I just returned from a long road trip through California and I didn’t finish a single book or write more than a couple notes. I call myself a writer, so it’s extra embarrassing that I spent more than twenty hours in the passenger seat of a car and couldn’t manage to get through more than a third of any book or write anything at all. Don’t worry, though; I’m full of excuses as to why.
Excuse #1: There’s so much to see. There are the miles of billboards leading up to Knife City (a silhouette of a knife stands in for the “f”!) and then there’s Knife City itself (a barn-looking structure at an isolated desert highway exit). It’s like a plot arch in motion.
#2: Yes, western New Mexico and all of Arizona are empty and treeless, but I find the emptiness mesmerizing; I spent hours simply staring out over the desert.
#3: Even when I got bored by the landscape, there was Justin Timberlake’s new album and there was the time spent trying to minimize my shame as I memorized the words to each song.
#4: There’s the pressure of companionship, which I understood clearly when it was my turn to drive and my partner took out a book to read. I was, strangely, a little annoyed. Shouldn’t they be working the iPod? Navigating? Conversing? Sleeping? Entertaining me?
Maybe I’m going a bit far in assuming that reading and writing on road trips is an aborted dream for many of the readers of this blog. Even still, I’d like to suggest a solution that you likely already know about. It’s name is The Moth.
The Moth is a storytelling podcast. It’s essentially spoken-word memoir, told in front of a live audience at Moth events. People get on stage and, without notes, tell stories from their lives. The segments range anywhere from five to twenty minutes long. The quality of the segments range anywhere from boring-as-hell to well-told. Published writers occasionally appear (and, sometimes, bomb: Adam Gopnik, a writer I respect, told a story about his wife’s vegetarianism that was infuriating in its pointlessness and failed humor).
I suggest this podcast for many reasons. Each segment, like each book you pick up, has the potential to be wonderful (hear Mishka Shubaly’s “Shipwrecked” and Mike Birbiglia’s “Stranger in the Night”). However, they often are not wonderful (again, much like the books we read), but almost always I learn something new about the craft of telling a story. As writers, we may learn most from pieces that reveal what not to do.
The kicker: unlike books, The Moth’s stories are quickly concluded and engaging simply because they’re told by real people. Listen to a couple. Dissect the structure. Map the arch of suspense. Evaluate the storyteller’s conclusion. It’s a perfect (slightly literary) exercise for a road trip of any length, especially if you’d rather spot roadkill than read. Especially if your traveling partner puts the kibosh on Justin Timberlake.
Ben Dolan is going into his third and final year of the MFA program in Nonfiction at the University of New Mexico. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review.