getting around on my own

an extended driving metaphor

by Georgia O’Keeffe

I’m on the freeway and my driving instructor is on the phone with another student. He has a heavy Vietnamese accent and sometimes I can’t understand certain directions he gives. He’s offered me hand sanitizer five times. He keeps an iron grip on the steering wheel and yells at me to signal five seconds before I make the turn, which seems excessive. I’m pretty sure all his other students are 16 years old.

When I was 16 I was preoccupied with studying for my SATs and running Model UN conferences and going to debate tournaments. My dad wanted to teach me how to drive but I waved him off. My parents were always using both cars, anyway. Then I went off to college and there was no point learning to drive around the campus. Then I moved to SF and everyone told me it was a horrible city to own a car in. I used to tell boys I dated, as a lark, that they should give me a five-hour driving lesson and then I would drive them from SF to LA. No one ever took me up on it (probably a good thing). Now I’m 24 and I’m finally learning how to drive.

Driving is a metaphor, by the way. It’s a metaphor for being almost 25 and my prefrontal cortex finally developing. It’s about finally making a living from writing, something I’ve wanted since I was 8. It’s about feeling out of control for most of my life and finally slowing down enough to, uh, keep a steady grasp on the wheel. It’s about learning to get around on my own.

*

When I was a kid, I needed my parents to tell me that the Yellowstone volcano wasn’t going to explode tomorrow, that an earthquake wouldn’t bury my school underground, that my pencil was not in fact going to give me lead poisoning (it’s graphite, actually). When I was in school, I looked to my peers to decide what was prestigious, where I should direct my attention and effort. When I was living in SF, I felt shaky, and often turned to my friends to ask for advice: is this idea good? What do I do next? Should I work with this person?

I guess in one way or another I’ve always wanted someone to reassure me, someone to hold me. Someone to please, please tell me it’s going to be alright. But the truth is, no one has ever really made me feel safe. The truth is, I keep coming to the same realization over and over these days: I’m the only person who’s going to help myself feel okay.

I am not, by the way, claiming to be completely self-reliant. Of course I’m dependent on my family, my friends, my partner, my health. No woman is an island, you know? But I think I understand now that no one is ever going to make me happy except myself. All I can do is turn inwards, and then inwards again.

Here’s why I need to drive: I want to camp in Moab, and Zion. I want to drive my dog to obedience class and to barnhunt. I want to drive from Park City to San Francisco. I want to go on a Guy Fieri-style trip through Middle America, cramming greasy burgers into my mouth at roadside dinners. I want to spend a month living in Santa Fe and visit the house where Georgia O’Keeffe lived. I want to write about the first time I laid eyes on you, how right away I thought you were the answer to everything, how much time passed before I realized I was wrong. There’s enough plot right there to fill up a novel.

*

I can be therapeutic when I want to be. I can tell you what to text your ex-girlfriend. I can always recognize the one person worth talking to at a party. I can reassure you when every other thing in your life seems to be malfunctioning. All of these skills are more or less a defense mechanism. It is so easy to use other people as a repository for your wants. But project too much and you’ll end up living in unreality. We have to decide that reality can be good enough to satisfy us before we commit to making it better.

I think I like you because you sound just like my inner critic. I know you so well: you think my essays are too straightforward. You like non-linear narratives and adjective-laden descriptions of the male psyche. You prefer girls who give all their love and don’t expect anything back. You think you’re tough, but you need someone to cater to your ego. You think I’m erratic and intense, but believe I’m fundamentally sweet. You think everything I write is about you. You’ve noticed that I’m perceptive and controlling, that I can make you feel what I want you to feel. But do you know what I want to feel? 

I want to feel like I can give myself what I need. After all, my needs are so modest. And I’m reasonably competent. It was never a question of competence, though, more a question of reassurance. For a long time I’ve been scared of driving all by myself. All I wanted was someone to tell me I was going the right way. Because I’m scared of getting lost, I’m afraid of the dark. Because—

Okay, here’s another metaphor for you. When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t believe I could write dialogue. Even though I had read a thousand novels, even though I had had tens of thousands of conversations. I just didn’t think I could do it. But you can’t write a book without dialogue, right? You have to do it, even if every part of your body is telling you you can’t.