Learning to Love
the Worst Commute in America
How Teaching Fiction is a Lot Like Driving Six Hours a Day
My life has made me four different people. Three of which I love. I’m a father of three, a creative writing professor, and a novelist. The problem is I could not figure out how to do all these things in the same place. So when I leave the house to go to teach my classes, I have to travel from my home in Chicago through the heart of Illinois, to Peoria, 182 miles away, essentially making my fourth role in life that of a long haul trucker.
The deal is my wife made it clear she wants to live near her family in Chicago. She has built her own company, and my children get to grow up doted on by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a built-in community who love them. To have a dream job of working with vibrant, passionate young writers, I drive to a classroom that is very, very far away. When I started doing this I was not a father with the bone-deep knowledge of how hard childrearing is and how painful missing any of it can be. When the kids came, instead of staying overnight as I had planned, I began doing round trips, spending six hours a day in the car several times a week, and this has become my routine, for the last seven years.
My first impression of this commute was that I’d gotten stuck in flyover country, the uninteresting rural middle. Too much time in the car has also meant too much snacking to keep myself alert or to stave off boredom. This has come with cycles of weight gain, an endless stiffness in my body, and muscling through every kind of insane weather, including
There have been plenty of times I didn’t think I could keep this up. It’s during those times I try to think of my drive the way Eudora Welty thought of her writing, as “a continuous thread of revelation.”
With this notion in mind I constantly pull over to let my road-weary nerves recover and look closely at my surroundings. On one stretch of the Illinois River, during the summer, I saw the invasive species of Asian Carp leaping by the hundreds, rising ten feet out of the water like a beautiful chemical rain. On the same corner in winter I saw a couple holding hands and walking over the frozen center of the current, and I wished it were me and my wife alone out there. Then there are the nights I resign myself to all these miles and take pleasure in the solitude of gliding beneath the stars and synced red lights on the windmill farms flashing on and off all through the darkness.
The drive has forced me seek out the revelations in each place, and to my great surprise, this has become my guide to being a better writer and teacher.
I’ve become more alert to how surface-level messaging creates and caters to the socioeconomic realities of each section of my commute. On Chicago’s outer loop highways the billboards advertise hair restoration, Botox, and flights to exotic places. In Joliet, near the refinery, the billboards advertise injury lawyers, river boat casinos, and whisky. When I merge onto the rural I-55 corridor, straight south, where I spend most of my drive, the ads are for Cracker Barrel, McDonalds, and Jesus’s ability to save. At their core, each of these messages carry the ancient human story of wanting. Wanting to be entertained, look young, and endlessly enjoy life; to escape with the promise of a ticket out of your social class; or wanting comfort and familiarity on both base and spiritual levels.
All these blatant signs needling at our endless ability to long for more than we have has challenged me to look at what other messages come at us out of each physical space, and to look at where my own escape fantasies and judgements arise.The real trick to get there requires weaving part of themselves into the world they are making.
In the rural middle, where NPR fizzles out and the voices of preachers rise out the static to claim all the lower dial space on the radio, it was easy to dismiss the surroundings as flat farmland. Though scattered along those crop lands I’ve now passed windmills farms, landfills, mega prisons, universities, factory farms, fascinating small towns, Caterpillar factories, and landmarks marking the life and passage of Abraham Lincoln and the vestige of native tribes. One highway named for a deceased state trooper now also bares Barack Obama’s name. The entire place, once I began to really look, is in a constant state of upheaval, full of stories of conflict and change.
Over the years I’ve talked to everyone I’ve met in order to take little biopsies of what life in this landscape is really like. I’ve talked to a farmer who was rattled from having just come upon a terrified fawn curled in the cornstalks too late to stop his thresher. I met a Ghanaian-born barge worker recovering from hypothermia after falling in the river while running shale. There was the Department of Corrections guard who sits shotgun in the bus from Chicago with inmates going to the state prison who smiled when he said the level of tension spikes on the “checking in trips.” I’ve met landfill workers, rest stop janitors, a hitchhiker with needle tracks up his arms, and an endless amount of truck drivers enabling a grid of human endeavor and commerce.
All of their lives were so much different than anything I could have guessed at going 75 miles an hour. Now, with the repeated passage, I’ve shed all my dismissive presumptions and actively try to put myself in these people’s heads and hearts. I keep asking what opportunities does this place offer them, what sanctuaries, what dread?
This is what I do to get to work, but it is now what I do when I do my work.
After shaking myself alert, I walk into the classroom and try to show my students how writing becomes as much about learning to see the messaging each place employs. Settings need to be dynamic enough to evoke a ceaseless thrum of want. The real trick to get there requires weaving part of themselves into the world they are making. Go back to your drafts, I tell them. Go back with your own loves and hungers. Let doubt have its say. Look for all the crossroads where responsibility and breakdowns bend people toward their work. Then layer all this in until they feel a milieu that characters have to work within or buck against.