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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Learning to Drive/Write

Our almost fourteen-year old granddaughter was recently up at camp, which allowed us to have a second year of driving lessons on our back woods roads. (Year one I described here.)

We stuck with the one-hour sessions that we discovered last year worked well. After one refresher lesson using the automatic transmission Subaru, we spent the rest of the time this year in the stick-shift Subaru. Since she knew the routine, I didn’t have to pay quite as much attention to the minutia of what was happening at each second. Left to its own devices, my mind tends to wander; it likes to contrast and compare. I considered the ways learning to drive and learning to write have a lot in common.

Think about what it takes to drive a stick-shift car. A new driver must learn to start a heavy hunk of metal and plastic from a dead stop, coordinating their feet to accomplish the task, but using vision and hearing to supplement what they feel with their feet. Then they must keep the car in their lane (or in our case in the road, since it is only one-lane), accelerate, avoid potholes (or rocks), signal for turns, watch out for other cars and critters, remember to downshift before turning—slow down more for right-hand turns than left-hand turns—check the rearview mirror and side-view mirrors from time-to-time, depress the clutch again as you gently break to a stop. And more, much more.

Yet in time, the whole driving process becomes routine. I insert the key, depress the clutch, and turn the ignition switch without a considered thought. I have already adjusted the seat, checked the mirrors, and fastened the seatbelt around me.

I smoothly start the car, check for traffic before pulling out, accelerate depending on the conditions, shift when needed—both up and down, etc. etc. I am constantly checking my surroundings, and I almost always arrive without incident at exactly the place I intended.

Now consider a new driver learning to drive a stick-shift and compare it to my experiences as a new writer.

I fumbled mightily on how to start my novels. I was often tentative and the story stalled out before it began, or I raced into the action, equivalent to the airplane roar of an accelerator pressed too hard while the clutch is still engaged. Very dramatic, but not satisfying, and again the novel would not move forward.

Once I succeeded in starting the novel, I had to worry about dialogue and description and internal thoughts and point of view and plot. Depending on what I had most recently learned, I would concentrate on that aspect of writing and neglect some of my earlier lessons.

My endings were sometimes too abrupt, coming to a choppy halt. Or sometimes they dragged on too long and I overshot my mark.

Even when I mastered driving, accidents can and do still happen. My granddaughter had the opportunity to learn how to change a tire after hitting a rock a bit harder than intended! It was a chance opportunity (it certainly wasn’t designed!) to learn a skill that she will, hopefully, not often need; but having done it, the process of changing a tire is no longer scary.

Learning to drive a car or write a novel both involve mastering myriad little things. With sufficient driving practice their integration becomes routine and at some point the passenger doesn’t even think about the driving, just the trip. With sufficient writing practice, the reader becomes oblivious to how the author writes and simply enjoys the ride.

With the granddaughter having returned home, I am back to writing.

~ Jim


Warren Bull said...

It is interesting how many tasks have to be accomplished in order to write or drive. Failure at any one of them can mess things up.

Grace Topping said...

You are a brave granddad. The times I taught my daughters to drive, in the DC area traffic, were among the most stressful times of my life. I wish that I had a few back country roads to help them practice on. The problem was that they had to learn to drive in a metropolitan area, and I had to be in the passenger seat and out of control. You can imagine what that did to my stress levels. Both times, five years apart, I eventually ended up in the emergency room with a suspected heart attack. The stress of the driving, plus the stress at work, and general stress, managed to push me of the edge.

Jim Jackson said...

Grace -- I started my kids off in a cemetery -- everyone there was already dead, so it lessened the risk! Cemeteries had it all: straightaways and winding roads, hills and flat, stop signs and places to yield, single land and opposing traffic streets, places without much traffic, higher traffic areas, the ability to do three-point turns and parallel parking. The kids (and I) became comfortable there before hitting the main streets.

I do know folks who turn the process over to a driver's education teacher because they are afraid of stress for them and their child, plus what driving together will do to already fragile family dynamics of having a teenager in the house.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I learned to drive on a stick shift car. I'm not even sure they had automatic back then. And most of my life I drove stick shift cars. Because my husband was too busy, I taught all four of my kids to drive, and like you, Jim, I started them in cemeteries, and then moved on to country roads. Yes, my right foot hitting the imaginary break on the passenger side of the car got quite a workout but they all became good drivers. Well, one son, being a type A personality had more accidents than the other three put together.

Gloria Alden said...

I forgot to add that much like operating a car, my writing has improved a lot over the years, too.

Kara Cerise said...

Your granddaughter probably looks forward to driving with you when she visits, Jim. And now she knows how to change a tire. What a great lesson.

Grace, if I had to teach someone to drive in the DC area, I'd be constantly stomping on my imaginary brake pedal.

Jim Jackson said...

I still use the imaginary brake pedal!

One of the first lessons was that if I yell STOP! she is to slam on the brakes, no questions asked. We've avoided a couple of trees that way early on on too fast turns or backing up while turning and not remembering exactly where those trees on the side of the car were.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

Sounds like you and your granddaughter enjoy each other. Teaching a child to drive is a fraught experience - and is why my husband did the initial teaching and the driving school did the rest for our kids! I did get to impart some driving-in-the-snow tips which were gratefully accepted - once we were past the teen years. Ah the teen years! Don't miss 'em.
Changing a tire is empowering, Jim. She'll get cool points for being (probably) the only one of her friends to have that particular skill set.

Jim Jackson said...


Last year when she drove stick for the first time she was really psyched about the street creds she'd get with that one. This year she is heading into a LARGE high school after a small German charter school, so is thinking that meeting new people and immediately bragging about her driving a stick and changing a tire is not the way to make friends and influence (positively) people.

I think she has that right, but I'm sure when the opportunity naturally arises.....

~ Jim

PS It is magnitutdes easier having teenage grandchildren than children. :)

KM Rockwood said...

Teaching kids to drive is far from my favorite occupation.

When I was old enough to drive, my parents solved the problem neatly by telling me I wasn't "responsible" enough to drive and so would never be permitted to use the family car, so what was the point? Several years later, my husband taught me to drive with my kids in the back seat.

Despite money being tight, out of consideration for my nerves, I paid for my kids to have driving lessons. My older daughter told me about her first lesson. She was driving down a quiet street in town, and the instructor was telling her everything--"Now accelerate slightly, turn on your left turn signal, slow down to take the turn, etc) They came to the railroad tracks. The lights were flashing, but the instructor was looking down at his clipboard. Since he didn't say anything, she drove across the tracks (no gate) A freight train passed within a few feet. The instructor looked back at the passing freight train, turned to her and said, "Next time, if the lights are flashing, stop whether or not anyone tells you to."

My younger daughter wanted to drive my car before she had her learners permit. I told her no, she had to get the permit first. The very next day, I was driving through town and who comes along in the opposite lane, driving a huge stick-shift pickup truck? My daughter. The young men she knew had no such scruples about her having a learners permit.

Eventually the cognitive task of driving becomes associative. That's why someone can drive from Ohio to New Jersey on the PA turnpike and not be aware of having passed through Pennsylvania.

I'm not sure my writing has ever evolved to the "associative" stage. Perhaps it will one day.

Jim Jackson said...

KM -- those are some hair-raising stories. At least everyone lived.

~ Jim