Chelsea Biondolillo

Notes toward a Partial Definition of a Writing Process

Many of my essays start with an idea that by the end of the first draft I’ve completely discarded, and the fragmented essay “Notes toward a Partial Definition of Home” is no exception. I had wanted to write about how I walk everywhere I can and how I seek out scraps of nature every place I go.

When writing in fragments, I begin by generating as many small blocks of text as I can. In this case, I had pieces on the physicality of walking, the humid, hidden gardens of New Orleans, the mesquite and stunted pines of Santa Fe, blazing hot sidewalks in Phoenix punctuated by saguaros and fake washes instead of lawns, the rain puddles of home that I missed. Then I started to generate fragments about specific walks: walks in snow that I’ve made on two different Christmases, where I found myself on my own, an exhausting walk “around” Brooklyn I once made, not wanting to waste a minute in the big city, and the walk away from the apartment my ex-husband and I shared after I’d told him I didn’t want to be married anymore.

Once I have a decent stack of blocks, my visual arts background kicks in—I print out the pages, cut them up, and start moving them around on a field. The slips of paper represent a manifestation of swirling ideas—and physically placing one idea next to another keeps all possibilities open. It was this process that allowed me to see that many of my walking memories were related to my young (and brief) marriage, and that last piece, the recollection of how it felt to walk down Palace Avenue after finally saying what I’d been thinking for months, could serve as a key to many of the other fragments. Once I had that key—itself a kind of lens—the act of writing became one of curating. I discarded some pieces, elaborated on others.

One piece that didn’t make the cut had to do with driving. I tell people that I didn’t learn to drive until I was thirty-two but I only recently realized that that’s not true. I bought my first car when I was around thirty-two, but I’d gotten my license a couple of years earlier. The license became a necessity when I first left my husband and then left the extremely walkable Santa Fe, where we’d been living when we broke up. We split up long before my thirtieth birthday. I must have been driving by thirty. Even though I know this to be true, I can’t shake the certainty that I didn’t learn to drive until long after I did. Memory is funny that way.

While “Notes” is about my memories (and this idea of my mind rewriting pieces of my history seemingly without necessity intrigues me), I really wanted to stick with walking and the idea of home. I wanted to think about the microclimates we make (in a marriage, inside of a house, even within the confines of a window garden) and those we find (greenbelt, pond, empty desert at the edge of a subdivision). That bit about the car felt important for a few drafts, but eventually I had to decide if I had the space to argue that the inside of my car sometimes feels like home. I’ve only been driving for a little over a decade (give or take), and decided I couldn’t. Making these decisions, about what will live in the positive space of the essay and what will survive only as ghost in the negative space, is the fun part. It’s the reward I get for my generative work.