I drove from D.C. to St. Louis this weekend for my next opera residency, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. One of the reasons that I am a profoundly bad driver is that my mind tends to wander during long stretches of a repetitive task. I don’t mind this in theory, as this mental wandering is good for my creative process; unfortunately, it’s extremely dangerous for myself and others that share the road with me! So I need to take more care than most when driving in order to focus, never talking on the phone or holding a drink—hey, I’m not exactly a multitasker, so I have to compensate for that deficiency in any way I that I possibly can.
I did fairly well on the long drive, and with my trunk full of composer stuff in tow managed to nod off—or get to the point just before nodding off—only once or twice. Pretty good for an absent-minded composer. I’ve never have the same joy of driving that my wife does; I can tap into it, but it’s usually just slightly overshadowed by the feeling of having to unnaturally restrict my thought processes in order to focus on large SUVs that drift into other lanes.
Central to the mental state one attains when entering “highway hypnosis”—a state both beneficial to deep, imaginative thinking and dangerously disorienting to the part of ourselves that must deal with an accurate picture of the physical/rational world—is something of a near-psychedelic or primitive dreamlike state that we often find difficult to attain in waking life, something that is a goal of many forms of meditation and religious traditions. It’s a state I have also encountered prior to falling asleep. When the “lights are on” in our sense of self, it’s easy to discern between inner thoughts and the physical world outside; similarly, after dark our awareness of the outside world dims, replaced by the reflection of our own mental lights on the window panes of perception. But at sunset—that moment before falling asleep, or jerking oneself awake from near-catastrophe on a long drive, when it is not clear what is external reality and what is reflection—is usually when I have the best ideas, in the raw-concept/brainstorming sense of “idea.”