Thursday, June 9, 2011

Re-learning to drive

I've had my driver's license for about 13 years now, and I'm sure most of you will agree that after that initial nail-biting learning period when you first figure out how to drive, we tend to forget just how much is involved in operating a vehicle.

It's not actually as simple as getting in the car at home, driving to where you're going, then getting out. In between you undertake an absolute litany of tasks, many at the same time, and you do it by instinct.

You start the car. You work the pedals, check the mirrors, glance at your blind spots. You work the gears, you speed up and slow down according to conditions/ traffic/ speed limits (that you read from signs as you pass them by). You indicate, you change lanes, you turn corners when the right street comes up. You brake, you park, you reverse, you repeat all of these tasks over and over in any given trip. You even change the radio station, talk to your passengers, turn on the heater or the air-conditioner, think about your day, while you're doing all that other stuff. Not only that, but your brain is also dealing with a steady stream of carefully memorised information about the road rules. Indicate 30m before that corner, give way to your right, slow at the amber light and stop at the red.

You control a ton of car, at slow speeds and fast. You process huge quantities of information about what you need to do to get where you're going, all the while also performing a constant series of mechanical operations to make the thing drive safely.

Your car might not quite fit these parameters (my last one was not endowed with an air-conditioner, sadly, and my current one is an automatic, so no shifting gears), but I know anyone out there with a driver's license understands what I'm talking about.

We roll through life taking the complexity of this task completely for granted, until the game changes slightly, and suddenly all the hard work we're really doing is exposed. Two examples: a couple of weeks ago, I had to drive my mother's car, which is a manual (or stick-shift) versus my own automatic. I'm qualified and experienced in driving this kind of car, but I don't do it all that often these days. So, once I sit behind the wheel with my foot on the clutch, the game changes. Very slightly, but just enough to show me what's going on in my brain. Suddenly I have to coordinate using my indicator with changing gears and getting the friction points right. It doesn't help that my mother's European car has the indicator and the windscreen wiper on opposite sides of the steering wheel to my own car- I'm frequently going around corners with my indicator off and my wipers swishing.

The other was my visit interstate this week, where I hired a car. Road rules are fractionally different in different states of Australia, though not enough to be really significant- there are little differences in things like the way lanes merge, or the fact you're allowed to turn on a red light in some instances. The one that really got me, though, was the difference in indicating on roundabouts. I won't go into it, but suffice to say that at first, I was completely thrown by what other people were doing on the roundabouts, because I couldn't understand their indications. Once I was used to that, I was into a new level of struggletown- trying to *stop* myself from doing all my own usual indications, which were just going to confuse everyone else.

Anyway! This is a great analogy to writing, you know. When we start to learn how to write, we're a little clunky, a little shaky. We bump the kerb, we stall the car, we forget to take off at green lights, and occasionally we panic at all the stuff we're juggling and take the wrong turn. But the more we do it, the more natural it becomes, and the better we get. Before long, we're total professionals- or so we think, until that speeding ticket arrives in the mail, or that post in the parking lot sneaks up to dent the back door as we're reversing.

But take a good long break from driving, and all of a sudden it's not so easy. You're unsure of your previously unquestioned skills. There are things you can't quite remember. You're so busy concentrating on the upcoming change of lights that you clash the gears, and it only takes your confidence down another notch. Suddenly when you look at how much goes into making your driving look smooth and effortless, you're panic-stricken with fear that it will never be that easy again. Especially if the rules have changed in the meantime, and you realise you actually have more to learn than you thought.

The cure: exactly what you did when you were still a pimply teenager climbing behind the wheel. Push down the fear, trust all that ingrained knowledge, and keep on practicing. Forget about the destination and keep your focus only as far ahead as your headlights let you see. Sure, you might bump a couple of kerbs or ding your door on a pole now and again- but then it's easy to forget that we all do that occasionally.

Writing: it ain't as easy as it looks. Your brain is undertaking a thousand little tasks in the course of getting those words on the page in the shape of characters and a plot. Most of it is instinctive, and the closer you look at it, the scarier and less understandable it suddenly becomes. How is it even possible that you- you!- wrote those words? What if you get it wrong next time you try? What if you crash out altogether?

All you can do is get in the driver's seat and go for a spin. Just write. Take the equivalent of a Sunday drive- write something that has nothing to do with your WIP. Write about the colour of the leaves on that tree outside your window. Write a short story about that weird neighbour who always seems to be watering his wisteria plant when you're heading out for a jog. Write about your grandmother's cookies and how the smell takes you back.

Bit by bit, you'll realise that you're doing it again- writing without noticing just how much effort it takes.

I know I'm saying the opposite to the Mr. Sparks quote in Rachel's last post, but you know, I don't disagree with him. I also think that writing is about the up and the down- there are times it's horrible hard work, and there are times where you're flying free. It's never going to be all one of those things, and because of that, you can always keep your hope in the dark times, because you remember how it felt to hit your stride and let rip. One day soon, you'll be back on the open road, as long as you keep at it.


  1. I always liken writing to being a pitcher in baseball. Sometimes you go out there and have your "A-Game" and throw a shutout. Sometimes you don't make it out of the third inning. It's because this is real life and some days you sleep good and everything's going swell and other days you get up on the wrong side of the bed and people cut you off on the road and your boss nags at you about stupid stuff and so forth.

    PS: No one should take any advice on writing from Mr. Sparks in my opinion. Just because you luck into selling millions of books doesn't mean you actually understand anything about writing.

  2. LOL, Claire, I guess you could say I'm in full-on "Oh shit, I have to drive a stick shift!" panic mode this week. (g) Great analogy... Must keep this in mind. :)

  3. I suck at driving. I'm better at writing. Writing is way easier than driving, lol!

  4. Claire,
    Excellent analogy! I'm having to sift gears again because I got just good enough to see the next level I'm not able to write yet. (sigh)

    Add the fact, now that I have an expert social worker volunteering to read, I'm worried she'll tell me some of my ideas aren't real. (sniffle)

  5. Great analogy, Claire - especially since I don't have my license!

    It's made me feel a lot better about my writing because at least I know that I can always fall back on doing only as much as I can see in my headlights, and that I shouldn't be sweating out all the rules and worrying about crashing and fearing that I'm going to stall. I *can* write!

    Now if I could just learn to drive...

  6. As an American living in the UK - the driving analogy hit home!

    I sometimes imagine that Charles Dickens sat down one day and wrote the perfect novel. I don't think about writing as a learning process, a skill that you can perfect. Of course there is talent involved, but even a Olympic athlete - born with oodles of talent - has to train. Why I don't think of writing the same way...don't know.

  7. @Rogue- baseball's another good analogy, for sure. It'd be lovely if life was consistently friendly every day, but then we'd have nothing to write about :)

    @Jen- lol! You remembered fast, though, hey? ;)

    @Lucy- double lol! Yeah, stick to writing. You know, I've driven in quite a few places, but the thought of doing it in the UK makes me break out in a cold sweat- you guys have absolutely mental roads and far too much traffic. So, I don't blame you!

  8. @Zan Marie- interesting thoughts! Perhaps it's a bit like going up to a heavier vehicle license- the same skills are required, but even more complex, and there's higher risk if you get it wrong, so greater responsibility. Once you've hit a particular level of complexity and ability, you have less leeway to make mistakes. But also, you can't get to that level without the skills required, so you can be sure you have them- you just have to trust yourself :) I'm sure your social worker will be a huge help.

  9. @Deniz- lol! Well, you could flip the analogy- you've sussed out the writing to the point where it's second nature. Rest assured that when you do learn to drive, it'll be just the same :)

    @Jennifer- Dickens and the perfect novel- ha! The thing is, some people *do* manage just that. But they are so exceptionally rare, you know? I think it's a bit like the modern celebrity culture- we see movie stars looking absolutely perfect and assume they just rolled out of bed like that. But there's actually hours of work behind the scenes to make them pretty. Good writers likewise make it seem easy when you look at their work- but in reality, there are thousands of hours of rewrites and edits behind most of that.

  10. "Forget about the destination and keep your focus only as far ahead as your headlights let you see."

    I love that, Claire. Brilliant advice.

  11. Hope you learnt great things from them. Couple of months ago, took lessons from a reputed Port Macquarie Driving School which have excellent instructors. They really taught in an awesome manner and many tips on driving professionally.

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