I will try and mix it up a little for next time!)

a poem for you.

Tuesday, February 9

Nothing is Lost
by Noël Coward

Deep in our sub-conscious, we are told
Lie all our memories, lie all the notes
Of all the music we have ever heard
And all the phrases those we loved have spoken,
Sorrows and losses time has since consoled,
Family jokes, out-moded anecdotes
Each sentimental souvenir and token
Everything seen, experienced, each word
Addressed to us in infancy, before
Before we could even know or understand
The implications of our wonderland.
There they all are, the legendary lies
The birthday treats, the sights, the sounds, the tears
Forgotten debris of forgotten years 
Waiting to be recalled, waiting to rise
Before our world dissolves before our eyes 
Waiting for some small, intimate reminder,
A word, a tune, a known familiar scent
An echo from the past when, innocent
We looked upon the present with delight 
And doubted not the future would be kinder
And never knew the lon
eliness of night.

Picture by: Jiwoon Pak.
by mlekoshi