If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of taking an organic chemistry lab then you will already be intimately familiar with the process of distillation. If not, here is a quick rundown: distillation is the process of separating a blend of liquids by heating the mixture, boiling off the vapors that form, and collecting the condensed liquid. Liquids with low boiling points evaporate first, leaving behind their higher boiling point liquid counterparts. Alcohol is produced by applying this distillation process to the liquid products formed by the breakdown of sugars and plant material by bacteria or yeast. One of the byproducts of this fermentation process is ethanol, the lovely drug that gets us drunk. Various flavors and alcoholic proofs can be generated by modifying what type of plant matter gets fermented and how much ethanol is allowed to burn off during the distillation process. The amount of ethanol burned off during distillation affects the strength of the final solution — the more ethanol burned off, the stronger the final solution.
Distillation boils down (get it?) to nothing more than the removal of unwanted excess, resulting in a final, unadulterated solution free of impurities. With enough heat and time we can conjure up a potent brew, a bubbling and boiling concoction of mystery and wonders, so capable of elevating us to an alternate plane of human experience and reason that it has been the subject of prohibitions by entire governments. It can be consumed hastily during periods of unrest, carried in flasks in our coat pockets for a stiff one during trying times, or stored in darkness, like a time capsule, waiting for the chance to alter the minds of an entire generation of future posterity. The same can be said about the process of writing and the words we distill from this uniquely human act.
Human conversation amazes me. It baffles me that our minds can rapidly produce thoughts and generate the spoken words to convey them. The entire process is so effortless, the thoughts and the words which carry them being generated nearly instantaneously as we speak. When we talk, it doesn’t (usually) feel like we have to struggle to form a proper sentence or sift through mountains of mental filing cabinets to find the right word. We don’t replay our ideas a thousand times over or reword a spoken sentence fifty different ways so it sounds right. Our thoughts are simply there, floating in the air on the branches of our minds waiting for us to pluck them off and thrust into the world.
But the moment you sit down to write it feels as though the encyclopedia equivalent of pandoras box has been unleashed inside the confines of ones mind. An avalanche of thoughts and words consumes our mental cavity and all manner of ideas begin to swirl around in your mind vying for your attention. A diffuse, runny, collection of sensations (“this chair I’m sitting on hurts”), ideas (“why is unfettered capitalism the best for human progress?”), rules (“where does the apostrophe in do’nt go again?”), words (“I used ‘really’ too many times, what’s a synonym for ‘really’?”), emotions (“I hope that jackass who honked at me while crossing the street today eats it”), etc. etc. These thoughts are everywhere and are happening all at once. The task of writing, then, is the task of trying to extract from this maelstrom of thought a point of focus; to distill from this torrential sea of ideas, sensations, feelings, and thoughts a concrete idea to convey.
Writing is distillation. We distill from the soup of our mind a seasoned stew that can be gently ladled into the minds of others, like a mother and baby opening wide for the airplane. This is what it feels like to write. To concentrate our thoughts into succinct ideas requires this prolonged and laborious task of distillation. Like trying to boil the entirety of the Gulf of Mexico to distill a volume no larger than a cup of tea we must similarly spend immense time and mental energy kindling this sea of consciousness to extract the precious thoughts mixed throughout. Like a shot of Everclear, a piece of writing so sufficiently distilled, removed of excess garbage, can carry the force of a freight train and leave us perplexed, pensive, and pondering in the private contemplation of our minds (though perhaps with less vomiting)1.
This process of distillation is one of excision, of removing excess words and mental garbage from our writing. It is not a new idea. Rule 17 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is “Omit Needless Words”. We must omit the superfluous, the unnecessary words and concepts to let the succinct be all that remains. Poetry takes this distillation process, the omission of needless words, and turns it into a bootleg moonshine distillation operation. Like moonshine, poetry is a high-proof form of writing that has been forged under the moonlit recesses of our psyche and packs the complexity of one’s life into short and powerful verses. Haiku takes the distillation process of writing and turns it into a full blown billion dollar industrial distillery. Haiku captures centuries of complex human experience and distills them into the volume of a mere 17 syllables — maybe it is a coincidence that Rule 17 was given that number. Writers of poetry and haiku are masters of distillation. They are capable of reducing thoughts and ideas, words and sentences, emotions and sensations down to their bare form. This is why these art forms can be so powerful.
But distillation is just one part of the process. When I sit down to write, I often envision myself trying to navigate a thick and impenetrable web of thought similar to how a jungle explorer feels chopping away at the dense forest canopy surrounding her. Scrambling amidst the annoying buzz of mosquitoes distracting her, the sweat obscuring her vision, the full path is rarely in sight all at once. Rather, our path is shrouded by the seemingly all encompassing vines and flora. We become tripped up by mental weeds we failed to notice, or become distracted by the noise of the intrusive thoughts darting in and out around our ears. We can find ourselves trudging along a path for hours, feeling as though we are making progress only to realize our path leads to a dead-end. Writing, for me, can feel as mentally and phyiscally laborious as this, and yet, the chopping must continue. But once we weed our way through the thick of it, we notice the surroundings beginning to loosen, the vines clearing, and the jungle breaking open to reveal a vast coastline — the edges of our mind. Here we find ourselves standing before an immense ocean — the uncharted sea of our mind — waiting for us. We have found what we are looking for. The sea of thought, filled with wonders, ready to be explored, ready to be distilled.
Most people can tell the difference between clear writing and the mountain of rubbish hat occupies most of the physical and digital world. Like sommeliers, we can taste a good piece of writing when we drink it up. We see the details and lucidity behind the prose and marvel at the simplicity with which thoughts are conveyed (the writing of George Orwell immediately comes to mind). Reading shit writing is a chore. It is exhausting. Writers who write complicated sentences with abstract words and vague ideas have put in their due hours trying to distill thoughts but they don’t use enough heat to fully extract the concrete from the abstract. Instead, these writers pass that task on to the readers. It is we as readers of trash writing who must struggle to draw up the heat to extract the meaning from the sentences we read. Good writers do this for us, violently excising needless words and dead-end thoughts, leaving behind a delicate, consumable piece of literature. Bad writers try to force the words into the minds of their readers — anyone who has ever tried to get their pet to swallow a pill will know the difficulty in doing this. But like spoon feeding applesauce to a toddler without making those “CHOO CHOO” train noises, reading bad writing takes the fun out of the process.
Reading garbage writing is as challenging as writing itself. Perhaps this factors into why good writers write the way they do. Having been so worn out from fighting the words of bad writers, good writers have taken it upon themselves to keep the reader in mind when they write. Good writers spend the time to heat up the thoughts in their minds. They pour the entirety of their bodily warmth into the distillation of their thoughts, leaving behind clear, fresh, and insightful writing. The mind is immense and distilling the ideas and consciousness of our own minds is daunting and time consuming. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones likens writing to composting. She says it takes time for “our experiences to sift through our consciousness”, that the human mind is like a large compost pile collecting experiences the same way our compost pits collect the “eggshells, spinach leaves, [and] coffee grinds” from our cooking. But with enough time and decomposition, this compost produces rich nutrients, the “nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil” that gives birth to new life. Whether you wish to call it distillation or composting the process is all the same. We must expend great time and energy into our writing to convey the richness of our thoughts and depth of our experiences to others. We collect in ourselves, over decades of living on the Earth, profound experiences. We face triumph and tragedy, reunite with old lovers, take up new hobbies, and explore the darkest parts of our being. It is no easy task trying to distill from these human experiences the words to describe them but that is what makes writing meaningful.