Friday, January 23, 2015

Driving and Writing

            I spend more of my time driving than I usually care to consider. I work 77 miles from my home, though in my Michigan/Ohio way, I think of it as “an hour and fifteen minutes away.” Either rendering, of course, has its limits. Depending on the time I drive and the circumstances on the highway, the time from point to point may be an hour and ten minutes or two hours. And should I daydreamingly miss my exit or take a scenic detour, the distance may increase by ten miles.
            Over time, though, I have come to appreciate as a writer the work drive and its varied permutations. At the literal level, driving has inspired several poems and prose scenes, as experiences of the moment drop into my mind, germinate, and grow. Most recently five stationary hours yielded “Symphonic Suite on a Traffic Jam.” Other moments of exuberance and musical immersion (“head-bobbing and wiggle-dancing”) or contemplation (“stretches of highway/between pressure points”) have emerged along my asphalt paths. Each drive can inspire. Over the miles and hours, I look for landing places where my mind can settle and explore—and generally find them.
            Beyond the experiences and ideas themselves, though, driving provides metaphors I apply to my writing process itself. The dullest drives, like the dullest writing, hold a constant, seldom-interrupted speed. Moments to set the cruise control and drive unencumbered can be great. Soon, though, relaxation turns to boredom. I find myself looking for a car to pass, a police radar to evade, a rude driver to infuriate.
            Rush hour, on the other hand, has it all. Dense traffic may squeeze me out of a lane, force me to exit and find my way back to the highway. An inattentive driver may smash my car. Construction zones and honking idiots lurk and add havoc to every afternoon trip from the city, built-in antagonists to my plucky protagonist self.
           Even if no particular someone or anthropomorphized something directly impacts the drive, congestion builds tension. My favorite race I ever ran began with fifty runners boxing me in, leaving me trapped behind an army of sweaty, gangly cross-country runners. My frustration grew as I sought an opening for almost a mile before I found one and took off. Every escape from downtown traffic allows for that: the exhilaration of escape, the burst of adrenaline that accompanies sudden opportunity. I look for the best lane, sometimes switching back and forth, and then launch when that moment arrives.
           The best writing creates tension and release. Much like great music, it thrives on dissonance and consonance, on ebb and flow, on building up until something doesn’t merely happen, but MUST happen. Harry Potter doesn’t just defeat Voldemort; he suffers and flails and falters and then rises with the occasion. Ahab doesn’t just throw a harpoon at Moby Dick and get dragged away; he pursues doggedly with a crescendo of maniacal fanaticism until the whale finally drags him to his death, finishing the job that first led Ahab into his pursuit.
Particular events need not occur; writing needn’t follow every potential danger into drama. Just as interest wanes in writing in which nothing happens, writing in which everything happens soon loses its suspense. The drive is not less interesting because I don’t crash the car. Some detours add to the drive, while others steal any momentum I’ve gained.
 The beauty and frustration of writing both come from the lack of any formula that can tell us which paths to follow and which to avoid. The writing process has no mechanized GPS to push us through. We have instead experience, practice, and the ability to apply those to finding our way. Just as driving more often and paying attention when we do so makes us better drivers, so writing often makes us better writers. We can identify what works well and what does not; what sounds good and what does not; what makes a good journey and what does not. In either a drive or a piece of writing, we will reach the end. Endings matter, of course.  We need to get to the right place. But the opportunity to reveal meaning and beauty lies between, in the world we build, create, and explore on the way.