January 24, 2014

Advice for the (Writing) Road

Ferrari

Over the break I decided to drive and see family for the holidays. In hindsight it was probably not the best idea in the world to drive such a long distance in the middle of winter but bygones I guess. I rented a car and drove from Columbia, MO to Atlanta, GA and then to Raleigh, NC and back. I drove through eight different states. My GPS informs me that this was roughly 2,344 miles assuming I didn’t get lost either way.

Over the break I also managed to complete a draft of a major writing project I’ve been working on. With completing these two things so close to one another I realized that the process of doing both had several similar aspects. There’s the obvious stuff. Writing is a solitary activity and driving often is. Music helps in unbelievable ways. So do snacks.
There are other parallels though that I’d thought I’d share. Below is what I’ve managed to learn.

1.) First, have a plan in mind.

Oh how exciting it was at first to be in my car alone driving down the interstate. I had all these choices. I didn’t have to drive home to North Carolina. I could have driven anywhere I wanted really. Having that option felt incredibly freeing but I had to go somewhere. In doing so I eventually had to make a choice.

“In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others,” the narrator in Borges story “The Garden of the Forking Paths” explains. Before that decision is made though there are limitless possibilities. Like I felt at the beginning of my trip, I think it’s freeing in the beginning to realize that you can write whatever you want. It’s your story after all. Yes, you have to make choices thus narrowing the future possibilities but those choices ultimately are yours.

One of other thing–the beginning of any major endeavor (writing or otherwise) is going to seem overwhelming at first. It helps, I think, to remember that all it comes down to making that choice and then making another one until one day you’re there.

2.) However, it’s okay if you have to deviate from said plan.

Really, if we skip right down to the moral of all this it would be that I need a new GPS because man did it freeze up a lot during my trip. It also managed to freeze whenever I hit a major city and needed to figure out where to take a different exit or change highways. I spent the first day of my trip stressed out about this. I checked my GPS every couple minutes or so to make sure it hadn’t frozen again.

Then, of course what I’d feared would happen happened. My GPS froze and I didn’t know what exit to take. I had to guess and even though my instinct was the wrong one, nothing terrible happened. I took the exit and realized my mistake and then turned back around.
Here’s the lesson to take away from this–you may think you know where you’re going with your book. You may have the whole project mapped out in some feverishly written outline. Right now, you may even be following that outline to the letter to try and finish whatever you’re working on, and that’s great! But if you need to deviate from your plan a little bit that’s okay too. If you take the “wrong” exit and work on something else (whether it’s a character’s arc you hadn’t expected to put in, or something else entirely like another story or poem) that’s okay too. You can always turn around.

3.) See the greater picture.

In Chattanooga, TN I spent two and a half hours inching through traffic as I made my way to the state border. For over two hours I expressed all sorts of emotions alone in my car. Most of them ranged from frustration to anger as I waited and waited and waited.
There are going to be a lot of times where you get frustrated by your work or your process. I think we’ve all experienced that moment of writer’s block where we have absolutely no idea what to do next with something. We feel as if we’re inching along. We feel as if we’re getting nowhere. In these times it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to be something we enjoy.

So, if you ever feel frustrated with your writing then take a step back from it. Remind yourself to enjoy the process but also (and this is important) remember to do more than just work. There’s life too.

4.) Don’t worry about others passing you by.

This is a hard one for a lot of us, myself included. If I was really being honest I’d tell you that personally it’s a daily struggle not to actively obsess about what other people are doing–whether it’s how far along they’re on their own books, their publications, book deals, awards. I’ve spent a really, really large part of my life worrying about other people’s journeys instead of my own, and the truth is I don’t really have an answer for how you get past this. I do have this story though:

On the return leg of my trip and sometime after I left Virginia border and entered Kentucky, my GPS decided to take me on a different route than expected. I think it was routing me on the shortest time versus distance, I’m not sure, but what I do know is that it took me off the major interstate and on some rural alternate route. I was already on edge because I was going through mountains so to now suddenly not be on a major highway was terrifying. For several hours I drove through the Appalachian mountains on a mostly two-lane road that kept curving relentlessly. Also, in some patches it was kind of icy due to the mountains blocking the sun. Throughout the whole way I drove the speed limit, if not under, for fear of driving off the road. I was lucky enough that the road wasn’t super crowded, but I did go slow enough that at times cars would build up behind me, and when they were able to pass some even honked, irritated at me that I wasn’t speeding.
Then it got dark and started to rain.

At one point I felt peer-pressured a little to go faster than I should have. I also thought I was behind time-wise. Anxiety over others on the road caused me to be less cautious of my own driving. The road eventually came to a pretty sharp turn which eventually came to stop in order for you to turn onto another highway. I almost missed the stop and another car was coming. It was pretty close but I had good brakes.

When I finally made it to Lexington (thank goodness for a place that’s familiar!) I pulled into a gas station and had a good cry. I then called my family and told them where I was. “Oh, you made good time,” my father said, and he was right. I had.

This is what it’s taken me a long time to learn–everyone goes at their own pace. Don’t feel guilty about not going fast enough. Don’t stress out about not getting to whatever destination or goal fast enough. As long as you’re working you’re making progress and doing everything you need to do.

5.) Be prepared because crap happens. Know what to do in the event of an emergency.

The car I drive normally is getting up there in years. For this reason I’ve learned to be prepared in case of an emergency. In the backseat of the car I kept blankets, extra water bottles, and a flashlight. I made sure to keep my cell phone charged as much as possible. I kept the number of my car rental agency on hand in case something were to happen with the car.

Two hours away from getting to destination in North Carolina, the emergency light of my car came on. I pulled over and checked the manual. I called the rental agency. In the end it turned out to be something minor but I was glad I’d prepared myself in advance in the event that it hadn’t been.

Likewise, I tend to be pretty neurotic with saving my work. I keep copies of everything, as well as copies of different versions, in multiple places. I save stuff to my computer, I save to an external drive, and I email files to myself. I also tend to keep a folder of hard-copies in the event that all that fails because I know that computers break and hard drives get stolen. This all may seem like obvious things to say but trust me when I say we all could use some reminders.

6.) Know your limits.

Did you know you’re supposed to take frequent stops when driving long-distance? One of my family members told me a story about how a friend of hers was driving for several hours and then when he stopped he had a heart attack. Sitting for extended periods is bad for you, whether it’s sitting while driving or sitting while writing. So take breaks.
The taking breaks thing was something else that was difficult for me. I got so goal-oriented while driving. Seeing all those marker signs detailing how many miles were left to the next destination didn’t help either. That first day of driving I kept pushing myself further, even thinking about how I’d possibly drive through the night. I might have even done it except then somewhere in Illinois it started raining. Hard. I couldn’t see the road.
Eventually I gave up, pulled off, and I found the nearest hotel. I spent the evening eating take-out and watching the Breaking Bad marathon (unrelated, but man do I miss having cable).

What is that saying? Rome wasn’t built in a day? Well, most of us can’t write a book in one either. Don’t rush your process. If you’re frustrated with the project you’re working on then it’s totally okay to take a break for a while. Do something else that makes you happy.

7.) The end will perhaps be a disappointment.

It was late afternoon when I finally got back to Columbia. I was driving along I-70 staring at the great flat expanse ahead of me. The sun was setting along the horizon and I knew it’d be dark by the time I got home. As I got closer to my last exit, a strange sort of sadness came over me. I had done what felt like this monumental thing. I’d driven 2,000 miles alone. I’d done it and now it was over and the sense of the ending got to me a little.
There were still other things I needed to do–turn in the car for one thing, unpack my luggage and clean (always clean your place before you leave!), but the bulk of my trip was finished. Likewise, the same had happened with my book (except for revising because there is still so much revising). With both I expected it to feel differently than it did.
Writing a book takes such a long time that you think you’ll never finish it. So when it finally happens it becomes more of a quiet realization than anything else. Finishing feels in some ways like a loss, and it is.

As much as it feels like a loss it’s still an incredible thing. I realize that it might seem like no big deal to most people and that’s okay. To me it is and that’s enough.

So when you’ve finally finished whatever it is you’ve set out to do, congratulate yourself, and if you’re not there yet congratulate yourself anyway. Remember you’ll get there eventually.

About Tanya

LaTanya McQueen received her MFA at Emerson College and is currently a PhD student at the University of Missouri. Her stories have been published in The North American Review, Fourteen Hills, War, Literature and the Arts, Potomac Review, New Orleans Review, and Nimrod International Journal, among others. She recently won the Walker Percy Prize in Fiction.

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