I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road lately, helping my husband with some out-of-town business, and making use of the drive time for writing and editing. It’s a lovely way to work, in my opinion, partly because I feel all energized and productive by the time we arrive at our destination, but also because of the inspiration I find along the way. Another wonderfully unexpected bonus, one I just discovered—or rediscovered—on the way to Miami last week, is a long-forgotten portal to my imagination, a way to access the things ‘little Brenda’ knew how to do but forgot somewhere along the way.
When I was young, family outings almost always started with a jingling of keys, followed by the phrase ‘let’s go for a ride.’ My dad loved to drive and my mom loved to ride, which meant my sister and I spent a multitude of weekend afternoons enduring the hot, vinyl bench of the backseat, meandering down back roads to nowhere in particular, and hoping each turn pointed us closer to home. My sister almost always coped by sleeping, which limited my options for amusement, and so I stared out the window and found other ways to pass the time.
My favorite activity, and one I found myself doing again last week, was to look at the cars around me and make up stories about the people inside. In an instant, I could give them names, decide on their exact destination, and assess how they felt about what lay ahead. Some cars were CLEARLY on the way to Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner, everyone looking freshly spit-shined and ravenously hungry as Dad pressed the Gran Torino forward with purpose and Mom cradled a foil-wrapped casserole in her lap. With one glance, I knew they were headed to see Mom’s Mom, not Dad’s, and that little Timmy once again took a stand against brushing his teeth right before they walked out the door, which made them all late and ended predictably with a quarter-sized toothpaste stain on the front of the kid’s shirt.
Another car, brown paper sacks lining the ‘wayback’ of the station wagon and impatient kids poking one another in the backseat, trudged home after a long overdue trip to the grocery store, everyone cranky and starving. Big sister Amy, the one who had to keep all the littler kids in line so Mom could concentrate on her coupons, clutched her reward—a box of Cookie Crisp cereal—to her chest like her favorite teddy bear and smiled across the lane at me with satisfaction.
The pickup creeping up on my left carried a young doctor with bright green scrubs and damp, messy hair. This one obviously overslept again and, if he didn’t get to the hospital before the shift started, was going to be suspended, maybe even fired. I tried to catch his eye and pass on the smile from Cookie Crisp Amy, but Doctor Pedal-to-the-Metal had no time for me either.
Trip after trip, I survived the road this way. Like a boy scout depends on his compass and canteen, my imagination became the most necessary of tools, the thing that got me back home unscathed and, shockingly, made me feel like I’d done something fun. And, while I’ve really grown to enjoy road trips over the years, when we hit traffic on the road to Miami last week, I instinctively tumbled back into that old pattern and remembered with delight how I used to flex my story muscles.
These days, knowing what I do about character and psychology, it struck me what a treasure trove of quirks and scenarios exist within every single vehicle on the road. Car size, color, condition, driving style, bumper stickers, gadgets, passengers, behavior, music; every last detail says something about the life connected to that car. Every single person is on his or her way to somewhere, juggling a dozen thoughts while steering and braking and passing and merging. And there I am, captive writer girl, surrounded by hundreds of little moving story bubbles. Truly, I’m not sure I could come up with better writing exercises.
Now I know not everyone has the luxury of being a passenger as regularly as I do, but if you find yourself on the highway and you’re not endangering your life to do so, look around and play a little bit. See how much you notice in those few seconds of exposure, how much you can glean about character and file away for later use. I promise it’ll be more fun that what you would otherwise do with that time, and you might even arrive at work or home feeling like you accomplished something important. Trust me, your imagination is ready and waiting.