The Cross-Country Imagination Express

Spark your Creative Genius on the Way to Work Tomorrow

My morning commute takes about thirty minutes. It is often the most productive part of my day.

In the sanctuary of my car I’ve solved a lot of problems and formed many creative solutions. I’ve resolved complex programming issues, untangled emotional knots, received flashes of inspiration and let my imagination run free. I learned how the hard way.

* * *

I had been working free-lance jobs in California. One lonely winter when twinkle-lights appeared on palm trees, I longed for family, the girl I loved and an Ohio Christmas. My old motorcycle would never make it across the country and I wouldn’t survive the ride in winter. I resigned myself to a California Christmas.

Then the mafia solved my problem.

A coworker got into gambling trouble and needed money fast. He offered to sell his ‘72 Mustang. For an older car, the mustang was solid. He settled for $800 cash.

1972 Ford Mustang Mach 1

It was December 22, if I was going to make Cleveland by Christmas Eve, I had to drive non-stop. Snowstorms blasted the northern part of the country so I pointed the old muscle car south to Albuquerque and settled into the long drive. An hour later, I discovered the radio didn’t work. The drive would be longer than I thought.

I made Dallas, stopping only for coffee and gas, but part way through Arkansas I hit the wall. I was exhausted, nodding off dangerously, my mind a gray, soupy cloud. Just after dark I pulled over and walked in an open field beside the highway.

I had to focus and stimulate my hazy mind.

Back on the road, I began a deliberate, series of experiments.

I imagined characters, painting intricate details and passionately explaining each to a phantom audience. I imagined a resurrected Benjamin Franking riding shotgun and asking questions. I spent hours explaining technology, culture and world events. I asked and answered difficult questions as deeply and broadly as I could. Through the night a few things became apparent.

Driving is unique for several reasons.

  • The rhythmic, autonomic process of driving can establish a near meditative state.
  • As part of your mind is occupied with driving, the rest is free to roam.
  • The car is a psychological sanctuary unbounded by social restraint.

Drives are perfect for creativity and problem solving.

Eventually I developed a reliable technique for putting my drive time to use, one question at a time.

The Question Technique

1. Priming

Start the night before. Prime your subconscious with a question you want to explore the next morning. Ask and consider the question as you fall asleep. This gives you the benefit of hours of sub-conscious consideration. This leads to more fruitful consideration the following morning.

 2. Drive

Turn your radio off and eliminate distractions.

As you drive, explore answers to your question. Answer the question from different perspectives or as different people with different outlooks.

Let the answers roll through your mind and off your tongue. Don’t hold back. Nothing is right or wrong and no one is watching, just let the answers flow.

3. Review

At the end of your drive review your answers, repeating the highlights to yourself. If satisfied with your answers move to the next question. If not, you can repeat the process until you feel you’ve exhausted the topic.

Time on the road can be an amazing source of creativity. Imagination, like muscle, grows with exercise. With a little practice in your rolling gym, you’ll be amazed at the growing strength of your imagination.

* * *

I made it home Christmas Eve, driving through a few hallucinations in KY. I had been awake for almost 60 hours and had driven 2,700 miles. Surprising everyone, I stumbled into my parent’s home to hugs and kisses. After a long shower, I fell asleep until Christmas Morning.

It was snowing – just like I imagined.

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6 Responses to The Cross-Country Imagination Express

  1. Darrin says:

    Amazing story I can relate to (except for the 60 hrs). I would have probably drove off road and crashed. I’ve found that I always have the radio on when driving except for long trips. For some reason when going on the long haul I savor the motion, scenery, and hum of the engine and road. On my next trip I’m going to try your preparation and questioning technique.

    • Markus says:

      I did come close to falling asleep a few times. Fortunately I wasn’t drinking coffee at the time, so the several gallons of it I drank on the drive kept me pretty wired. I did have several wild hallucinations as I drove through Kentucky but that’s a story for another day.

  2. Maria says:

    What a beautiful post and what fabulous writing. It made me want to keep reading.

    I also keep the radio off in the car so that I can think without distractions. However, I don’t have a system in place to use the time well and I like to make the most of my time, so I will give it a try.


    • Markus says:

      Thanks Maria. We’ve got a lot of ideas and stories to tell here. I hope you continue to enjoy them.
      If you do try the technique, don’t skip the priming step. I’ve noticed a big difference in the depth and range of ideas I get when the questions percolate overnight.

  3. is it safe though to think while driving? :p
    i miss driving though. i know what you mean. driving here in beijing is hardly conducive to imagination and creativity, constantly on the look out for pedestrians or cyclers running out of nowhere!
    Noch Noch

    • Mark says:

      On those long distance drives in the US, you might be the only person you see for an hour–especially at night. And when you drive on the freeway to work every day, the same route, probably mostly the same people driving to work along with you at the same time every day, there is plenty of room to safely reflect. I wouldn’t recommend having your mind anywhere but on the road if you’re driving in heavy traffic or on a new route.

      When I visited Sao Paulo, I did not understand how it was possible to survive a trip across town, given the seemingly chaotic nature of the traffic there. So there can certainly be places the technique would be unwise.

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