This morning, I was driving behind someone who didn’t appear to know that they could operate their car without having their foot on either the brake or accelerator at all times. It reminded me of the one year I commuted to work by car. I drove a dark purple Toyota Tacoma with an extended cab, bed liner, and one of those snap covers I strained my chest muscles fastening up in the fall before the first snows of winter. Oh, and it was a standard transmission. I’d learned how to drive one in a cursory way before buying the truck but mastered it quickly once I started driving it regularly–and fell in love with it the way I’d known I would. Downshifting to brake was a revelation. The feeling of being truly integrated with the machine was exciting to me. In fact, we just recently bought our first automatic (hybrid) car after driving only sticks for our entire adult lives.
Similar to my character, Elizabeth, in Training for Love (out tomorrow!), I like to feel like I’m a master at whatever I do. With driving stick in general, and that truck in particular, mastery meant leveraging the engine and the clutch to try to never use my brakes. Seriously. For six months, on my daily 20-mile commute in Massachusetts from Medford to Framingham, I attempted not to touch the brake pedal from the moment I pulled away from my house to the moment I tucked the truck into a parking space at the office. I was aided in this truly ridiculous task by there being yields instead of stop signs and only a couple of lights, but it required a judicious amount of gentle acceleration and copious downshifting.
I succeeded once, which was pretty amazing, and I know you’ll all be shocked to know that no one else cared.
So what does this have to do with writing? Fine art is all about intent, and intent presupposes control. As my character Zoe says in Upended, “what was the absence of accident if not intent”? In writing, you may stumble upon something by accident, but it is only when you take that and wrap it with intention that it can do the work with the reader that it needs to. Intent is the color of the walls in a fictional living room, the walnuts in their salad, the metaphor that resonates with what your character does for a living. It’s the description of Mitch’s house The Mathematics of Change when she’s feeling particularly out of sorts:
When she pulled into the driveway, her headlights transformed her home into a peeling, spotted hunk of neglect, obliterating its many welcoming traits: the blue door and matching shutters, the towering oak, the wink-and-smile of the roof and windows. Tonight, it felt like the kind of house that knows being caressed with police lights and dressed in caution tape, the kind of house with a history. A past. A dead body or two.
It’s the way a hungover Zoe goes after her coffee at Rosemary’s Cafe in Upended:
She hefted the thick ceramic mug Rosemary had given her and took a gulp of coffee that scalded all the way down to her empty stomach. “Hot hot hot hot hot,” she said in a rapid whisper.
Madeline glanced over from her breakfast.
Zoe said, “You may have gotten this place in your last breakup, but you’re not getting it this time. I don’t care how long you’ve been coming here. Or that we were never together. You know what I mean.”
But intent is not just control. It’s this dance between inspiration and openness to allow ideas to percolate into existence and control to shape (and sometimes eliminate) them into service of the story. As a beginning writer, I had no idea the level of intent in the writing I was reading, and I didn’t believe it when I was taught about it. But now, a lot of years in, I know how much I squeeze each word and image and thought and dialog in each of my novels and how infuriating and exhilarating it is–just like making that 20-mile commute without once touching my brakes.