I have recently passed my practical driving test at the grand old age of 36 (it turns out I’d forgotten about a year in my Facebook announcement). After my four month journey of learning from my instructor “Rod”, I realised that we had had several conversations relating to the similarities between writing and driving and so I thought I would note my thoughts on these down here, just in case it might inspire someone to:
- learn to drive
- write a musical
So here are the things that I’ve gleaned…
1. Learn the Highway Code
Before I started learning to drive, my instructor Rod told me I shouldn’t bother looking at the Highway Code until after I’d had my first lesson.
“It’ll just go in and out of your brain because there’ll be no practical context for you to stick the information to.”
It’s true. Once you’ve had a couple of hours out on the road, everything you’re reading about makes so much more sense. I think the same is true of writing. If you want to write musical theatre, then reading books about how to write musical theatre without actually writing something at the same time won’t be an efficient use of your time.
If you take the time to read The Highway Code on it’s own it’s a bit heavy going full of rules and laws and principles, but as soon as you put it in the context of actually driving, you suddenly get a new perspective on it… it’s mainly a massive pile of common sense, but you don’t see that it’s common sense until you’re out there. Don’t get me wrong, I have read more books on how to write musicals, how to tell stories and how to write songs than I can count. But the important thing to remember is that they should only ever be a reference to the practical reality of writing. If a person knows The Highway Code backward that doesn’t mean they have any idea how to drive a car. You only get that by driving.
2. Check Your Mirrors
When I started driving, I was awful at checking mirrors. Rod always used to say:
“New road, new mirror.”
I was also constantly reminded to check my mirrors whenever I stopped, whenever I moved off, whenever I changed speed or direction. When I first started learning, it felt like overload and I was constantly forgetting. What with the whole “trying to figure out how to drive a car thing.” But over time it began to seep in to my porous brain.
“Why do we look in the mirrors Darren? We look regularly because we are building up a picture of the driving landscape around us. So that if something unexpected happens, we can react to it in plenty of time. So that we can predict outcomes, so we can prevent tragedy.”
We owe it to ourselves as writers to check our mirrors regularly, so that we can learn from the successes and tragedies of the past. And yes, we should check them when we change direction, we should check them when we accelerate off down a new creative road, we should look and see what people have done before us, and think about why they have done it. We should look in our mirrors to avoid tragedy… but… we must not fixate…
3. Dont Fixate
When I was practicing my manoeuvres, I was determined to be the King of Maneouvres. No one would complete a left reverse with more skill, no one would turn in the road with more panache and no one would parallel park like me. I would be the Prince of Parallel Parking. I was so determined that I would remain the perfect distance from the pavement that my focus on the left drivers mirror was complete and total. I thought Rod, would be proud. I’d finally put all my focus on the mirror. As I was turning the corner. Rod said:
“Don’t fixate Darren, don’t fixate.”
Then a car zoomed past right in front of me. I was so obsessed with looking in the mirror that I had forgotten to look anywhere else. It was a shock. To me it seemed that the car had come out of nowhere, but Rod had seen it coming a mile away. I had stopped taking stock of the big picture, I had stopped building up a view of all that was going on around me and as a result I had nearly been whalloped.
I think this applies to the writing process as well. The devil is in the detail they say, and I think this is true in more ways than one. By fixating on one aspect of our writing; a troublesome lyric, a perfect musical phrase, the perfect word for the perfect moment of dialogue, we can sometimes forget the larger story we are trying to tell. Then afterwards, we find that we have lost sight of our story and structure and whilst that one detail is perfect, our story is a steaming pile of munched up Nissan Micra on the road. The devil is in the detail because detail is hard, but it’s also there because of the temptation to fixate on it at the cost of the bigger picture. So yes, glance at the mirror, look at that detail, it's really important or you'll end up on the curb... but don't fixate!
4. Master the basics
You need to know how things work in your car, how the clutch works and how the accelerator and braking systems work. They need to become second nature to you. This takes practice. The changing of gear, the use of engine braking, slowing down appropriately. These are things that the experienced driver does without even thinking. And some wouldn’t be able to tell you how they do it, they just know.
The same is true of writing musicals. If you haven’t written a song before, then maybe don’t write a musical just yet. Just start with a song. Work on your songwriting until it becomes like second nature to you, then have a go at a ten minute independent drive. I was writing songs for years before it occurred to me that writing a musical was an option. So when it came to writing my first one about eight years ago, I knew I could at least write a half decent song. Of course in that first foray into musical theatre I had to begin to learn to write for character, for narrative and within an overarching structure which was way too much to take in on the first outing. I’m still learning and taking it all in after eight years of writing for the theatre, but I think I’m slowly getting better at it.
Take your time to master those basics and the work will be the better for it.
Also, every car you drive will be different. The biting point will be a little higher, the acceleration will be a little faster, the braking may be a little slower. You have to get to know each car you drive. Each musical you write will be different, just because you can drive one type of car, doesn't necessarily mean you'll be the immediate master of another. It takes time and intimacy and that's normal.
5. Be generous to other road users
Sometimes you’re just waiting at a junction or a roundabout for ages as other drivers speed on through, they don’t indicate, they don’t let you in, they honk their horn in frustration.
I think this can refer to two aspects of writing, collaboration within a project and cooperation within the wider writing industry in general. When writing a show, so much is dependant on successful communication between the collaborative partners. Even if you’re a triple threat (Book, Music & Lyrics) you still need to be able to communicate well with the director into whose hands you are placing your show, the producer who is organising everything, the actors who are performing it, the list is endless.
So it stands to reason, be kind, be generous, but don’t be a pushover.
Driving is about confidence and taking the opportunity when it presents itself. It is not about making other people do what you want them to by aggressive driving. An aggressive driver will dominate the driving landscape, but they will cause accidents and be a nuisance to other road users. A confident, generous driver on the other hand will be a benefit to all.
So in terms of the wider industrial landscape, be generous. Support the new writers who love making musical theatre as much as you. Let them have the same opportunities that you have had. Let them know about competitions and introduce them to producers. Big them up when you can. Some of us are not so great at self promotion and we rely on our friends to do this for us… the industry itself will be far healthier as a result of cooperation and generosity. It’s really hard to do, I still feel jealous of other writers success and work, I still seethe with envy. But I make myself go to the work and it is ALWAYS worth it to see another writer succeed. It inspires, it gives you hope and it takes absolutely nothing away from your own success. It is a mutually beneficial act.
6. Just drive
And of course the most important thing that Rod said to me, once I’d finally learnt how to use the road…
“Just drive. You know how to do it. Now stop worrying about it and just get on with it.”