This is no. 53 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
The writer and comics artist Lynda Barry says that the mind is at its most relaxed and creative when the body (hands, usually) are engaged in something mindless and repetitive. She suggests drawing, of course. In her “Writing the Unthinkable” workshop, she has participants draw a spiral while they listen, urging them to try to keep the concentric circles as close together as possible.
I like drawing for this purpose, but I prefer driving. The hands go on the wheel, the windshield opens the eyes up, the foot lifts up and down. The sun is bright and you unclip the sun visor from its little holder and rotate it to a more pleasing position. You turn the radio up or scan until you find something nice or hard or whatever it is that matches your mood. I like to sip from the straw of my water bottle as I drive, and I like to use the turn signal. I probably turn my head too much to check my blind spot, but the movement of it feels both careful and good.
What is it about these small movements and the feeling of the world rushing past that makes bits of language, sentences, phrases, whole paragraphs sometimes, rush fully formed into the mind? Fairly often, I have to pull over at a welcome station or scenic view turnoff to type them into my phone. People have told me I could dictate, record my voice, but I don’t—it’s not the same. It’s not the sound of my voice I want to record; it’s the rhythm of the words and the way they look next to one another.
In 2011, after I packed up my 1997 white Toyota Tacoma, equipped with a platform bed in the back and fitted with West Virginia wildlife plates that I’d purchased with two identical post-office money orders, I drove away from the place where I’d been living for the past eighteen months or so, a place I didn’t yet have any language to describe. All I knew was that for a while I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t talk to anyone and I couldn’t live anywhere else. What I could do was drive. I drove more than ten thousand miles in about three months, making a great oval through the upper middle, west coast, lower middle, and east coast of the United States.
Very little language, very few sentences came to me during that drive, as they usually do now. I wasn’t a writer yet. But what did come to me as I drove across the prairies and past the football fields in Kansas, toward the crashing sunset in Denver, through the storms of Oregon Route 1, and down the snowy Grand Canyon BLM roads was understanding, insight. I processed as I drove; if you will, I metabolized, taking in sadness and confusion and spitting out miles. What had I done and what had they done and who even was I? Certain answers presented themselves in the form of a gay cowboy bar in West Texas and the parking lot of Faulkner’s Rowan Oaks. It would take me ten more years to write them down, but driving released them from my bloodstream. It was a start.
Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts.Thumbnail: Jason Abdilla