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Autumn 2023

joni levy liberman

driving: a failure story 

anna o'donoghue

Being bad at things is a skill. Or maybe it’s a talent, God-given. Either way, people who are good at being bad wear their badness lightly, like a moisture-wicking athletic jacket–something they can shrug off and toss over the back of a chair whenever they feel like it. Being bad strikes them as incidental, a nonissue. Or maybe it’s interesting, a temporary novelty. How delightful, this strange skin that they’re destined to shed. They don’t sweat the chrysalis period. Why should they? They know they’re butterflies.


I have never been good at being bad at things. Which is to say, I’m bad at it. 


For those of us who are bad at being bad, it’s not a jacket or even a skin: it feels like a genetically coded deformity, bone-deep. No transformation is coming. We will be sluggish caterpillars forever, crawling our way towards death.  


Of all the things I’m bad at, I’m the worst at driving. Also, I’m terrible at being bad at it. This defect has been coded since childhood: the first time a friend suggested we play Mario Kart, I sent Luigi careering off a cliff. It’s all been downhill from there.


Margaret Atwood is good at being a bad driver, because she has no fear. I know about Margaret Atwood’s vehicular adventures because she wrote about them in the New Yorker, a particularly fearless flex for an iconic female novelist on the other side of 70. Her instructor told her she was unteachable, and she seemed lightly pleased by this: what a cool jacket, unteachability. Katha Pollitt, another feminist writer of a certain age without a license, couldn’t learn to drive because she was insufficiently observant–she wrote about this in another New Yorker confessional. There is, apparently, an entire genre of Women Who Can’t Drive personal essays, most of which are published in the New Yorker. Sometimes the New York Times Magazine. My mother in law sends them to me: “such literary company you’re in,” she captions the links.  


I’m not sure if this is meant to encourage me to keep at it–Margaret Atwood hasn’t given up, so you shouldn’t either! (As flattering as this is, I don’t know that I can look to Margaret Atwood’s life path as a model for my own. We both have sort of frizzy hair, but I am not Canadian, a multi-millionaire, or a genius. Also, fearlessness is not my problem.) Or maybe my mother in law is actually trying to make me feel better about my failure: if Peggy Atwood (that’s how my mother in law refers to her, with writerly familiarity) and Katha Pollitt don’t have licenses, how important can they be? 


Not very, when you’re in New York City, which is where I was when I turned sixteen, the age of driver reason. As far as most native New Yorkers are concerned, there is no world beyond the five boroughs. As far as this native New Yorker (me) was concerned, driving was bourgeois, suburban, sort of embarrassing. I’ve never liked machinery, and I resisted conventional teenage rites of passage. What need had I of licenses? Cars were yellow things with medallions and glass barriers between me and the person who made them go. 


But New York city solipsism only goes so far–everywhere else, driving is, like, huge. And like anything else that involves a qualification test, there’s both a practical and a symbolic element to the quest. Like sex before you’ve had it, driving achieves a mystical, elevated status–and at the same time: everyone’s doing it. I’ve been driven by interns, by teenagers, by old men, by family members, by friends, by friends of friends. I’ve been driven grudgingly, graciously, indifferently, ineptly. But no matter the condition of my being-driven, the tacit knowledge has passed between me and the driver: they have passed a test I failed. Twice. I’m scared to try again because of the magical power of threes. What if the third time isn’t the charm, but the last strike? I’ll be out. 


Without a license, you’re a child, riding in the back seat of your own life. As you get older, this dependence gets more and more leaden. You feel the weight of yourself as a piece of human cargo, a problem for others to solve. Who’s going to drive you?  




When I moved to New Hampshire right after the pandemic, the driving stakes went up. In my new rural residence, the question wasn’t whether or not people drove, but how many cars and whether they had snow tires. The nearest store (general, tiny) was five miles away. The nearest anything else required a freeway. If I wanted any shred of independence, I would have to learn to drive. Fast. I took deep breaths of bracing New Hampshire air. Okay. Here we go. Previous episodes of my Attempts At Driving flashed before my eyes.


Picture, if you will:


It’s hot, and I’m visiting my grandparents in Washington, DC, the summer after my junior year of college. They live on a cul-de-sac, where I learned to ride a bicycle, and I have a couple weeks with nothing to do. Why not try driving? They have a BMW, which means nothing to me, except the memory of fifth grade, when my 18 year-old babysitter with a rat tail and a Tom Cruise obsession, bought a calendar of BMW cars and pasted her face (and Tom Cruise’s) behind the wheel. I guess BMWs are cool? Okay. I’ll learn to drive in this calendar car. 


Everyone agrees that my grandfather is not equipped to teach me. A fast, erratic driver prone to aggression and unsignaled lane changes, being in the passenger seat with his unlicensed granddaughter makes his heart race. He has had three heart attacks already, so everyone agrees we shouldn’t push it. 


Instead, for my birthday my grandparents gift me a package of ten lessons with a professional instructor. At forty minutes apiece, this will add up to almost eight hours–the length of a solid road trip. More than enough time to find my street-legs.  


I wait for the instructor on the porch. A car pulls up, and a window rolls down. “Are you Anna?” the man inside says. Under his direct gaze, I’m not sure. “I think so?” He gets out of the car. “Well, are you or not? I don’t want to pick up the wrong person.” Yes, fair enough. I tell him I am Anna and start to get into the passenger seat. He tells me: no. The other side. 


It is not until this exact moment that I realize that while learning to drive, I will in fact be driving. For actual real.


Here’s the thing: you actually can’t practice driving. Like kissing, or shooting a gun, or wearing Nike shoes: you just do it. You can do it slowly, you can do it in open spaces, you can do it with no one else around, but nevertheless, you are performing the action. I try to process this information as I fumble for the driver’s side door. The seat is too far back and I don’t know how to move it. I grope for the levers, push one the wrong way, and lurch backward.


The metaphor is too obvious.


This is basically how it goes with this nice gentleman, who is 60ish, Black, and fine-boned. His voice is accentless, his face unlined and deathly calm. It feels suddenly urgent that he like me. He won’t. Because, over the eight hour road trip we will spend together, it will become clear: I am bad at this.  


He tells me what to do. Eyes: always scanning ahead. Hands: at 10 and 2. Like, a clock. (I picture a clock. Pay attention to the road, he tells me. My hands grope. Sorry.) Check the blind spot every ten seconds. Check the rear mirror. Check again. Pay attention to the road signs. Notice the cars in front of you, what are they signaling? Don’t put your left foot too close to the pedals. No, it’s not an insurance policy. Your right foot does all the work. But don’t let your left foot drift too far away, because you might need it. Are you wearing flip flops? Don’t ever do that again. Change gears. No, no other way. The other way. Keep an eye on the speed limit. You forgot, didn’t you, it’s lower in school zones. Scan for pedestrians–there could be a child crossing. Check the bicycle lane. Turn your turn signal on. Turn it off. Turn it on again. Breathe, he tells me. Seriously? Now I have to breathe too?


Of the 400 minutes we spend together, at least 300 of them I am crying or just about to. He takes me to wide berths so we can practice “K-turns.” He warns me darkly that these will be on the test. What test? Every time I get in the car, it’s like I’m entering another country and have to clear customs. Where am I again? I just want to be able to differentiate between the windshield wipers and the turn signals.


At the end of my package of lessons, the instructor tells me he thinks I might need a few more. You don’t fucking say. 


He is only the first of many men who will try to teach me to drive.


Here are some others:


  • The 23-year-old shaggy haired boy who is in my regional theater cast in Maine and trying to seduce me. He loves to drive, and while I am embarrassed to be the student to his teacher, he is patient and kind and manages to explain the windshield wipers to me in a way that makes sense. But the streets are icy, and the contract is short. I make little progress, but he and I do fall a little in love.


  • The sound designer in Vermont, on the night of my birthday, takes me to an abandoned field to “show me how to park.” We end up making out on the grass instead, and he loses his car keys, so we walk back home (he will go back, without me, to find them the next day once we sober up.) We will have another couple driving lessons, but we’re not fooling anyone, including ourselves. 


  • A slew of men employed by various New York City driving schools. One of them tells me I’m a great driver, all I need is confidence. He leans back and gives me very few instructions; he also speaks very little English. All of these men talk to me in a vaguely bemused tone, and they seem to think I am, alternatively, very funny, very crazy, and very annoying. I feel like I am their girlfriend. Or, rather, I feel like I am getting a very clear view of what it would be like to be their girlfriend. 


  • My friend’s father, who claims he can teach anyone–he has taught his wife, his children, his mother in law, all unteachable students. He is unperturbed by my poor driving record: he likes a challenge. 


So, when I declare on January 1, 2016, that my resolution is to learn to drive and my friend says, “Well, do you want my dad to teach you? I’m supposed to visit him in Connecticut today, you could come with,” I say, “....sure!” Two hours later, I am on the freeway to Danbury, with my friend gripping his seat in the back and his father seated next to me, calling out instructions, laughing when we swerve. I’m so blinded by terror that I don’t think I even clock how many times we narrowly escape death. I arrive exhilarated. My friend goes upstairs to lie down and his father turns to me: “Wanna try parking?” 


This man comes from the Margaret Atwood school of driving - utterly fearless. He trusts me to do things I cannot do (like left hand turns and accelerator gambits at stop signs). But when he feels me buckling under the pressure, he reroutes us to a petting zoo or a grocery store with rainbow bagels. He tells me he plans to vote for Trump, only half joking, and we agree we’ll take a road trip together to a rally to see if, as my friend’s dad claims, “Build the Wall” is just a metaphor. We have six lessons over three weekends and I start to think: maybe I could do this.


But then one day, he calls me at 6:15 am when we have agreed to meet at 9. He’s under the weather and has to postpone. “Sure,” I say, annoyed to be woken early. I will discover much, much later, that his under the weather was in fact a hospital visit: he will soon be diagnosed with late stage liver cancer. We will never have another lesson, but I’ll stand up at his funeral to tell the assembled crowd about the time he took me to the stop sign at the top of the steepest hill in Connecticut. 


Later, I’ll think about the ice cream he bought me while we pet the goats, and the way he looked at me; he didn’t care that I couldn’t drive–he liked it, because it gave him the chance to be useful to a young woman. And he was. 




When my west coast-born friend tells me she is taking a cross country trip, I tell her it sounds romantic. She looks back at me, baffled. “Doesn’t driving make you feel sexy and powerful?” I ask. “It makes me feel tired,” she says. “Sexy and powerful, Anna? Where did you get this idea?”


I think about it. I’ve gotten it from many places–from a boyfriend who liked to drive to clear his head, from another boy who told me that he knew he was the man of the house when his mom handed him the car keys… from a lot of boys, I guess. Also, of course, from our entire culture: Any movie buff will tell you that cars are stand-ins for freedom, control, status–basically, a phallic symbol that, instead of acting as an external appendage, can hold them comfortably inside. Penis as womb.


But I don’t watch action movies, and I think penis envy is something by men for men. My idea of driving as sexy and powerful came from a much more female source–a play, of all things: Paula Vogel’s contemporary-classic gut punch of a play How I Learned to Drive. 


I forgot this until I saw a recent revival, and the line hit me: Lil Bit is talking about the power of being behind the wheel, the one in control, the teacher. And she’s of course talking about what it's like to feel masculine. “Baby, you can drive my car.”


Come to think of it, all those learning-to-drive first-person narratives are from a female perspective, aren’t they? It could just be that there’s a whole slew of Driving Confessionals by men out there, and my mother in law just doesn’t forward them to me, but…no, I think it’s a pretty female thing. 


Maybe Margaret Atwood didn’t worry about all of this–not only is she immune to fear, she seems to also be immune to a particular type of gendered powerlessness that certainly has afflicted me throughout my life. She observes it and chronicles it, yes, and witheringly. But she’s observing it from the next lane; I’m living it. 


This takes me, at long, winding last, to the Test.




In New Hampshire, you can take the road test three times before you have to enroll in a mandated drivers ed course. For the “live free or die” state, this is pretty restrictive, and clearly designed for 16-year-olds who just think they can zip their way through to independence without buckling down and putting in the gritty time behind the wheel. As we know, this was not my issue: I have spent literally thousands of hours trying to learn this high-school level skill (Malcolm Gladwell, eat your heart out), and nevertheless, the first time I took it, I failed resoundingly. 


That day, I tried to set myself up for success. The appointment was scheduled for 1:15pm, so I woke up at 9, slowly made and drank tea, did yoga on the porch. I looked out at the New Hampshire lake. I said to myself, this is the day you change your life. This is the day you change your identity. You cross over from a non-driver to a driver. You. Can. Do. This.


The problem with self-talk is, it’s not coming from a credible source. Whether I could do this had very much yet to be seen. And as we rolled up to the Concord, New Hampshire DMV, a split level set of grey office buildings that reminded me of a hospital or possibly a jail, I had a buzzy feeling rising above my sternum, and another sinking one below my diaphragm. 


Despite my efforts, I was not off to a good start. My husband of one month had slept late and lost his wallet in our one-room cottage (it is a universal truth that the smaller a space, the more impossible it is to recover an object lost inside it) and all my careful morning calm had gone flying out the porch window. Time was now tight: we would have to make the hour and ten minute drive in an hour and five. I had decided that I would be the one to drive to Concord. It would be a warm up, a chance to get into a groove. And a reminder to myself that, hey, I could drive long distances. I had practice. 


But now, the time pressure made me waver. Maybe I wasn’t warming up as much as maxing out. Shouldn’t I save my best take for the close up? Then a rabbit darted in front of me and I slowed. “What the hell are you doing!” my husband shouted. Basically, he was anxious, and it was contagious. I was never going to pass this test. He knew it. I knew it. This was a losing battle, and he was annoyed at having to go out of his way to witness the carnage.


Driving had been a battleground in our house all year.


When we had moved to New Hampshire, with its bitter winters, long roads, and inescapable car culture, it had been so that he could take a position at a prestigious academic institution. He had to go. There was no question. We had to go.


So, I packed and unpacked the boxes, put in our change of address forms, and uprooted my city existence. In return, he promised he would help me with driving; I would practice every day, with him patiently by my side. When we got engaged on our porch a few months later, it felt right: the last man standing, the man who would be my husband, would be the one to finally, at long last, coax me into driving competence. I would become a good driver, a person transformed. 


But whenever we approached the car, my then-fiancé gravitated towards the left side door. And by the time I said, “Hey, I think I should probably drive, right?” he had already put on his seatbelt. I resented that I had to remind him–that this horrible, difficult task had to be something I was in charge of requesting–like putting out my hand and reminding someone to hit me. 


I drove less than I should have. 


The rabbit skittered off the road and I pulled over. “Why don’t you drive?” I said. He tried to rebuff me. “No, no you can do it. You have to do it. Come on. Come on! If you don’t drive now, you never will!” The sudden ultimatum was jarring; it was, of course, the one I had set for myself. I put on the hazards, and I got out of the car. “We don’t have time to argue about this,” I said. “We’re going to be late for the test.”


Forty five minutes later, I failed it, on time. The man who administered it–of course it was a man,  gleaming white shaved bald head, large crucifix around his neck, disapproving of our New York license plates and foreign-made car–dripped with kindly condescension as he reviewed my sins. “I know it’s hard to take criticism from someone you love,” the man told me, “but ask your husband to give you pointers.” 


I had not come to a complete stop at a stop sign–he called this a California roll; I had not turned my head sufficiently to check my blind spot when turning into an empty street; I had not noticed the change of speed limit sign at the first turnout, so I had been speeding along at 33 in a 20mph zone, a failable offense right there. 


“Got any curtain-tuggers?” he asked me. 


“What?” I said. 




“Oh. No.” 


He smiled, shook my hand, and handed me a report card with rows of Xs. I said thank you.   


I had made a crucial mistake: I had thought that the driving test was to prove proficiency in driving. I should have realized that it was to prove proficiency in passing the driving test. One had to drive, not effectively, but performatively. To show that you knew the rules and would follow them, and that you respected authority. That you would be a good girl. 


I had failed, but I felt mildly euphoric. After the roadside stand down, I had not crumpled under pressure. I had moved along the roads with essential competence. I could try again, now that I knew what I was getting into. Next time, I would pass. So there.




The second time I failed the driving test was two months after the first. It was the last available appointment before the Christmas holidays. We would be leaving New Hampshire soon, and this moment would pass, along with my valid New Hampshire ID card. 


I drew the same bald, crucifixed instructor. This time, as I pulled out into the first right lane turn, he saw an approaching vehicle with some bumper sticker I only glimpsed, and let out a little chortle. “Let’s Go, Brandon,” he said, I’m not sure to whom. He remarked again on our New York license plates–how long had we lived in New Hampshire? I reflexively inflated our residency time: two years, and we loved it. He told me, jovially, that it was illegal not to get the license plates changed after a year, but it was none of his business. Thank you, sir, I said, we’ll get on that.


He asked me the same questions about whether we had kids and what I thought of the drivers in New York City. I realized, midway through the ride, that he did not remember me. I wondered: should I make up children? Maybe he would like it if I had curtain tuggers. 


This time, I failed because the blinding light reflecting off the post-blizzard ice got in my eyes, and I tried to obey too fast when he told me to change lanes. He told me, with polite urgency, to abort the attempt. It wasn’t safe. But it had been an order, and this was the test. So I’d gone ahead, trying to do as I was told. It was the wrong call, and it was not one a good driver would make.  


The bald man allowed me my dignity; he still took me through the rest of the course. But, as I backed into the parking space, I was pretty sure I had failed. 


However, when he handed me my X-ed report card this time, there were a slew of errors I was sure I had not made. He claimed I had been going too slowly at times–I guess I had been five miles under the speed limit at one point–and that my turns were too narrow. My acceleration was erratic. Okay? Again, he told me to ask my husband for help. 


When I told my husband what had happened, he was equal parts apologetic and sympathetic. “You’re as good a driver as anyone,” he told me. “That guy was an asshole.” I collapsed into him, sad and sorry and angry at myself. “And anyway, you don’t need to drive,” my husband told me. “Who cares?”   


Here’s the thing about being bad at something. At some point it crosses over from being a condition to an identity. No one would say a baby is bad at walking, because we have a reasonable expectation that the baby will grow, spend some more time acclimating to their chubby legs, and become quite able to walk. But with a three year old who is still crawling, we start to worry: something’s wrong. Doesn’t the kid want to walk?


In order to affect an identity transformation, a person has to commit to it. No one ever went through radical self-reinvention slowly, cautiously, by dribs and drabs. I had been trying to learn to drive passively, hoping it would just kind of eventually happen–a slow progression, not a leap. I didn’t want to learn; I wanted to be taught. This sort of passivity doesn’t lead to radical change. It also makes you a bad driver.


Driving requires assertiveness; you decide where you’re going, signal your intention, and then execute. Yes, of course, you have to allow for the movements of all those other cars on the road—their drivers are also going places—but for the most part, driving is about making plans and following through. You can’t be wishy washy: if you put on your turn signal, everyone is expecting you to turn.


I have, effectively, had my turn signal on for years, while continuing to move straight ahead. I say I want to drive, but do I? If so, what am I waiting for? The perfect teacher? 


Driving is a profound act of trust: that the various pieces of machinery and the forces of motion are sound and will behave as they should. That taxes are being collected and allocated appropriately for the road signs to be clear, the traffic lights to change at the right times, and the potholes to be covered. Trust in your fellow drivers, that people will be sane and sober. Trust in luck, because there are so so so many ways that things can go wrong, and frequently do. And lastly, trust in yourself, in your ability to respond, intuitively and decisively - fearlessly, even - to adverse circumstances, should they arise.


Of all the variables, I trust myself the least. When I’ve been in car accidents, and I’ve been in a 

couple–my primary emotion has been relief: Thank God I was just a passenger. If I’m going to

die, I want it to be someone else’s fault. 


Maybe the lesson here isn’t about learning to drive, but about learning to accept responsibility for the road not taken. The driver’s seat unclaimed. 


Or maybe it’s about trying, failing, and failing again, and finding the grace in that. The importance of failure gets a lot of lip service, but only as a stop on the journey to success. What if failure is the destination? How do we learn to live there, and make it a comfortable, even beautiful, home? 


All lessons aside, I wonder if things might have gone differently for me if, all those summers ago, I had asked my grandmother to teach me to drive on that cul-de-sac. 


In my grandparents’ marriage, my grandfather was the star, while Nana was the plus one, riding shotgun to their life together. That’s how I thought of her, anyway–and that’s how she thought of herself, according to the soft conversations we had late at night in her dark room after my grandfather died and she put photographs of him on the parts of the wall she would see when she woke up in the morning. She stopped driving then, and hired a young man to take her back and forth to the Safeway for her few groceries and many medications.


Nana’s late night murmurings weren’t fair, though. She was calm, steely, sensible, and she had decades of practice maneuvering that BMW. Even with her bad eyesight, she was an okay driver. Probably better than my erratic, emotional grandfather had ever been.  


I wonder why it never occurred to anyone–including her–that she might be the better teacher for me. And I wonder if it would have helped me to see this soft, pliant, background presence step into the instructor role, becoming the person who directed and decided. 


Maybe I would have learned a different lesson about being at the wheel. 




Unlike Margaret Atwood, my grandmother had a healthy capacity for fear. So, maybe she just was too scared to get into the car with me. Which, I understand. I’m bad at driving. 

ANNA O'DONOGHUE is an actor, writer, and dramaturg from New York City. She is Literary Manager & Artistic Producer of the American Playwriting Foundation and was previously, Chair of Arts in the Armed Forces’ Bridge Awards for Playwriting and Screenwriting, which sought out and supported exceptional dramatic writing by veterans and active duty military members. As a dramaturg, she has worked with writers on plays, tv, and film projects that have gone on to production at major regional theaters, networks, and studios. As an actor, Anna has appeared on, off, off-off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country; she was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her performance in the world premiere of I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart. Her own dramatic writing has been developed and produced in New York, New Orleans, and New Mexico and for WEBSITE

JONI LEVY LIBERMAN has been making art for as long as she can remember. Her work has appeared in over forty newspapers and magazines including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Gourmet Magazine, and Cricket, The Magazine for Children. Her client list includes Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt Brace and Behrman House, as well as many non-profit agencies. Her monotypes are included in many private collections. Joni is a daughter, sister, wife, mother of two, and friend to many. She is a guardian of days and a narrator of life. She wears red shoes, red socks, and red anything. Joni currently works in monotype, illustrates in both color as well as in black and white, and is also developing surface designs. WEBSITE

[image credit: Joni Levy Liberman

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