Writing Is Much Like Learning To Drive

I never had the need of learning to drive. Poznań, my hometown in Poland, has an excellent public transport network, and when I moved over to Ireland, I couldn’t afford a car. Also, with the narrow and always jammed streets of Dublin, it seemed better to just search for an apartment near my workplace and walk to work. But moving over to the USA and living at the very edge of the town meant I would finally have start driving.

After waiting for my residency to be sorted out, I got my driver’s permit, and started getting familiar with the “controls” of the new game called “driving,” but it wasn’t until later I found similarities between learning to drive and writing.

The first and the most important similarity is that those who already have the driving license think there’s nothing to learning. Often they don’t remember their own struggles or think little of them since they’ve overcame them long time ago. Just like the writers who have their books already published might not remember the initial worries and fear, or they remember but moved past them, the experienced drivers don’t necessarily relate to the learner’s experience. But at least as writers we can search for people who are at a similar “writing” stage as we are, and compare notes or support one another.

It’s also harder to learn to drive at 36 when I’m well aware that any single action I choose might cause an accident or worse. This obviously affects my confidence and makes me a more fearful driver, afraid of making a mistake. The same goes for writers who as they become more experienced (age is irrelevant in this case as we start writing at different stages of our lives), they also become more conscious about their own shortcomings, writerly inadequacies, and all the possible mistakes one could make while creating a story. As much as we learn to overcome such fears (just like learners overcome it when they’re practicing driving), these things can greatly affect the creative process.

To make things more complicated, I’m not only learning to operate a manual stick shift, but also do it in a truck: our Toyota Tacoma might not be the biggest vehicle out there, but is definitely bulkier than an average car. (I can tell you that parallel parking is much more of a pain when you have to squeeze something big into a space meant for smaller things.) This reminds me of the extra difficulty I gave myself when it comes to my writing: I chose to write in a second language, aiming for the market that is already full of people much better at writing than me.

But learning how to drive a truck with a stick shift also makes me think of how many things one has to remember about while driving. Things that come naturally to seasoned drivers like pushing the clutch in at the right moment, shifting gears, checking the rear view mirror… When you’re a confident driver, you don’t need to pay attention to all those things, and you don’t have to consciously think about them. As a learner you have to remember them all, just like a writer does sometimes: watch out for info-dumps, pay attention to plot details, don’t make your all characters nod or shrug or smile (or whatever your “crutch” action or emotion is)… so on and so forth.

It’s all about persistence, both in driving and in writing. My driving lessons don’t go too bad, but every now and then I get the mindset of “I’m never going to learn it,” just like I sometimes give in the thought of “I’m never going to be a published writer.” I think the trick isn’t to never have such thoughts, but to learn how to keep going anyway and ignore them when necessary.

Because of my circumstances, I also don’t get to practice my driving often often (on average, it’s less than once a week – closer to once two-three week) which makes the whole process longer, and even though I don’t need too much of “getting back into the zone” like in writing, the time my learning takes causes frustration. Just like writers busy with their lives, families, and day jobs might feel that their writing “isn’t getting anywhere”.

Writing is a learning process just like driving is. As time passes, we – writers overcome our fears, battle our frustration, and discover writing itself becomes easier and easier. We don’t have to think of all the rules anymore, and words flow more naturally and in a more beautiful way. And just as I believe that one day I’ll be jumping around holding my very own driver’s license (regardless of the voice in my head claiming it won’t happen any time soon), I want to be as confident that one day I’ll be jumping around holding my very own book. Because writing is much like learning to drive, right?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. saraletourneau

    This was an interesting read. I hadn’t thought of the similarities between driving and writing before… and if you think about it, learning to do just about anything could be compared to developing our craft and our confidence as writers. I think I read a blog post at Writers In The Storm not too long ago that paralleled writing and glass-blowing. Again, I hadn’t thought of that before, but it was fascinating how much sense it made in the end.

    Not to mention this post brought me back to my driver’s ed days. I was 17 when I got my license, and that day was one of the most nerve-racking days as a teenager. I still hadn’t mastered parallel parking by the time I took my test (I’m still not very good at it now!), and the proctor said he was tempted to fail me because of it. :S Good thing he didn’t.

    You’re learning how to drive stick-shift? In a truck?? Eeek. But it sounds like you’re getting the hang of it, so I give you a ton of credit for that. Do you have to fulfill a certain number of hours of driving lessons before you can try for your license?

    1. Melfka

      Indeed, any learning process can be compared to another, I wrote about similarities to learning to dance as well. I think what’s “important” is to realize those comparisons in our personal lives, to draw parallels. I think it helps us get over the writerly struggles.
      Parallel parking seems indeed a bit of a pain. I haven’t practiced it much yet, because we don’t have a good setup for it (the cones are really low). Stick-shift and a truck are actually both fun, and I’m starting to fall in love with the clutch :).
      I don’t need a certain amount of hours driven because I’m over 18, so whenever we decide I’m ready, I can go in and take the test. 🙂

      1. saraletourneau

        I’m still not very good at parallel parking (in fact, I avoid it as much as possible). So don’t feel too bad if you find it frustrating, because you’re not alone. Just do your best with it – and good luck with the test, whenever you take it!

        1. melfka

          I think everybody avoids parallel parking. It might have been invented to torture the humankind. 😉

          1. saraletourneau

            ^^ I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that, then!

  2. sjhigbee

    I really enjoyed reading this article – and I think in many ways you are right. But there is one major difference. I also learnt to drive a car with a manual gearbox in my 30s and these days, while I pay attention at all times to the road conditions – and driving in the UK is always a challenge as we have a LOT of cars on the road – you’re right, I don’t have to think about pulling away, changing gear or slowing down.
    However, I’ve just finished editing my 12th novel and while the words do flow more easily and what I envision in my head these days more or less ends up on the page as I wanted it – at no stage is the process automatic or effortless. Each book produces its own unique challenges and the last one I wrote was every bit as hard the first one. The major difference is that at least I now know my own writing rhythms, strengths and weaknesses. But for me, one of the most addictive aspects about writing is that each time I sit down, I can never be sure I’ll nail it – and there are still sessions where what I write simply isn’t good enough. It’s that constant challenge that has me always striving to improve.
    But where I think the comparison is especially effecitve is that even after driving for years, you can still miscalculate and have an accident – you can never relax and just forget about what you are doing – and the same applies to writing…

    1. Melfka

      You’re right about the difference you pointed out. I guess in a way each novel is learning writing again: we might apply what we already know, but each presents a different set of challenges we need to overcome.

  3. J.R.Bee

    To a degree it is muscle memory, and whilst both writing and driving will improve with practice, with writing you have to give it your all, whereas with driving, once you’ve learned all there is to learn, you got it.
    Mind you there is the bad habits aspect too, easy to learn in both disciplines, and very tricky to unlearn.

    1. Melfka

      Ooooh, I know “all” about the bad habits. I haven’t been driving much, and I’m already trying to get rid of the bad habit of popping the clutch. 😉

      1. sjhigbee

        I hope the driving is still going well, Joanna. It took me 4 goes to pass my driving test as I had a problem with left and right and it was only my last instructor who identified it and got my through my test (I lipsticked an L on the back of my hand).

        1. melfka

          It’s going well, though we had a few week break due to circumstances. But I’m getting the hang of it, and I probably should start driving in the streets soon, if I can get over my fear.
          I still mix left and right when driving backwards… I always turn the wheel in the wrong direction.

          1. sjhigbee

            The tip I was told was always turn the wheel in the direction you want to go… It worked for me.

          2. melfka

            That’s what I’ve been told, but it doesn’t seem to be working too well. I guess I’ll just have to learn it by practice and rely on my muscle memory.

          3. sjhigbee

            It does get better with practice – I promise!

      2. J.R.Bee

        Mine is gripping the wheel too tightly, and trying to move the gear stick diagonally….

        1. melfka

          Mine at the moment is popping the clutch and oversteering.

          1. J.R.Bee

            Ah, good old clutch pops. Do you do diagonal gear changes too?

          2. melfka

            Diagonal gear changes? Do you mean putting it in a wrong gear? Then no, not really.

          3. J.R.Bee

            Apparently I have a habit of trying to take short cuts with the gear stick…

          4. Melfka

            Oh, I do that sometimes too and then get confused which gear I’m at.

  4. J.R.Bee

    Ian still tries to change into a higher gear when he’s in the top one 😀 But the gears will become a more natural thing in time 🙂

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