Distillation

The iron leaves a streak of gray silt on my blouse. Before I can react, it is cooked in. I have no time for this, but it is my own fault for taking a shortcut. I could have purchased the distilled water, but I chose to fill the iron from the tap. It seems an unnecessary hardship, the task of adding an item so rarely purchased to the list. To actually remember to buy water? With everything else life demands? But now, this. A stain, and I will have to find a way to repair it, to rub the iron over salted paper, to make things right.

It seems such an extreme process. Is it really necessary to cook invisible hitchhikers out of the substance? To force it through those narrow passageways and collect it, so much reduced? This rarified version cannot really be so different from its original stuff. How is it possible that all those microscopic bits, things the naked eye cannot even discern, are such a burden?

It is odd to have this spare moment for ironing. It is odder still to have a spare ounce of gray matter for musing about it. Now that we have entered December, I can tackle some of the lingering items from last month’s neglected list. November was a bear. On November 2nd, a co-worker informed me we had just begun National Novel Writing Month. Sounds nice, but doesn’t everything has a stretch of the calendar these days? Oatmeal Appreciation Week. Lute Celebration Day.

No, no, my friend explained. You write a whole novel in the month of November. 50,000 words between the 1st and the 30th. He had started it already. I was dumbstruck. One day in, and I was already almost two days behind! I couldn’t wait. The opportunity to write towards such an ambitious goal was too delicious to pass up, no matter how strong the other demands on my time. That evening, I went home lacking an idea, an outline, or even a character. I did, however, have everything I needed to begin: a wide-open canvas and the thrill of the hunt.

It turns out it is not so very hard to write 2000 words a day. As long as I ignored my tired and crossing eyes, the 13 items on my to-do list, and all the tempting pulls away from the pen, I had no problem producing copious, overflowing quantities of words. It’s simply a matter of sitting one’s backside down at the page and commanding the hand to go. I did not have time to doubt the process. The choice to achieve the goal is itself the act of faith. Whatever source I drew upon was abundant, it was far bigger than I am, and it was unconcerned with anything going on up on the skin of my days. It flowed on its own, right on past me if I didn’t dip into it. As soon as I did, up it welled.

The juice that spilled out to the surface may be crude. It stuck to everything, including itself. It took no identifiable shape. But it was the raw material, and it was rich, tasty stuff.

I crammed writing into every nook and cranny of my waking hours. Previously undiscovered pockets of time revealed themselves. After Bug goes to bed, I found energy I never knew I possessed because I usually tell myself I am too foggy. My lunch hour was long enough for both a 30-minute walk and 1000 words. Waiting in Tee’s parking lot for 10 minutes, grabbing the first open seat on the metro, tapping my toes in the doctor’s office waiting room. As long as I shed the habits of distraction and the illusory need for ritual, as long as I simply opened the book and started writing, no matter what my state of mind, I could – I can – write 2000 words in 45 minutes flat.

Two choices I made starting out on November 2nd: First, I was going to finish it. Second, I was not going to sacrifice any other essential element of my life to finish it. These two things require a quick and dirty assessment of what, in fact, qualifies as “essential.”

These things are my necessaries:

  • Giving my 8-hour work day my all.
  • Being an attentive mother and playmate to my kid.
  • Running, dancing, sleeping, and eating well.
  • A bit of time with friends.
  • Caring for the dog.
  • Flossing.
  • And, because the success of the whole endeavor turns on the axis of a secure home, being at least a tolerable housemate to my forbearing parents.

The two choices – finishing it and not giving up the important stuff to do so – required sanding down and fitting together the edges of all the tasks in a day. I had to learn quickly how to move between them without chatter and nonsense. Moments became intentional. Yes, a well-balanced gal needs her version of loafing. For quiet, I lit a candle and stretched my body across the living room floor. When done, I took a breath and returned to the page.

Such an endeavor comes with a cost. Among other things, writing fiction means not reading up for the LSATs or the GREs. It means not reading at all. No news, no poems, no advice columns, no blogs by friends. The list of things I do not do when I write is infinite. Worrying about the not-doing was yet another thing I did not allow myself to do.

The main cost is not anything like a loss. It is a purification. In a few short weeks, I discovered this: As I increase the heat and push writing through the narrow spaces between the necessaries, what is left behind is inessential. The things I do not do – things like watching TV, unfocused shopping excursions, Facebook, and pawing through my closet trying on five outfits before deciding what to wear to work – are junk. Dregs and residue. They weigh down my vision, clog up my brain, and leave a sticky residue choking the pores of my days.

Ignore the task of distillation, and the stains become inseparable from the fabric. The work to repair the tarnished journey is far more of a burden than the simple discipline of practice.

My birthday gift to myself on November 28th was to cross the finish line. After work and cake and gifts and Bug’s bedtime ritual, I dragged myself to my room and wrote the 50,000th word. The next evening, I grafted an ending onto one limb of the story and dumped the whole thing on the NaNoWriMo website.  It’s mostly garbage, but it is the raw beginnings of another novel. And I completed all 52,800 words of it in 28 days.

Distillation is not a gentle process. Heat and aggressive focus: these are the things that burn apart the elemental makeup and offer up a concentrated supply of the pure and right.

Write on.

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