the map’s in your soul

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I found this quotation about novel-writing from E.L. Doctorow and immediately liked it.

It reminded me of a car journey I once had when I was a PhD student. I had been visiting my mother. I needed to return to Newcastle, but there was a very heavy fog; I didn’t realise how heavy, until I got out of town. My Renault 5 didn’t even have front fog lights, and I had to drive along a little above walking pace, using the headlights on dipped because full beam just reflected straight back on the fog a few metres in front of the car. Luckily, I knew the road extremely well; I had driven it scores of times, most of them very recently, so I knew every twist and bend intimately; I didn’t have to worry about driving off the road, just about other traffic (but I saw none).

That’s not the reason I liked the quote – I like it because it gives hope to me as a would-be writer who hasn’t managed to finish writing a novel in decades. But being reminded of my drive in the fog, and driving at night in general, it occurred to me that there are two ways you can accomplish a journey like this, only able to see the road immediately in front of you. One is to travel a way that you already know intimately, and the other is to use maps. On a country road, outside your home territory, often the only signposts are for villages that you’ve never heard of. To know which of those is the right and which the wrong direction, for your eventual destination, you need a map.

There are many, many books about how to write books. I’ve read quite a few of them in the last couple of years. Those are the maps, in the case of writing a novel; but surely this metaphor works on a much wider scale too. We can think of life’s journey in the same way. Some people (most, I think) never venture far from the kind of life they know, from their parents and friends and other role models (from books, TV, the media). They stick to familiar ground. But for those of us who strike off in a different directions, there is no map. The landscape is personal, interior.

I wasn’t interested in the familiar terrain: university, a lifelong career, heterosexual marriage, child-rearing. At 17, after passing my driving test, I liked the idea of becoming a trucker and driving around Europe. I always wanted to explore. (Luckily, like a lot of teenagers, I was deeply lazy at that age, and allowed myself to be persuaded that going to university would be easier; but the option of heterosexual marriage never came up, and I ditched my career at the age of 37 to become an entrepreneur.)

For those of us pioneering our own personal route, the only map is in our soul (by which I mean the human spirit, not some supernatural dualist stuff). We choose our route by being mindful of our feelings one way or the other. In terms of navigating at night or in thick fog, I suppose this is like dead reckoning, which really means using an internal, mental map when external observations are impossible. Luck is involved, and there must be a willingness to end up in the ‘wrong’ (unexpected) place and make the best of it.

Nowadays, I positively welcome it when I find myself off my intended course, whether driving or walking. I greet seeing every new place with well, this is interesting. It’s a pleasure to see new places, even very ordinary places, and a privilege to have the time and freedom to explore. Exploring is all I ever really wanted to do.