Writing is a lot like taking a road trip.
I mulled this concept over, appropriately enough, while driving home from Duluth this past weekend. With my wife sleeping soundly beside me, and nary a radio station to be found up and down the dial, I found myself facing a frightful situation: I was alone with my thoughts. Bear with me here.
Some trips are short, while others are cross-country treks. Oftentimes, snacks are involved, a bottle of soda, a box of Dots (don’t judge me!). If your destination is nearby, say a friend’s house, you may not even grab a snack. And you certainly don't need much guidance getting there. You use signposts, memory, and familiarity to lead you. This act, of course, is quite similar to writing a short story. You may use road signs, or an address scribbled in chicken scratch on a Post-it note, but never would you find the need to consult an atlas or a thick book of maps. When writing a short story, you may only hit upon the concept (I know! A man discovers a severed finger in his mailbox!) and let your own fingers - non-severed - get to work. The trip is fairly quick, and you likely take the most direct route to your destination.
When you're writing a longer work, say a novel, well the situation changes. The snacks are abundantly necessary (sometimes an entire cooler of beverages is in order!), and your atlas, your books of reference, and your highlighters are more than welcome to ride shotgun. You may even have mix CDs lined up to keep you company. The final destination is hazier, and there are more questions to be answered. How long will it take me to get there? Will my final destination be the same place I set out to reach when I left? Should I take the highway or the scenic route? Why did I think beef jerky nuggets were a good idea? When writing a novel, it’s most difficult (if not impossible) to drive the whole way without an outline, a treatment, and a beat sheet. They are your maps, your atlas, your Garmin GPS system with the androgynous voice telling you where you should turn, where you should stop for gas, and sometimes, when you should take a bathroom break (okay, maybe not that).
Even the act of writing itself is like driving. Again, there are times when writing is very much like hitting the highway and flicking on the cruise control. You kick back, roll the windows down, and crank the Rick Astley. It’s an enjoyable ride. The sun is out, the wind is in your hair, Mr. Astley is never gonna give/never gonna give/give you up. Other times, you hit construction, and what should really only take you an hour turns into a frustrating day of setbacks. There is often cursing involved, and hitting your head against the steering wheel. Another more pleasant option is, of course, the ability to turn off the highway, to have found that surprise that you didn’t expect, that town or park that damn near beckons you to stick around for a while, to enjoy the view.
In the end, the gooey moral at the center of this cheeseball is that it’s all about the trip. When you’re on the road, never think about the destination, and certainly never think about the fact that you’re alone on this ride. Think about those towns, the ones that you find along the way, and about the sheer joy of the open road.
And about Dots.
All the best,