I’m writing this essay on the bus up to Orono. As summer stretches toward its inevitable conclusion, a professor’s thoughts turn toward fall semester classes and the composition of syllabi and the makeup of class rosters. Much work needs to be done before students even set foot in a classroom.
I don’t ride the bus much during the summer, preferring to get around by foot and bicycle, and to spend as much time on the water as I can squeeze in. But the bus is a great place to get work done.
It takes about 35 minutes for the bus to get from Bangor to the University of Maine campus. It takes perhaps 20 minutes to drive, but factoring in the time it takes to park and walk to my office, the total trip length is about the same. And on the bus, these are productive minutes, which behind the wheel would be lost.
I suppose that if I drove, I could dictate this into a recording device, but I’ve never worked that way. And I would have to transcribe it afterward, which amounts to writing it twice. Plus, I have to believe it would be distracting. Driving requires concentration, as does writing. On the bus I don’t have to pay attention to anything.
On the bus, I’ve read and graded countless student papers. I’ve written dozens of these essays. I’ve even written most of a novel, a sprawling saga of more than 700 pages. Whether or not it will ever see publication remains an open question, but it’s finished, and currently in its fourth draft.
A few years ago at Western Connecticut State University, I attended a lecture by the author Dan Pope on “The Writing Process.” As the author of five published novels, I thought I knew all about process. To complete a novel manuscript in a reasonable portion of your lifetime, you must do three things. You must devote time to it every day. You must set achievable deadlines. And, hardest of all, you must write forward, from beginning to end, despite the temptation to revise flawed early sections before you’ve finished a first draft.
Pope’s presentation struck me, at the time, as a penetrating glimpse into the obvious. He told us of various authors and their varied routines, and how messing with their process often messed with their ability to turn out finished work. Big deal, I thought. Every writer has a process. Tell me something I don’t know.
Thing was, though I didn’t know it then, I was a writer without a process. I had this idea for a novel, but it had been a while since I’d written one, and even longer since I’d published one. What I needed was the time to get it done.
As a younger man, I used to get up at five in the morning and write, before going to whatever job was paying the bills. Often these were manual labor jobs that didn’t require much thought outside working hours. Teaching and journalism aren’t like that. And as I’ve aged, I’ve come to value my sleep.
But I did have those 35 minutes every weekday morning, and many afternoons. When I set out to write my sprawling family saga, I decided that every time I got on the bus, I would open my laptop and work on the novel. No more reading of books or student papers. No more yakking with my fellow passengers about politics or current events. No music in my ear buds. Just the novel.
Obviously, I worked on it at other times, too, but bus rides became sacrosanct. And I thought back to Pope and his meandering lecture, and realized that I owed him a big nod of thanks. Because, bizarre as it was, I had discovered a process that worked for me, and his talk was the inspiration.
The proof is in the finished manuscript, down from its original 830 pages to, at this writing, 758. It’s a lot of work to write a long novel. I wasn’t sure I could do it. And, as I’ve said, I’m not sure it will ever be published. My longest published book tops out at 309 pages.
But if I owned and drove a car, like most adults I know, I don’t think I could have finished it. The desks of many writers are littered with half-novels. Life gets in the way. I’m glad I don’t waste too much of it behind the wheel.