As a daily commuter I log a lot of freeway miles.
As the book editor for a daily paper I read a lot of novels.So it was just a matter of time before the two came together in a piece like this.
How Driving the Freeway Can Make You a Better Writer
Back in early America, a writer knew what a writer did. And there was a way of doing it. Novels had a beginning, a middle and an end. The top priority was keeping the reader's attention. Novelists made sure the reader knew where he was at all times. They put in plenty of "road signs" to help. And there was always a plot, a destination.
A good writer knew how to keep things "flowing."
Then came the Modernists.
Modernists were pretty crazy drivers. They broke all the rules. They didn't worry about the readers. If readers got lost, well, that was their problem. Modernist stories jumped around in time like roadside jack rabbits. Sentences ran on for pages. Transitions didn't exist. And character development took a back seat to personal style.
Ordinary readers spent half their time reading and the other half trying to figure out what was going on.
Then they gave up all together.
Both types of writer are still with us. Stephen King, Wallace Stegner, Toni Morrison and Anne Tyler are "traditional" writers. John Hawkes, William Gass and John Barth are "Modernists" or "Post-Modernists."
The problem for beginning writers is knowing just how to fit into all this. And where one should begin.
Well, a trip down the freeway is great place to start.
First, a beginning writer better develop a sense of audience. The people who paint freeway signs have it. They show more concern for their readers than our modern poets. The last thing a sign painter wants is to be so clever he creates confusion. Imagine a freeway sign painter launching into poetry: "Marge Wright, Mr. Right, Merge Right!"
And very deadly.
Traffic would pile up for miles.
For such reasons, freeway language is never self-important. It's courteous but straightforward. Simple but strong. Sign-painters never use a six-letter word when a three-letter word will do. They're economical.
Hemingway would have made a great sign painter.
A freeway can teach budding writers the art of "foreshadowing" - the knack of dropping little hints about what lies ahead. "Disneyland 50 Miles," "Disneyland 5 Miles," then: "Disneyland!"
Half the fun of a trip or a good story lies in anticipation.
Freeways remind us that journeys - real and literary - should have a beginning and an end. On a freeway the trick is to "get up to speed" quickly. Dawdling can create disaster.
A freeway can teach how to change speeds. In wide open stretches it's OK to drive - or write - like the wind. But you need to know how to slow down to describe small towns or threatening situations. Slow down, but not bog down. As those early American, pre-freeway writers knew, the key is in the flow.
Finally, a freeway forces you to focus. Too much distraction can lead to bad accidents.
And no matter how many dips and turns there are, drivers and writers must stay in control. Anticipate problems early and avoid them.
Good writers know such things.
Of course I can't guarantee you'll write a great novel by following the law of the freeway.
But on the bright side, you may become a better driver.