Off-Roading

Almost exactly a year ago, Jenny and I drove from Los Angeles to New York City. In the months before, we talked a lot about where we might go and drew up lists of places to stop en route. We weighed the pros and cons of going north and driving the length of the Canadian border, of drawing a straight line from LA to NY and beelining across the Midwest, of meandering through the heat of Texas and the Deep South. I consulted web sites about cross-country drives, downloaded a half-dozen apps, and reread On the Road.

A couple of days before we left, we had a big yard sale and emptied the cottage we’d occupied for a year. Then we hit the road with 666 dollar bills in the glovebox.

Despite all our discussion and planning, we ultimately committed to just one decision: that each day we would  decide where to sleep that night and that decision could be postponed until the sun was setting. Sometimes we booked our hotel while sitting in its parking lot. This was pretty atypical behavior for Jenny and me — she’s a producer and I’m a Virgo, organized and methodical people who like a sense of control. But this trip was to be different. We intended to get New York in roughly two weeks — and that was all we knew for sure.

It was a risky and brilliant strategy. We meandered all over the map and saw things we had no idea even existed. We made monumental plans while driving, then scuttled them over dinner. We acted impulsively and took many roads less traveled. When we pulled onto our street in Greenwich Village, we knew we’d had an adventure that we would always remember. It was epic.

The core of my brain (and yours, hopefully) is the limbic system, the ancient part that sits under my cortex, deep in the most protected part of my skull. It manages my emotional reactions, its gnarled, primitive fingers fidgeting on the buttons that trigger my reactions and form my most salient memories. It is primitive and essential, making me happy, angry, hungry, horny or terrified. This part of my head is me at my most impulsive.

Sitting astride is my modern brain, the source of higher function, the part that cracks the bullwhip, straightens the cutlery, talks to my accountant, and imagines itself superior. I have relied too heavily on this ultra-rational part of my brain for most of my life. It has helped me think my way out of feeling too intensely, providing Mr. Spockian rationales for my baser yearnings, keeping me in check. It has helped me succeed — but I wonder how many roses it has kept me from smelling.

I have published a dozen or so books by now, and each one has started with a road map. Sometimes my editor has asked for it, an outline to include with the proposal she submits to her editorial board. But always my frontal lobes have insisted on it, wanting some clarity about the mission ahead. Believing that I can’t build a building without a scaffold or a monument without an armature, I have arranged bullet points and sub-points into neat staircases with sturdy handrails to lead me to the summit and safely back down again.

And then I have sat down at this machine and kicked the blueprints under my desk.

Outlines and bullet points are one thing but writing or painting something that lives and breathes are something quite other. No one wants to dance in the moonlight with a sturdy skeleton. Flesh and blood are lissome, moving under your finger tips, breathing and changing shape. And so it is with art. A sketch is meant to be done in pencil so it can be erased as better choices emerge.

All this preemptive planning just gives me the courage to turn the key in my driveway, the balls to say, let’s drive three thousand miles and trust that we’ll eventually get where we’re going. Even if I draw the route in the thickest Sharpie, I still plan to listen to my gut, to my amygdala, to the songbird at the crossroads who says, hey, let’s take a left here and see what lies around the bend.

We have GPS and we are safe to wander.