Open Mind, Open Heart (or, How I Learned To Love Traffic Court)

A few times now, people have asked me to offer advice for aspiring writers. This is a cool thing, because it forces me to look at what’s worked in my creative life and what I’ve learned, instead of all the things that failed epically and all that still seems way beyond my reach. So what I end up offering is this nugget, which I can only hope doesn’t sound like total bullshit:

The Honorable NPH, presiding over future writing material.

Whenever possible in your life, keep an open mind, and an open heart. When you meet someone new, when you’re facing a fresh situation, when something seems awful and uncomfortable and you really just want to run screaming no no blech no — say yes to every part of it. Because as a writer, you never know what it will bring you. Inspiration, if you’re lucky. Experience, at the very least. The basis for a character, or a setting, or a dialogue. Sometimes it comes right away and sometimes it just hangs out in your subconscious for years, waiting for its opportunity to flare up, like Lyme Disease of the mind.

The thing about giving advice is that it’s often hard to take it yourself, when you need to. Here’s a story.

Not long after I moved from Los Angeles to New Paltz, New York, a hip-rural town in the Hudson Valley, I got my first-ever speeding ticket. I’m not usually a fast driver, but I was coming off 20 years in L.A. where speed limit signs are pretty much considered “suggestions,” and I tend to daydream/brainstorm/sing loudly to bad 80′s music while behind the wheel. In other words, I was fresh bait for the everywhere-ness of speed traps and eagle-eyed police in these here parts. And let me tell you, I was beside myself about that ticket. Decades of spotless driving and then, Bam! I was advised by locals in the know that since I had a clean record, I should plead not guilty and show up to town traffic court to get my ticket reduced by the judge. Just the words not guilty and court and judge gave me agita. I’m a good girl! I don’t belong in traffic court! I thought it would be easier to just pay the ticket and not deal.

Then I mentioned my dilemma to a friend, who exclaimed, “Oh, I love traffic court! It’s so fascinating!” What? Really? Okay. Now I was more intrigued than mortified. So I went.

A small town traffic court lets you see a pretty good cross section of the local population. Our police department did not discriminate, I could tell that much. There were people of every age, color, gender, and genre. I got to chatting with the middle-aged woman sitting next to me, who couldn’t count how many times she’d been here before. “Oh, this guy is great,” she whispered to me when the judge entered. “He’s actually a friend of mine.” I found her laid-back attitude comforting.

So I sat and watched the people, noted their clothes and their demeanor, then amused myself by trying to guess where each person might have been going when they got stopped. I watched the police officers, how they were authoritarian yet friendly, a little different about it each time depending on the individual. I noted how most of the young guys seemed nervous, but the young women were totally chill. And I especially enjoyed watching the judge, who looked not unpleasantly like a middle-aged Neil Patrick Harris, and how he managed to be imposing and kind at the same time.

I got lucky. My officer never showed up and my ticket was dismissed. I went home, ate some chocolate to celebrate, then scribbled observations about my night. Almost a year later, I got another ticket — sheesh, a few moments of losing track of your speed while ref’ing a fight between your kids in the backseat — and was actually a little excited about going back to court. This time, I even brought a notebook. (But yes, I have been more careful lately. No need to make it a three-peat.) I love knowing how that little pocket of our society works. If there’s a traffic court scene in a future book, or an interesting exchange with a police officer, you’ll know where it came from.

My point being, you can chalk anything up to experience. You don’t even have to be a writer — just a curious human type. If it takes you out of your comfort zone, if it’s embarrassing or annoying or downright boring…there’s still a way to make it count and possibly lead you somewhere unexpected.

In other words: Drive safe, but live risky.