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!)


  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful words, Melissa! I'm so honored. Your writing is absolutely beautiful. I'm very much looking forward to following along for more :) Sending lots of love!

    1. Thank you so much, Shoko. The same to you :)

  2. I write in my journal all the time. Writing is just so therapeutic and nice. It doesn't matter what words come out, what matters are the feeling that are emitted! I recently started writing for fun about a year ago and I think it's one of the best things I could have done for myself. Beautiful post :)

  3. I stumbled upon your blog by clicking the "next blog" button and I'm glad that I did. You have a lovely way with words and you express your thoughts succinctly.

    I think that being honest about life and sharing observation helps us to find a deeper meaning in those experiences and ultimately have a better understanding of ourselves.

    I'm happy to follow your blog ;) and look forward to new posts. :)


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