A couple of times a year, I take one of the motorcycles1 up to the Sierra to ride the foothills and high country with my son’s father-in-law. From the Bay Area, this means crossing the Central Valley, which for the most part means riding the freeway in the early morning or late afternoon. And on my pleasure outings and errand rides around the Bay Area, too, I spend a large fraction of my time on the highway. I call this “pounding the slab.”
Riding back roads that twist and turn through the hills is a test of skill and judgment. Your mind is occupied with holding a good line through each curve, applying the right amount of throttle and brake, paying attention to oncoming cars and straying wildlife, and simply enjoying the kinetic sweep, roll, and dive of a powerful machine negotiating random angles and trajectories.
But pounding the slab just takes a measure of watchfulness—of surrounding cars, cracks and potholes, and trash on the roadway. You can do it all with a six-second sweep of the path ahead and the mirrors on each side. And sometimes that sweep extends to fifteen and thirty seconds or more if the highway is relatively empty.2 For most of the time, my brain is on autopilot, exercising basic balance and control, employing subconscious SIPRE awareness,3 and … noodling.
Noodling may mean nothing at all. I’m enjoying the sunshine, the motion of the bike, the clouds in the sky, the feel of the wind. Sometimes, songs play in my head. I will pick up the throb of the motorcycle’s exhaust and the hum of the tires as low organ notes, usually with a subtly embedded rhythm, and compose wordless arias to match. It isn’t music you can reproduce, but it sings inside me.
I used to try to listen to music through speakers mounted inside my helmet. This isn’t illegal, the way ear buds are, because you can still—theoretically—hear traffic sounds, horns, and the bullhorn instructions of approaching police cars. But the problem is that I can’t hear the music. My favorites are usually classical symphonies,4 early rock,5 ballads,6 or movie soundtracks and show tunes—and all of them, like most sensible music, include both loud passages and soft. With wind noises coming off the helmet’s geometry, plus the bike’s exhaust and the rush of traffic, the soft parts completely disappear unless you crank the volume until the loud parts blast beyond recognition. Better to ride unfettered and enjoy the song inside my head.
More often these days, I take a problem that I need to think about and let it run through my mind while cruising at 70 mph. Usually, this is something to do with the next part of the novel I have in hand: working through a plot problem, or groping for the beginning image, effect, or line of dialogue that will kick off—I call it “the downbeat”—the next scene I am going to write.
You might think those Shakespearean coincidences, mistaken identities, cross purposes, and avowed intentions that you find in any interesting play or novel just came to the Bard while he held a quill in his hand, or that they flow naturally while I’m sitting at the keyboard doing what I call “production writing.” Sometimes they do, because the mind is a surprising mechanism when it gets going in the flow.7 But more often these plot points and twists arrive out of the dark, or from your blind side, while you’re driving, taking a shower, falling asleep or just waking up, making dinner, or doing something else completely unrelated to writing. If you’re lucky, you have paper and pen at hand to write them down. If not, I’ve learned to think the idea through in a comprehensive way, compress it as if I were making notes on paper, and assign it a key word that I will remember later. Then, with pen in hand or at the computer, I recall the word and the idea unfolds like a flower. It’s a neat trick for when you’re out on the slab doing 70 mph.
Sometimes, also, I can “prime the pump” by putting a question to my subconscious mind—such as “Well, how will the evil mastermind lure the fair damsels into his lair?”—right before I get in bed, step into the shower, or set out on my ride. Then, distracted by the business of falling asleep, lathering up, or navigating my route, my mind will sometimes churn the problem and toss back its own solution. Maybe other writers can sit down and brainstorm these issues with themselves, or open the Big Book of Plot Complications8 and find something suitable in there. But for me, it’s noodling the problem while conducting the business of life.
And for the rest, my time on the road is spent just pounding along over the pavement, avoiding cracks and potholes, and dodging trucks. Oh, and enjoying the clouds and the wind.
1. See The Iron Stable for the latest inventory.
2. And yes, traveling at my accustomed speed—which is usually a bit over the limit, so that I don’t get run down by a Volvo or a Prius on the California highways—I have sometimes been surprised by a member of the CHP motorcycle patrol, who usually sweeps by me going a good deal faster. I swear, everyone out there is doing 75 to 80 mph in a 65 mph zone.
3. SIPRE is a defensive driving technique that breaks the driver’s mindfulness down into five independent actions: Seeing, Interpreting, Predicting, Reacting—by which I mean choosing from a set of preplanned and practiced responses—and Executing. For more on this, see SIPRE as a Way of Life from March 13, 2011.
4. Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams—all the Romantics.
5. The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Starship—back before popular music became just disorganized noise.
6. Judy Collins, Clannad, Neil Diamond, Enya, Loreena McKennitt—voices that can invoke a sense of time and mystery.
7. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.
8. And if you know of a copy, please send it to me.