Is your well of creativity running dry? Get in the car
In my experience, there is nothing that both relaxes and unleashes the imagination like settling in for a long car ride. Not a commute, not a schlepp to a doctor’s appointment or an interview or some other obligation, but a free-wheeling, open-road journey out of the routine.
For me, it works every time — even when juicing my muse has nothing to do with the central purpose of the trip. On my most recent hours-long cruise down California’s Highway 101, it occurred to me that there is no reason writers can’t use long drives deliberately, assuming time allows. Here’s why it works.
1. Road trips obliterate routine
Unless you drive long-haul for a living, your day-to-day doesn’t involve long stretches of, well, long stretches. Your normal schedule, your daily to-do list and at least some of your daily habits are disrupted as you settle in for the distance, watching the world roll past you.
Sure, travel of all kinds contributes to a writer’s wellspring of experience. But the magic of a road trip — freed as it is from a plane, train, or bus schedules — is that it puts daily life on hold, allowing you and your brain to exist in a neither-here-nor-there transitional expanse.
The rhythm of the road frees your head from its habitual preoccupations. As the spaces in front of you and around you stretch out, so does the space in your brain.
Before long, your mind slips into daydream land, where thoughts soften, flow and coalesce into notions that shimmer like a mirage arising from the sun-warmed pavement or beckon like a landmark somewhere near the horizon.
Out there, your muse is waving to you.
2. Benevolent boredom
If you can set aside at least a couple of hours in which you do nothing but drive (or ride, if you’re a passenger), without listening to podcasts or audiobooks or even talking much to your traveling companion, there will come a point at which your mind has run out of things to do.
Then it will get bored.
The temptation will arise to entertain it with externals (podcasts, etc.), but resist it. Music is okay if it’s the kind that evokes emotion or memory without occupying too much headspace.
Allow yourself to sink into a soothed, half-sleepy (but not all the way asleep!) state as the miles glide by. Your brain will embark on what Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues describes as its very most favorite game: one-thing-leads-to-another.
While the telephone poles and plowed fields shuttle past you, follow your brain down whatever rabbit hole appeals to you most. You’ll find yourself making unexpected linkages and coming up with delicious what-if’s.
3. It’s hard to literally write in the car
You can, if you try hard enough — but road trips are about not trying too hard and simply letting things happen, and so is this exercise. Don’t fret about scribbling wobbly pages in your journal or struggling to hit the right keys on your bouncing laptop.
This is not the time for a word count goal. If an idea gels, by all means, capture its gist, perhaps by dictating a note. But don’t nail it down too hard. Just a few words, enough to remind you of your kernel of insight.
The benefit here is that instead of seizing on an idea the minute it rears its first tender shoot, you relax and let it grow. Observe as it sends out tendrils. It may branch off in directions you wouldn’t have thought of if you’d plucked it out of the ground of your imagination too soon.
4. Your internal editor goes to sleep
As does your inner critic. There is something about a long day on the road that defeats the peskier attributes of your neocortex. Maybe it’s associating sitting in the car with endless family vacations, but road-tripping is a powerful way to get back in touch with your childlike, uncritical nature.
That means you can literally entertain ideas without shutting them down as silly or nonsensical or not marketable before they even have a chance to reveal their potential.
5. It’s fun
Remember fun? That thing you used to have before you started taking everything so damn seriously, especially your writing?
You’re on a road trip. The destination doesn’t matter much; it’s all about the journey. Time relaxes its tyranny. Real-life is, for the length of your journey, placed in escrow. The vehicle you’re in is its own little world, cruising along a highway that could take you anywhere at all.
Up ahead is whatever’s up ahead. For now, it’s you and the open road and your wild, free, beautiful mind. Let ‘er rip, and you’ll be rewarded with inspiration.
Hit the road. Enjoy the ride. Then get to work.