distillation

January 4, 2018

I can’t help but think of 2017 as my year of rejection. That sounds pathetic, and I hesitate to write about it because I’m not snuffling around for pity. The other day, when I began writing my yearly goals in my new Passion Planner, I looked back at last year’s goals. My top goal: “submit stuff!”

I submitted stuff. And then I got rejected. And rejected. And rejected. A writing workshop. A writing mentorship. Several publications. I got one acceptance but ultimately rescinded the essay because the editor insisted on a change I could not abide.

In some ways 2017 felt like a waste of a year, writing-wise. But my goal was not “get accepted!” My goal was “submit stuff!”

Which I did.

* * *

The older two came home for Christmas. L for ten days and H for five. H was supposed to be home longer, but an exciting opportunity to shoot part of a documentary came up at the last minute. So we packed as much as we could into five days. We had Christmas Eve with Chris’ side of the family and Christmas with mine. We played Anomia and Timeline and walked at Lake Merritt and got a camera lesson from our camera kid. We watched too many episodes of Impractical Jokers late at night. We ate Mexican food and Christmas cookies and had a very nice restaurant dinner. We goofed around outside the restaurant and took photographic evidence.

Five days of the five of us. We made the most of it.

* * *

The hardest part of all the rejection last year was not knowing how to get better. This is when I worry over the limitations of this thing I call homeschooling my MFA. I’m in a tricky place where most of the classes I have access to are too basic for me—but I can’t seem to get into the workshops or mentorships that might help. And I don’t want to spend the money on an actual MFA. (One kid out of college, one kid in college, one kid on the way to college…)

I decided to find my own mentor. I made a few pleas. Then I contacted Chelsea Biondolillo, whose essays I’ve admired. She had me at hermit crab.

* * *

The camera lesson was for our new Fuji XE-3, a small, mirrorless camera. H has an earlier model—apparently it’s the camera many cinematographers keep in their bags for scouting locations and street photography. It’s much smaller than my old DSLR and can send photos directly to my phone. It also links to a tiny Instax printer for instant photos—stupidly fun. I’m counting on this little camera to make me want to take pictures again.

* * *

The essay I sent Chelsea was a rewrite of a piece I wrote twelve years ago, about a trip our family took to Spain in 2005. It’s a stand-alone essay, but I’m also thinking of it as a chapter for my memoir. In the current draft I worked in an entirely new thread about the artist Velázquez and his painting “Las Meninas”—L fell for the little princess at the center of the painting as we studied for the trip. I also rewrote almost every other section. I wrote the heck out of that essay and didn’t know how to make it any better.

Chelsea gave me pages and pages of feedback. I could see that she had read and considered the essay many times over. She’s a generous, attentive reader. Her feedback was wide-ranging, but she particularly helped me understand the difference between bringing a reader into my mind and explaining everything away. I began to see that despite all the changes I thought I’d made in the essay, it was still attached to the skeleton of my twelve-years-ago draft.

Chelsea suggested that I write my own thoughts about Velázquez and his painting, rather than simply dropping in expert opinion as metaphor for my story. That understanding opened up more for me: I need to do the same in every section of the essay. I need to write every scene filtered through my own idiosyncratic mind. Which sounds obvious, but I hadn’t quite done that on the page.

* * *

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a book that is changing my writing practice. On days I don’t volunteer, I schedule in two separate two-hour sessions of uninterrupted work. No email. No texts. No internet searches. No nothing but writing or walking and thinking. I schedule in time later in the day for the “shallow work” of email and such. Then I turn off my email until the next day. I check in on Twitter at lunch and Instagram in the evening. That’s it. If I’m waiting in line somewhere, I look at the people around me.

To tell the truth, this is changing more than my writing practice.

* * *

I mulled over Chelsea’s feedback for a few weeks. Then we talked via Skype for over an hour. It was a very good hour.

We wound up chatting about fragmented essays and memoirs, which is the form I keep finding myself drawn to, which you know if you’ve been reading here for the past couple of years.

Chelsea recommended several. I’m currently reading one of her suggestions, Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t, very slowly and attentively. I also discovered Jeannie Vanasco’s The Glass Eye—fragmented, smart and a little weird. I scarfed it down. Vanasco writes about trying to figure out how to write the book she’s writing. Which I found irresistible.

It began to dawn on me that while almost all my recent blog posts have taken a fragmented form, I have yet to write an essay or memoir chapter in that form.

I began to rethink the Spain essay.

* * *

The new camera inspired me to catch up on organizing our photos. A few years ago I uploaded almost all of our digital photos to a private account on Flickr. I was a few years behind but now they’re all there—every decent digital and phone photo we’ve ever taken since 2004, all 15,959 of them. I’ve sorted them by season and special occasions and trips. Seeing all those photos organized on a screen gives me a ridiculous sense of satisfaction. Maybe it’s just the result of having accomplished a huge task, but I think it’s also the feeling that I’ve pinned down time somehow. That if, with a mere few clicks, I can see what we were doing in, say, the spring of 2009, I won’t feel that time is spinning out of control.

* * *

The essays that kept getting rejected in 2017 were essays I wrote in a generative writing class last January. Meaning a class designed to generate new work. I revised and revised those essays after the class, but still, they were somewhat strange essays. They did not take on the fragmented form that I keep talking about. That I keep finding myself drawn to.

They were, it occurs to me now, rather formless.

The other day Dina Relles, a Twitter acquaintance, tweeted, “Sometimes rejections save me from myself.”

I clicked a red heart on that tweet immediately.

* * *

In my two-hour “deep work” sessions, I’ve been writing little scenes and sections about our trip to Spain. I don’t know how they’ll fit together but I’m not worrying about that now.

I’m trying to filter every scene through my own thoughts. I’m not writing about walking into that gallery in the Prado and looking at the painting like I did in my last draft. I’m writing about walking into that gallery and watching L’s reaction to the painting. And then her brothers’ reactions. And her grandparents’ reaction to her reaction.

I want the reader to see what I was paying attention to.

I want to arrange the sections so the reader has some figuring out to do.

* * *

While it’s great to see, with a few clicks, what we were doing in spring 2009 (making limoncello, installing our first beehive, taking our oldest to visit potential colleges), it does not really make me feel that time is not spinning out of control. That oldest kid left for college in New York in 2010, which means this was our eighth Christmas with him flying home and then leaving again.

It was his sister’s fourth Christmas of flying home and leaving again.

Time is flying even more than my kids are. I am having trouble wrapping my brain around any of this.

* * *

Another reason why I don’t want to look back on an entire year and see nothing but rejection.

* * *

Writing these Spain fragments is interesting. I’m taking what I’ve already written and I’m distilling it. Boiling away all that explaining and leaving just enough for the reader to come to her own conclusions.

Or at least that’s what I’m trying to do.

* * *

I’m interested in this notion of distillation right now.

Maybe what I find most satisfying about our Flickr page is that it’s a distillation of our family life together. So much time, so many memories, concentrated in one place.

Five days together as a family: the essence of what came before. What came before, condensed.

Even my deep work writing sessions are a sort of distillation of my attention. Pure, undistracted attention.

Always, distillation requires a larger source. You don’t get to the essence of anything without having something to extract from.

Maybe I shouldn’t think of 2017 as my year of rejection but my year of submitting stuff! My year of making stuff. Now I have something to work with. To boil down to its heart.

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Katieh January 4, 2018 at 2:59 pm

I loved this piece. I just wanted you to know that, rather than just reading it and then closing the tab. So i am telling you.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 3:16 pm

Thanks so much, katieh! It means a lot to me when readers take the time to respond.

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Andrea January 4, 2018 at 4:18 pm

This was great. And I totally understand the Year of Rejection vs Year of Submitting Stuff. I’ve been trying to get an agent to represent my 2nd novel and well, it has been a discouraging year!

Here’s to success in 2018 for us homeschool mamas!

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:32 pm

Hi Andrea! It’s always extra special to hear from fellow writers/homeschooling mamas! Thank you for saying hello and I hope this is the year that novel finds an agent!

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Melissa January 4, 2018 at 5:12 pm

I love your honesty, with the rejections, with the kids coming and going, with the desire to want to get better-thinking you are-and having the courage to see that to really improve you need to invest in outside mentoring! *I love that you did what you set out to do!* YOU DID!! The results may not have been what you envisioned, but you’ve made such strides, such stretches and as a loyal (but quiet) reader I thought I should tell you WELL DONE! Only slightly off topic, but still related, my eldest homeschooled-the-whole-way came home for the first time this Christmas. Her brother and sister were with me as we settled her in to college (full free ride!) in August. Then we drive away to our new home in Alaska to meet up with Dad and start a fun season. The East Coast is so far from our Alaskan Island that seeing her would be Christmas and summer… I re-read the blog post from so long ago when you took your daughter to school. I remember the first time I read it, when you posted it and how my heart hurt for you. I’ve read it a few times for encouragement, for commiseration and for a sense of hope. I’m messing up what I want to really say but at its crux: the effort you make to submit, to share, to thoughtfully capture your thoughts to share—in so thankful to you. Really ♥️ Ps. I’m not proofreading this, so all mistakes are here to help you see ways to improve;)

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:47 pm

Your comment touched me, loyal-but-quiet Melissa! Thank you so much for coming out to say hello. I’m always extra delighted to hear from homeschoolers–I worry that I haven’t offered much here for homeschoolers in a while. I want to get this homeschooling memoir right because I think the world needs a homeschooling book that’s about sharing stories rather than offering advice. I’m incredibly encouraged that you’ve gone back to my post about taking L to college for support while you live your own story with your own girl. *That* is exactly the sort of exchange I’m hoping for–I share my story and you embroider it with your own. I share my attempts to figure things out hoping it helps you figure out your own things. Congratulations on homeschooling your daughter right into a free ride! I’m sure the distance and the missing-her is crazy hard. I hope watching her blossom from afar fills some of that longing, as it has for me with my kids. It sounds like you got to see her at Christmas? I hope so! And I hope you loved your family time together as much as I did. I’m thankful right back at you–xo!

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Dawn January 4, 2018 at 5:13 pm

“You don’t get to the essence of anything without having something to extract from.“
This is brilliant, Patricia!
I’m inspired by your commitment to the deep work. I need to set aside dedicated time for my work.
Thank you for sharing your process.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:49 pm

Hello dear Dawn! It’s hard to set aside time when you’re in the thick of homeschooling–I know. But I hope you manage a little more of it, because your work is so vital and inspiring. xo.

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Cathy January 4, 2018 at 5:24 pm

I so appreciated this piece. Thank you for continuing to share in this space.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:49 pm

And thank you for continuing to read, Cathy, and for taking the time to say hello!

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Jenny January 4, 2018 at 5:51 pm

Finally had some time to check out what some dear people are doing and it was wonderful reading your blog today. I especially like the part about family, work process and rejection. In other words I think I liked it all. Happy writing in 2018.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:52 pm

I’m always honored to have my mama-friends read my stuff, Jenny. Thank you! I know you cherish the windows of family time like I do. Knowing our guys are together always makes them seem a little closer to home. 🙂

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Tina January 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Organizing our family photos. Feels so good. But I’m not there. Loved the post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:56 pm

Thank you for reading, my friend! Organizing the photos is so satisfying. 3,122 of mine are tagged AOHL! What a life we’ve all made together!

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Kristin January 4, 2018 at 6:31 pm

Loved this. Can feel your melancholy. I like how you don’t give up. I like that you do what you say you’re going to do. I like that you don’t let perfectionism get in the way of trying—anything, from photography to writing to bees…

Hang in there! It’ll all come together before you know it, like your photo archive did.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 9:59 pm

I like how you always see the best in me. 🙂 Chapter two is a challenge, but we’re doing it, aren’t we? It’s so reassuring to have you on a parallel journey.

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Molly January 4, 2018 at 6:33 pm

I love all of this ❤️

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 10:01 pm

That’s because we get each other. <3

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Laura January 4, 2018 at 7:01 pm

I love your writing. I think I say those exact words every time I read something written by you, but I mean it. I hear your voice. I imagine you smiling or shaking your head. I always feel like I’ve been somewhere after I’ve read a piece by you. I love the journey. You’re brilliant.

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patricia January 4, 2018 at 10:09 pm

I’ll take those exact words as often as you want to give them, my friend! I especially love when you tell me that you hear my voice in my writing–because what the heck does my writing voice sound like? I can’t recognize it from this place in my head. I want my writing voice to sound like me, so it means the world that you hear it. When are you and that man of yours coming to stay in one of our empty kids’ bedrooms? I want to exchange voices in person. I want to dance and sing Always Something There to Remind Me in my kitchen. *smooch!*

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Carrie Pomeroy January 4, 2018 at 9:04 pm

It WAS your year to submit stuff, to make stuff. And now you get to spend this year doing some delicious distilling. By this time next year, it’ll be interesting to look back and see how what you were doing in 2017 laid the groundwork for your creativity in 2018 and beyond. I think there’s been a lot happening, even if it may not feel like the progress you’d like. I love your honesty and the bittersweet tone here. So good!

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patricia January 5, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Another friend on Instagram said the same thing–that at the end of this year I may look back and better understand what the work of 2017 was all about. I hope so! 2017 was definitely a tough year writing-wise (not to mention world-wise) but your daily literary friendship was a light that kept me going. I had no idea how much our practice would come to mean to me. (One of these days I’ll write a blog post to share the goodness of accountability partners.) I’m so excited to keep going and to see what happens with our work this year. Here’s to 2018, writing buddy!

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Carrie Pomeroy January 4, 2018 at 9:17 pm

I also need to get my hands on Deep Work! Your two-hour chunks of uninterrupted writing time and limited social media use sound so good.

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patricia January 5, 2018 at 1:58 pm

Do it! I found my copy at the library and skimmed it; then I bought the audiobook and am listening more slowly. It’s already been a gamechanger for me. I feel like I’m going to be so much more productive this year. Yay!

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Ellen Rowland January 4, 2018 at 11:30 pm

Found this in my inbox this morning and read it over coffee. What a great way to wake up. As a fellow writer, I struggle constantly with distilling and can so relate to rejection and reworking. I think all your deep work and commitment have paid off. I love your writing. It’s clean and crisp and drew me right in! So keep doing that. By the way, sharing your own deep learning and creativity is still about homeschooling, just your own. For me, it’s all connected. I learn so much from homeschooling my children! I loved your MFA essay. Hope 2018 is filled with creative abundance for you!

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patricia January 5, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Hi Ellen–so nice to meet you. What an amazing life you’ve made for your family! Lucky for us that you write about it so we can experience it vicariously. Thank you for the kind words about my writing! I’m so glad that you consider my posts about my learning to be homeschooling posts–I’m right with you on that notion. I learned so much about learning as I watched my kids learn. Thank you for reading and I wish you a fulfilling writing year as well!

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Jennifer January 5, 2018 at 7:18 am

I’ve been rereading your blog recently, as I have been giving *too much* feedback to my daughter as I take down her writing in dictation. (The thing is, her writing is actually really good for an 8 year old, so the bits that are completely unrealistic or untenable drive me nuts… — but ownership to the writer!)

Anyway, having been submerged in your blog for a couple of days, it was a treat to see your new blog entry in my inbox this morning. Thank you. 🙂

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patricia January 5, 2018 at 5:20 pm

Hi Jennifer! Ah, the old *too much feedback* problem. Believe me, I can relate! I enjoy writing so much that I can’t help but think about how others could make their work better–ha! It’s always easy to see “flaws” in the work of others, and so satisfying when we can’t always see the flaws in our own. It’s hard to hold back. But the fact that you recognize the too-much-ness of what you’re doing shows that you see room for improvement, and you’ll do better. Just remember: that writer’s ownership you mention is the engine that drives the thing. If kids have that, they’ll learn what they need to know. Do whatever you can to protect it.

I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been “submerged” in my blog for a couple of days. That’s about the nicest thing you could tell me. I’m so happy that my writing posts are still helping people. Thank you for submerging yourself–and for taking the time to tell me about it. xo.

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Maria January 6, 2018 at 12:57 am

I always get so excited when I see you have a new post. It’s like running into an old friend I haven’t had the chance to connect with lately. I am always amazed to hear you struggle because from reading I hope to get to where you are. (Navigated your two oldest through homeschool to college and helping them grow into themselves. As always, still in a rocky time, I hold you as a little piece of hope on dark days. Thanks you for sharing so nakedly.

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patricia January 8, 2018 at 9:55 pm

Ah, Maria, there’s nothing like hearing someone is excited to read my words! Thank you. We all have our dark days and we all struggle, right? I’m glad I’m able to give you hope sometimes. Your faithful comments here give me hope on my dark days too. <3

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Maria January 6, 2018 at 12:59 am

And….should add. Feel accomplished for 2017, enjoy the journey of 2018. You are doing great work…and working so much!

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patricia January 8, 2018 at 9:56 pm

xo!

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Amy January 7, 2018 at 9:31 pm

Wise and lovely. I love the knack you have for sharing your earnestness without ever seeming grandiose. Your approachability is divine ;-). I love your humility and the ways in which you value and honor your own work. Thank you, always, for sharing your process with us.

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patricia January 8, 2018 at 10:06 pm

Amy, I think in one of my early emails to Chelsea I may have worried about my writing being too earnest–ha! I’m glad it works for you. Thank you for being interested in my process. Your interest and your wisdom are gifts to me.

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