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Monday, September 17, 2012

5 Ways Writing is More Like Driving Than You Think

Driving cars and writing.  Totally different things right?  Stephen King might be able to compare the process of character based writing to driving in the fog, but there's no way driving could be a ridiculously awesome extended metaphor for writing is there?

Well, buckle up.  Because yes there is.


1- You learn them in the same basic progression.

When you start out driving, you constantly have to check everything you do like six times.  You run the checklist when you sit down of checking rear view mirrors, chair and everything else.  You keep your hands exactly at 2 and 10 every moment.  You actually have to think about making turning smooth.  You check your rear view mirror every ten seconds even on a lonely highway at night. (And not just because you saw The Hitcher on USA's Up All Night, last week.)  Everything is a conscious and awkward act of will.  You think really hard about how how hard to push down on your right foot to accelerate "smoothly."  You stop too fast because you push on the brake pedal too hard.  If you're using a standard, you probably rev too hard when you're trying to let out the clutch on a hill.  You actually count out three seconds to the car in front of you.  You basically suck.

You're thinking about how to drive.  And in that split second between thinking and doing things get clunky and jerky.  It's like watching a toddler chase the dog.

I'm a geek, so I think of this as "the video game factor."  When I first start playing a game I have to figure out a new set of controls.  I might run into a room filled with bad guys and in the split second I'm looking for the "Duck" button, they all open up with submachine guns on my brain pan, resulting in me watching myself die in glorious multi-cam True Color right about when I realize that "Q" is the duck button.  But after a few hours of playing the game, the controls are second nature.  I don't even think about which buttons I'm pushing anymore.  I just run in, lay some suppressive fire, toss a grenade and start taking head shots without once looking at the keyboard.  Driving is a fair bit harder, involves legs and arms and heads instead of just a few fingers, and the stakes for fucking up are higher than having to go back to the last save point, but it's the same basic idea with a longer learning curve.

Pretty soon, you don't think about how to drive.  The car becomes an extension of you in a cheesy Worf-and-his-Batleth kind of way, except hopefully with fewer severed heads. You stop thinking about how to do something, and just think about what you want the car to do.  In a couple of weeks you're eating a cheeseburger and fries, blasting Bohemian Rhapsody, and laughing with your friends while you drive the miles away without thinking about it.  And while some of that might be hubris that will eventually result in you rear-ending an old woman with an oversized Huey, Dewy, and Louie sweatshirt and a twitchy brake foot, a lot of it is just that driving is less a process and more second nature.

This amateur level of one-with-your-car is fine, as long as you don't want it to do anything too exciting or extreme.  (Like not hitting the old woman instead of plowing into her with gusto, for example.)  Anytime you start to push the limits, suddenly you become aware of that chain between your brain and the car's performance all over again.  If you take a turn too quickly, you're trying to apply pressure to the brake, but not too much, and you're thinking about how much is too much.  If you go into a skid, you have to remind yourself you want to turn into the skid and the split second of thinking is disasterous.  Suddenly you are clunky and jerky all over again.  (This is why texting is so epically stupid.  You'll be fine if nothing goes wrong, but the moment there's the slightest hiccup, you are an arm and two precious seconds behind the person who's paying attention, and you end up dead.)  It can take years, even decades, before the car is really just an extension of you, and you would have to spend hours a day behind the wheel to seamlessly move into those extreme moments.

Further if you want to learn to do something especially interesting with the car like drifting, you have to go back to the basics and be uncoordinated all over again--much like Lightning McQueen did in Cars when he spent hours and hours sliding over a cliff into cacti trying to practice the turn that Doc Hudson beat him with in their race.

Writing is the same way.  Not the physical act of writing (you probably have that pretty much mastered even if you were in special "bad handwriting" classes like me), but rather our relationship with what we're trying to get the language to do.  At first our efforts to make sentences are clunky and jerky.  We consider each word we chose carefully before committing it to ink (or pixels).  We check our adverb ratio every paragraph and worry over the appropriateness every use of passive voice.  We try to make sure we have a good ratio of compound and complex sentences with a peppering of simple.  We think carefully about each sentence's clarity.  Our sentences come out of us in fits and starts and we are very conscious of how we're using language. We are all too aware that the slightest misstep in the linguistic arena could end up with a pair of gardening shears jammed through our reproductive organs and a morbidly obese yet triumphant Ukrainian gleefully teabagging us while yodeling at the top of his lungs that he's just doing what we wrote that we wanted.

But as we get better we just think about what we want the words to do, and we go there without really thinking about how.  Ideas are conveyed without our deliberate attention to every word choice.  Whole sentences just appear before us and sometimes we are as delighted to read what our brain has come up with as anyone.  We might consider the imperfection of a particular phrase or clause, and think about how to do it better, but overall we are confident that language is an extension of us.  However, it might take years, even decades, to really get to the point where language really does exactly what we want it to.

Of course when we are stretching the limits of our writing, we will probably go back to that deliberate and conscious word choice, especially if we are pushing the boundaries of the writing we're used to into the territory of something we do less often like our first foray into fiction or trying our hand at a brand new technique like expressionism or surrealism.  Then we will stumble over every word all over again.

It can take lots of practice to make a new kind of writing second nature, but the dedicated writer is the one out there, beyond their comfort zones, practicing new techniques in their free time--not because they think they'll ever use them in a publication, but just for the love of writing--just like Lightning McQueen did on that pesky dirt road turn.  Unless you just want to write in a way that gets you from here to there, you probably need to spend some hours practicing.


2- Your relationship with the rules is VERY similar

If you've got a drivers licence, you are probably a walking codex of traffic laws.

Think about it.  You have to be in order to pass the test to be able to get that licence.  You know how to handle things when multiple people show up simultaneously at a four way stop sign...not including your innovative solution that utilizes a rocket propelled grenade launcher.  You know when you can make protected turns.  You probably know the speed limit even if there's no posted sign based on how many lanes their are, what kind of buildings are around you and whether there's a median.  You know what to do when you see certain kinds of vehicles in certain positions relative to you (like an emergency vehicle behind you, or a motorcycle next to you).  You know to slam the brake if you see a little kid run out in front of your car, even if you are in a temporal vortex and the kid is a young Harold Bloom.  A zillion rules could fall out of your head for any given moment.

You're probably not as savvy as a cop, but you know your fair share.

Writing is like this.  You probably know a gazillion rules.  Rules about grammar.  Rules about spelling. Rules about punctuation.  Rules about paragraph construction.  Rules about what makes for good fiction.  Rules about passive voice.  Rules about adverbs.  Rules about lexicon.  Rules about subjects and objects.  Rules about stative verbs.  Rules about how items in lists should not be their own sentences.

The thing is, you also know that some of these rules are really, really important, like driving the appropriate direction on the freeway, and others are pretty much bullshit, like the 35 mph speed limit on the straight away between one small town and another where no one drives less than 50.  So, while you know that using no subjects or tense markers or spelling every word like "ghoti" will make your reading incomprehensible, you also know that to sometimes start sentences with conjunctions or to split infinitives is no big deal.

Of course you can't just ignore the rules.  You have to know the rules to know which ones aren't important.  You probably won't get a ticket if you breeze through that five minute red light at four in the morning.   But if you rocket through a school zone at 150 on a Tuesday at three in the afternoon because "fuck rules," you will end up in county prison nursing your taser wounds and wishing that either the toilet was much much MUCH more private or your cellmates hadn't had cabbage the night before.

You probably can do a fine job without knowing every single rule.  You are probably a fine driver without knowing that it is illegal to jump from one vehicle to another at 65mph in Glendale, California.  You are also probably a fine writer without knowing that several style manuals state that technically any action (beyond attribution tags) that occurs between a single sentence quotation is supposed to happen inside em dashes.  Some rules might even be a little less obscure than these examples.  (You may not know that if you see an emergency vehicle with flashing lights on the side of the road, you are supposed to move a lane to the left [except in a couple of states] and you may not know why some lists of adjectives have commas between them and some don't.)  But you can probably still write pretty well without knowing every rule.

Some rules are just shit people make up like driving a car barefoot or that speculative fiction can't ever be as significant as literary fiction.  They don't even know what they're talking about, but they want the rule to be true, so they tell everyone it's totally a rule and it catches on like an urban legend.

Passing on the right:
the don't-end-a-sentence-in-a-preposition of the driving world.
No one cares.  Everyone does it.
And it drives the rule-lawyers insane!
Delightfully, beautifully, purple-faceily insane.
And you probably know someone--both a driver and a writer--who follows all the rules, and demands everyone around them do so as well.  They probably have a truly reasonable sounding explanation for why they insist on this (meaning with writing or safety with driving).  And...in BOTH cases their adherence to the rules can be so strict as to actually achieve the opposite of their intention.  A strict, inflexible, and "proper" interpretation of yesteryear grammar can actually muddle meaning with many (if not most) people, and following every traffic law in every situation can actually put you in grave danger if people around you don't know what you're doing.  Also these people are absolutely insufferable pedants in either context.


3- There is a huge gulf between doing it for a living and doing it in a way that people just sit and watch

You probably know some people who drive for a living.  Cab drivers.  Bus drivers.  Airport shuttle drivers.  Package delivery drivers.  Limo drivers.  Maybe just someone who commutes such an ungodly distance as part of their job that they are basically including driving as part of the job.  These people technically make their money driving.

Technically.

Are they stunt drivers?  No. Are they race car drivers?  No.  Are people lining up just to watch them majestically operate their machinery?  No.  Would people pay just to watch them drive?  No. Driving is the means by which they get you to what you are really paying for--your pizza or package or your transportation or some other thing that needs a driver.  These people might be consumate professionals, highly skilled, and even quite awesome drivers, but you're probably never going to drop real money just to watch them get the 20 Line from BART to Diablo Valley Community College before 4:30.  The drivers you pay to see are the ones that push the limits.  They do things with cars that you almost can't believe.

Though I have to admit, I would totally pay $100 to see the local ice cream truck catch air off a car loader set up like a ramp--straight up Crazy Taxi style!  Day after day, your home life's a wreck...

The same is true of legions of professional writers.  There are tech writers, policy writers, science writers, content writers, communications directors, legal writers, travel writers, analysts, grant and development writers, and journalists.  These people are often highly competent wordsmiths--wonderful, adept, and professional at their particular skill sets.  They are making money with writing, and the writer has provided an invaluable service with skill, but it isn't the writing itself that is the product being exchanged..  It is the news, the grant proposal, the content, the analysis or something like that.   It's a pretty big chasm between this kind of writing and the kind you drop an hour's worth of pay on at the bookstore in to read for pleasure.  Those kinds of writers push the limits.  They do things with words that you can barely imagine.

Now, I'm not pointing out this chasm this to be an asshole.  I'm not saying this to say "those people aren't 'real' writers."  They are awesome and they are real. But creative writing is an industry where people get a little weird about jealousy, about settling, and about what they think counts as writing.  Sometimes there's so much power in the words "I'm a professional writer," that they forget to consider that chasm.  But it would make about as much sense for a driver dreaming of one day being in the Indy 500 or in Nascar to let themselves settle for driving a cab their whole life because it's technically driving, or to be jealous of a limo driver because they are making money operating a vehicle.

Does that seem right to you?  (Image from comicvine)

Can other kinds of writing help someone become a novelist?  Absolutely they can.  In fact, writers of every type of writing I mentioned have taken their skills to fiction and it has informed their work.  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is so charming precisely because it was written by a travel writer who took that style into fiction, and not just because Kevin Spacey did the movie adaptation.  But a writer is not an author just because of their skill anymore than a pizza delivery driver should be doing stunt driving for Hollywood because they know a shortcut that will get that extra-large with olives and mushrooms past an accident on Main street in 29 and a half minutes.

Mmmmm.  Pizza...


4- There are different kinds and styles that are valid

There are muscle cars and turbocharged cars and each delights in thinking the other isn't legit.  There is street racing and track racing.  There is off roading and karting.  There are formula races and stock car races.  Each has its own set of conventions and regulations and many that think (openly or secretly) that they are the best and the only real kind of driving.

Some kinds of driving deal with the raw power of the machine.  Some focus on the technical skill and precision of the driver.  Some have hard cap limits on hardware.  Others allow for every innovation technology can provide.  Some do endurance runs around circular tracks.  Some take off cross country.  Others do Tokyo Drift and their "race" never really leaves an intersection sized area.  Some kinds of performance driving happen right on the street in the middle of traffic "on the streets."  Others are dazzling spectacles of paparazzi and border on show business around a handful of drivers who are quite famous.  And despite many groups trying to delegitimize the others, all have niches and fans and audiences and require skill.

Writing is shockingly similar.  Obviously there are different genres--including the "literary genre" trying its best to declare itself the best and only "real" kind of writing.  There are small presses where the writer wears the hat of publicist and sometimes has to even put their own books on consignment at local bookstores.  There are major presses where a book release might involve radio advertising spots and public transit billboards where a handful of writers are quite famous.  There are bloggers, short story writers, novelists, poets and playwrights.  Some write with an almost anachronistic eye on the past, limiting their grudging interface with technology only to submission time and only as much as a given agent demands.  Others push the limits of technology, incorporating multimedia and mixed media and publishing in a myriad of ways that weren't even available a decade ago.  There's creative non-fiction and high fantasy.  There are people heading out to readings to listen to the way the language of their words rolls off their tongue in an atmosphere filled with the beating pulse of other writers and readers.  There are people who try to limit themselves to the precision of what they can do with careful word choice and obsessive revision.  There are beat poets in your local coffee shop ranting about sex and drugs and critical race theory from something they just jotted down on a napkin in the five minutes before the mic opened up, and people whose literary manuscript won't see an agent until it's undergone twenty rewrites.

And of course, you have elitists in every group who think that they are the only kind of writing that really counts--or if they are too humble to actually word it that way, they might have no end of disparaging comments to say about all the other kinds EXCEPT theirs.  You can read between the line of I'm-not-going-to-come-out-and-straight-up-say-I'm-a-snob-ism, right?

Good writers don't limit themselves to a single type of writing, either--even if they feel most comfortable there or do most of their "published" work in that type.  Like good ol' Lightning McQueen who worked that dirt track turn over and over until he mastered it, a good writer will take on a different kind of writing just because it's writing and to have a different kind of tool in their toolbox.


5- A lot of hobbyists fancy themselves awesome and don't really get what's holding them back

You probably have a couple of friends who are quite the daredevils behind the wheel.  They catch air coming out of their fucking apartment complex.  They hit fourth gear crossing a parking lot.  If turn sign says 45mph, you know they won't take it going less than 70, and if they decelerate at all when taking an intersection corner, they must have seen a toddler trying to cross...alone.  When they let loose on the freeway, you actually see the world around you aging more quickly due to observable relativity.  They drive behind emergency vehicles and complain about "these damned slowpokes." Usually you have to have your fingernails surgically removed from the "Oh Shit" bar after a ten minute hop down to pick up dinner from the Pho place.

And the thing is, they're usually pretty good drivers.  If they weren't, they'd have gotten in about twenty gagillion accidents long ago or ended up as the "really-hammer-it-home" clip of Red Asphalt 25.  But having a lead foot and an observable hatred for the lives of pedestrians doesn't make you Ayrton Senna or Mario Andretti.  Being good, even REALLY good, still is miles from the Indy 500, and while these people might entertain pleasant dreams that they are taking corners in the Monaco GP, they would have years of training before even their level of skill was ready for any professional circuit--no matter how miraculous it is that they don't have a kill score.

You might love to drive.  You might speed down the 1 with the top down and your hair whipping around like a Viagra commercial.  You might road trip when flying is considerably faster just because you like getting out on the open road.  You might pay close attention to things like sound system and chair comfort when car shopping because you're going to be in your car way more than the next guy. But this doesn't mean that you are Lewis Hamilton.

You probably have friends who are the same way about writing.  They are fabulous at it--stringing words together almost effortlessly and reaching meaning that you felt you muddled with twice as many words.  They tear through a paragraph like they are bending the laws of time and space, and wind up getting from language to meaning in a way that makes you wish for a linguistic "Oh shit" bar.  You probably have friends who love to write.  They fire off an opus because it's Monday, write pages upon pages every day, and write with such abundance that you contemplate how to bottle their linguistic fecundity and sell it in in vials at the mega-bookstores next to the Moleskine journals.

Loving writing, being really good at writing....they don't make someone an author.  Many people are happy writing at this level, but many more are frustrated and confused when these abilities don't translate into instant success.  Writing, especially creative writing, professionally takes more than love and more than skill.  Both help, of course, and you won't go far if you don't much like writing.  But pushing yourself to take the step from hobbyist to something more takes a unswerving dedication and an unflagging effort.  It takes more than writing a lot or writing well.  It takes being willing to focus every skill you've learned like a laser on the kind of writing that isn't just for you, but will go out into the world.  It takes learning uncomfortable parts of the process like revision.  It takes actually finishing that manuscript they have a couple of chapters of tucked away.  It often takes sacrifice of a lot of other things you might also enjoy doing.  It takes being willing to learn the Biz of CW.  It takes treating writing as more than a hobby.

A lot more.

This is the only hobby that translates directly into success.
Train engineers are recruited directly from model stores.

And now we come to what is actually one of the major DIFFERENCES between driving and writing: your friend who really loves driving and has a lead foot probably isn't going to be racing on a pro-circuit next season unless they really dedicate themselves to it and make some major changes in their lives.  What's more important, your friend probably knows this.  They aren't telling themselves stories that they are a couple of half hearted decisions away from The Long Beach Grand Prix, and it would be theirs if they really wanted it.  For some reason, with writing, people who are impressive hobbyists really think they are on the cusp of being major writers without ever really giving it a buttload of work.

A hobbyist-going-suddenly-successful writer is actually about as likely as your friend driving Nascar.  Which is even less likely than the plot of Days of Thunder. Which is more likely than the plot of Herbie: Fully Loaded but far less likely than the plot of Cannonball Run.


Of course, there are several ways that driving isn't a thing like writing.  Don't even get me started on how quickly this metaphor breaks down if you start talking about how maintaining peak performance involves someone really getting under your hood regularly...uh....with some fluids....and...um.....uh...

Never mind.  Pizza's here.  Gotta go tip a driver.

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