Douglas Adams used to take long baths. Haruki Murakami swims fifteen hundred metres. Kurt Vonnegut drank Scotch and did sit-ups. (Bizarrely, they all involve liquid.) One day I said to myself, you’re a writer now, so what do you do to prepare?
And I realised I drive.
My mode of transport is an old, tatty convertible worth less than a thousand of anything with bright green moss growing inside the roof (I like to stroke it) and a rattly exhaust (who needs radio?). I don’t clean her and a mechanic services her only when she gets blatty, but she goes and goes and goes.
I drive at speeds most other drivers balk at. They flash; they holler; they tailgate. They expect a lot from a small sports car, but they don’t know her – she’s slick on the outside; thoughtful within. I’m not travelling slowly on purpose. I wait for the bigger bullies to get the ugliness out of their exhausts and, if I get a chance as they overtake, remind them with a smile that stress is the biggest killer in Western society. Speed isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’m here for the ride, not the destination. I’m living life now, not racing towards a distant endpoint. My car is with me on this and, as long as I don’t let her slip below the legal limit and embarrass myself with a 20mph ticket, it’s my choice to stick with a relaxed pace. I want to see more than a blur of city, a flash of landscape, featureless faces. I want to see signs of life beyond the glass. I want to absorb the impact of people’s motives, dark or light, whether it’s morning, noon or night, to hear and smell and feel what’s on the outside so that I can turn it back in on itself for one reason and one reason only.
Like many writers, I want to record what I see and feel – and sometimes wish I hadn’t – so that I can give it back to those very people who shoot past wishing for the moment to be over. They’re not hurting me; they’re hurting themselves. I write for them, in the hope that one day I can give them back their own precious, lost time. They don’t understand, but that’s ok. The time they waste so carelessly isn’t lost and, in years to come, when they finally sit still and wonder where all those moments are gone, the answer will be waiting.
And then the layers will start to fall – because they will remember.
They will remember catching a glimpse of the little girl with the muddy pigtails looking frightened on the corner; the sound of the drunk man laughing outside the takeaway, then falling over; the lorry driver slamming his breaks on for the old woman in the rain, turning his frown to a smile; the couple saying goodbye and only one of them crying as she turns away. Even the most driven, distracted people sense those things going on around them. They are touched by the highs and lows of other people’s lives, but they’re too busy to take part. They just don’t have the resources or inclination to absorb every feeling, every sight or sound, every consequence, and they certainly don’t feel the need to record it and fictionalise it for anyone else.
That’s my job.
And I take it seriously.
I know how to steal your time and make you stressed, but I want to do the opposite. I’m prepared to keep everything we saw together stored so I can refine it into something beautiful or bold, then release it back into the open where it belongs, back to the people who need it most. And I know at least one of those hollering drivers, desperate to screech past to get home to relax, will reach out aimlessly one night and pick a book off their shelf that they’ve been thinking of reading the whole drive back – and discover themselves in its pages.