Recently I read an article that explained why, when we’re driving, we can sometimes get lost in our rambling thoughts yet still arrive safely at our destination. Apparently the brain can construct some sort of parallel structures so that one process (in this case, driving) can go on in the background while another activity (pondering) seems to rise to the foreground until some action occurs to bring the background function to the fore.
That immediately brought to mind a question that my high school Government teacher asked my class of seniors in 1985: “Did you ever just get in the car and start driving, then suddenly realize that you were at your destination with no memory of how you got there?” At the time, we all laughed and said no, of course not. Who would admit to being such a distracted driver that they didn’t remember the trip? Some of the students teased him and called him a stoner, and he just laughed. In retrospect, and with the perspective of many more years, it was incredibly brave of him to put that question to a room full of irreverent teenagers. These days, it might cost a good teacher their job.
But he was right. Anecdotal evidence and science happen to back him up. I have my own data set, because it’s youth basketball season and I’ve been doing more driving than usual — to practice and back, to games and back, to tournaments and back. And forth. And back. And forth.
I find that driving on familiar roads, which I am wont to do, eventually begins to serve as a sort of Zen activity which permits the wandering thoughts to become firmer and bolder. I have come up with some deep thoughts worthy of Jack Handey, but there seems to be no way to record them while I’m driving. And by the time I arrive safely home, they have faded in contrast to the thoughts of parking the car, unpacking, and starting a new set of urgent tasks. Sometimes they disappear.
I’ll have to find a way to catch these gossamer thoughts before they drift away. Will it be an app on my phone? Will it be a pen and notebook kept in the car? Will it be my frustrated shout, “I have to remember that! Shut up until I get home!”
Sometimes my thoughts do give me another chance, like a Girl Scout making a second visit with the order sheet if you weren’t at home the first time she was out peddling Thin Mints. At that point they’ve been more than generous, and it’s imperative that I do everything to record them and develop them, to think about their implications. (Thank you, I’ll take two boxes. One for now and two for the freezer.)
I have certainly surrounded myself with enough notebooks, pens, Post-It notes, pencils, writing pads, crayons, backs of envelopes, calligraphy pens, and reams of copy paper with which to take down these mental notes. I also have an incalculable amount of computing power in the house (incalculable for the most part because not all of it still works, but the potential is certainly there).
The hardest things to find are quiet and time. Time is difficult enough to obtain, but I’m not yet skilled enough to block out all distractions in order to develop some of these thoughts. And if I’m punched in on the Parent time clock, I have to stay alert and responsive to the changing needs of the other members of my family. They may not be interrupting my reading and thinking to ask for a cup of juice these days; they might be unable to sleep because they’re wondering about their purpose in life. I’m not saying that I have the answer, but the point of being a parent is to be there when your child asks the question, and let them know that it’s something worth talking about. So, checking out from that responsibility isn’t the way I’m going to get a novel written.
Yet I still have to write a novel. One of the thoughts that did recently occur to me is that there are many things about me and about my life that my children do not know, in many cases simply because they have not asked me. They are busy navigating their transitions from childhood to young adulthood, and it’s quite possible that it will never occur to them to ask those questions. Maybe someday their own children will ask those questions about me, and my kids will have no idea what the answers could be. But they could know me, a little bit, through the characters, experiences, and thoughts I could weave into a book.
At times, being around finished books is hard to bear. I recently had to leave a bookstore after realizing that I was surrounded by the work of people who had actually finished their books, and I felt inadequate and ashamed. Yet at other times, the same experience is inspiring. Look at how many people have felt the same urge to write, to record, to create! Look at how many times they have been successful! When I read poor, sloppy writing I feel upset, as if that author has taken a place I should have had, as if their printed book has crowded out my unwritten one. (Of course, that’s not true — they have put in the work and I haven’t. Yet.)
But when I read truly great work, it seems to make more work on the bookshelf for whatever I may be inspired — and driven — to write. Literature isn’t a competition between writers, but more of a test that takes place within a single creative mind. How will I perform on that test? Will I work hard enough to succeed? Will I make the time? Will I nourish the thoughts? Will I develop the skills? I sure hope so. I’d love to read the kind of book that I think I could write.