People close to me love to tease me about my sense of direction.
I haven't got one.
I mean, I still get lost on Long Island and I've lived here since the '80's and -- hello? It's an island!
But the thing is, it's a serious problem for me because it formed a fear of travel in me. I never went anywhere by myself unless I was sure I could find the way home. When I got my driver's license, I remember driving to my grandparents' home in College Point.
This was not a long trip.
College Point is a section of Queens, New York that's located right on the northern tip of the borough. We lived in Flushing -- a section that's literally just south of it. Take a look:
My home was the purple star (bottom right). My grandparents' home was the red star (top left). The route I needed to take -- indeed, the route my parents had been taking since I was BORN (!) is shown in yellow. This is a ride that should have taken 10 or 15 minutes at best, depending on how many traffic lights I hit on Francis Lewis Blvd.
I got my mom's car keys, waved good-bye, and nearly had a heart attack when I found myself on the ramp for the Whitestone Bridge heading to the Bronx. (Shown as Rt 678, above).
Luckily for me, there was one more exit ramp before the bridge. I took it and ended up in Whitestone. Understand that everything in this section of Queens is numbered. And I still couldn't find my way out.
Back in those days, I navigated my way through life based on landmarks. On the corner of 20th Avenue and the Whitestone Expressway (about the center of the map above), there was a small amusement park there when I was a kid. This was swamp land -- like LITERAL swamp. Tall marshy grass, lots of huge puddles that never seemed to fully evaporate. Today, it's shopping centers and office buildings. But Adventure's Inn and right behind it, The Aero Slide -- a huge slide with multiple lanes you slid down on top of a carpet or burlap scrap -- were the landmarks I used to make my right turn. And less than a mile further down, on Linden Place, stood the old Flushing Airport, home of the Skytypers, who now fly out of Republic Airport. After about an hour of driving around Whitestone and hitting one-ways or bridge supports, I FINALLY passed the amusement park and realized where I was, arriving at my grandparents' house in time for dinner.
*sigh* I wish I could tell you my directional sense improved, but sadly -- it did not. I set off for Laguardia once and ended up at JFK -- and was proud that at least I'd found AN airport.
My dismal sense of direction finally improved when I began studying ways to learn north from south that did not depend on numbers. Long Island has no grid system, so figuring out where the sun is was a critical skill. Is it in my eyes? Then I'm probably going west (because in those days, I was certainly not awake in time for an eastern sunrise).
Before I was published, I learned two of my favorite authors, Jeff Somers and Sean Ferrell, would be appearing at a New York City venue. My teenage son had to take me because even though he couldn't yet drive, he had a fully evolved sense of direction and -- wonder of wonders -- knew how to use the subway system. You can read about that escapade here. That trip was so plagued by mishaps, my son and I STILL crack up when we hear the term Oompa-loompa.
When I got my first publishing contract, awesome agent Brooks Sherman (not my agent, mind you) invited me to participate on a YA author panel he was moderating at a New York City theater called The Cell. I forced my entire family to accompany me -- for fear I'd end up in New Jersey. It was a lot of fun for me -- speaking with authors Nova Ren Suma and Dan Krokos. I'm not sure they'd agree because I never did get invited back.
But the day soon came when I HAD to travel by myself. I made myself ill over the thought. (For an idea as to how ill, just play the Pepto-Bismol jingle.) I studied Map Quest print-outs, bought a Garvin GPS system and called venues for directions. I walked all the way to the Javitz Center from Penn Station for Book Expo because I had no idea which train to take. And I managed to find New York's City-As-School High School, where I spoke to a standing-room only crowd about SOME BOYS.
Remembering how badly I'd wanted to say no when I learned I'd have to travel alone tortures me. If I had, I'd have missed out on the most engaged group of students I've ever addressed.
Now I have GPS on my phone. I drove to South Carolina -- alone! -- and lived to tell, though I had nightmares I'd end up starring in a real-life version of My Cousin Vinny. I made it to my publisher's anniversary party on a New York City rooftop venue and even though I cheated and took a taxi, still consider it a victory. I traveled to Milwaukee for the Barbara Vey Weekend by myself, and to Atlanta for the RT Booklovers' Convention by myself.
Now that I'm a lot older and hopefully, wiser, I'm still directionally challenged. (It's become my family's favorite past-time to stop me in the center of some vast space and ask me to find North. It takes me a good 10 minutes to puzzle it out...) But I don't FEAR getting lost to the extent I once did and no longer become ill at the thought of traveling solo. I used to think getting lost was time wasted, time I could never get back. Now I think it's just part of getting where I need to be.
Writing is a lot like that... I used to balk and cry and feel utterly spent when I had to delete sections of a manuscript or backtrack for several chapters to unravel a subplot that fizzled. Now I consider that part of my way-finding process. In school, we learned that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in real-life, I've learned that "shortest" doesn't always mean "best." For me, those side trips reveal character -- usually mine :)