how to drive a stick shift

A few weeks ago, my beloved 2002 Subaru Forester started occasionally overheating (while simultaneously sending gusts of icy air through the heating vents.) The mechanics replaced the thermostat and checked for coolant leaks to no avail – when the problem continued, they recommended selling the car for scrap and buying a new one. I struggled with all kinds of sadness at saying goodbye to this car, and all kinds of stress and frustration at the task of finding a new one, but those are stories for another post. This one is about a different source of frustration entirely, because the new (used) car I wound up buying (an ’08 Subaru Outback) has a manual transmission.

[ Yes, I bought a manual car with no real idea of how to drive it. People seem to be confused by this, but come on – teenagers have been learning to drive these cars for decades, especially in any country besides ours. I was going to figure it out. Anyway, what better way to learn this skill than by having my very own stick shift to practice on? ]

This is not to say that learning how to drive it has been easy. But as it’s slowly started to click, I decided immediately that I needed to write about it. During this whole learning process, I keep hearing things like this from kind, well-meaning people who are already comfortable and happy in their stick-driving prowess:

You just…I don’t know, just do what feels right, you know?

 I’m trying to think…you know, I don’t even know what I do there. I just do it.

 You’ll know it when you get it. Does it feel right?

 These are from people who I normally consider excellent teachers. I mean, I get it. If you asked me to teach someone to read, or ride a bike, or walk, it would be SO HARD. Once something becomes natural or second-nature, it’s hard to remember how the many tiny steps within the process break down, or what it felt like to have no idea what the fuck you were doing.

So, before I get even better at this whole business (knock on wood that such a day is coming), but at this beautiful moment where I have begun to understand what the heck we’re going for, here is my guide for you, new stick-shift-car-driver.

Learning to Drive a Car with a Manual Transmission

I did get some really solid pieces of advice from people along the way (major, major shout-outs to Niko, who sat beside me and talked me through it from the beginning, including through one of my more nasty grouch-fests; and to my parents, who chilled me out and empowered me over the phone, as they are so good at doing.) Much of that wisdom is sprinkled in here.

Also helpful was every single story I heard about someone totally and utterly fucking it all up when they were first learning. Those stories cheered me. I am not alone! I am maybe not doing quite as bad as that person did! Or maybe I am but it’s okay because I am not alone! I’m entirely sure that you can find some of your own by approaching people and asking, “Do you know how to drive a stick shift?” and if the answer is yes, follow it up with, “Tell me a good story about that learning process.”

Okay, first some general tips for how to learn:

  1. Chill out. My mom said to me over the phone, “Just relax.” Try to have your mom’s voice saying “just relax” playing in your head as you sit at a red light, a long line of tense commuters in line behind you. In fact, possibly you could ask your mom, or dad, or someone you know who is calm and wise and loves you unconditionally, to record themselves saying something like this over and over so that you can play it in your car while you drive: Just relax. You might stall, whatever, it’s okay. Everyone’s going to get over it. Take a deep breath, take your time, maybe adjust your mirrors, try it again. Relax. Chill. You are still a solid human being. This moment right here, it’s not defining you. 
  2. Try to find a teacher who you do not mind seeing you at the bottom of your own personal pit of frustration. It helps if this teacher is incredibly patient and has a good sense of humor. (Thanks Niko!!)
  3. If you can’t find a teacher like this, do not despair. It certainly helps, but honestly, the only way you’re really gonna learn this thing is by just trying it, over and over and over, whether someone else is in the car with you or not.
  4. Practice during the day. For some reason, it feels so much easier when you can see the little gear diagram and your own feet.
  5. And that brings me to this final point: keep trying. Get back on the horse, as they say (and sometimes in fact, sitting in a poorly-driven manual car feels very similar to being on a bucking bronco.) Heading back out on the road can be scary and stressful, but don’t give up now! Seriously. Consider this – do you really think, that if you keep practicing, at least a few times a week, for a few weeks, that you won’t get better at this? No. You can see that in a few weeks you’d be so much more comfortable. You get it. You see the inevitability. Just walk down that road with me.
  6. WITH THAT SAID – it’s okay to know your limits, too. To take a break sometimes. To use a different car for a drive if you’ve got one. At least I’ve been doing this, so hey, I support myself. For instance, today I had to drive through a blizzard in stop-and-go traffic, so I borrowed an automatic in order to have full confidence in myself if anything suddenly went wrong. And I feel like that’s okay.

Now how does it WORK?

Some people like to know how things are working mechanically and in great and accurate detail, which I respect and understand, but there are several good, accurate explanations of manual transmissions elsewhere on the internet. In Liz’s words, here’s how it works from your perspective in the driver’s seat:

You have a clutch pedal. It is a third pedal, to the left of the brake. You have to use your left foot for this pedal, which can be weird/awkward.

When you depress this pedal, it changes something in the engine. Basically: two Things in your engine that were engaged in a big hug have now disengaged and taken a step away from one another, arms still outstretched but not touching.


If you then remove your foot and let the pedal out again, those two Things move back towards one another and grab one another in a hug again. The first moment of hug does not happen at the very top of the pedal’s release, but somewhere in the middle to upper third of the pedal’s release path (the exact moment depends on your car.) It’s a squishy, grabby moment where you can almost feel the hug lock in. From there, as you continue to release the pedal, the Things are just snuggling into that hug.


[ Maybe this is just me, but it seemed counter-intuitive to me at first. When I applied the pressure of pressing the pedal all the way down, I felt like that pressure should equal the Things locking into that hug. But nope, it’s the other way around – pedal down, no touching. Pedal released and free, hug locked in. ]

I’m going to complicate this image now. When the pedal is depressed, and the Things have taken a step back, they are free agents. In fact, it’s totally possible for Thing 2 to step aside, and for Thing 3 to step into his place. This is essentially what’s happening when you switch gears – you’re moving a new Thing into position for the hug.

To reiterate: Depress the pedal – Things step away from one another. Switch gears – a new Thing moseys in to replace the previous Thing. Release the clutch – the new pair gives each a big ol’ hug.

If the Things are locked in a hug, in a gear besides neutral, and then all of their mutual attraction and fondness suddenly dies (i.e. the engine is suddenly receiving no gas and has zero forward momentum) then they say, “Screw this, it’s awkward,” and resort to turning the engine off (i.e. the car stalls.)

In other words – step into that hug smoothly, and for goodness’ sake, keep the gas flowing. Adding a little more gas can often revive the relationship and bring it all back to life before you stall.

Knowing this, here’s how to actually drive the thing:

  • You have to depress the clutch and the brake all the way to turn the key and start the engine. Once started, you can put the car in neutral gear and take your foot off the pedals, if you then plan on a) scrolling through new podcasts, b) getting out to scrape horrible amounts of ice off the windshield, c) etc. Your emergency/parking brake will be on.
  • You have to use the emergency brake when you park. Except in a manual car, you can refer to it as a parking brake, because you have to use it all the damn time and not just in an emergency/when parked on an insanely steep, cliff-facing hill, etc. You also have to remember to take it off when you start driving. This is very hard to remember.
  • Starting to move is the hardest part. Your left foot is on the clutch. You take off the parking brake. You ease some gas in – just a wee touch, and start taking your foot off the clutch. Suddenly, you feel something change – the hug is starting! The car moves forward! Do not panic and immediately take both feet off the pedals. Do not panic and give it tons of gas. Just keep a little bit of gas going in – or even none at all, if you’re already moving at a measurable pace – but kind of chew on that clutch pedal for a moment. The Things nuzzle in. Slowly, back off the clutch pedal, and feel free to add a little more gas.
  • Did you stall? It’s okay. It’s probably because you took your foot off the clutch pedal really fast, without giving the Things enough gas to enjoy the hug. Depress the brake and the clutch all the way and turn the car back on. Start over. You’re beautiful.
  • Once you’re finally moving, everything is way easier. Just remember to put the clutch in before switching gears, and switch gears whenever your car sounds angry. (If it sounds whiny, and/or the rpms are super high, put it in a higher gear. If it sounds groany, and the rpms are below 2000, maybe a lower one. I don’t know, your car might have its own voice. Feel it out.) Also, your car kind of gets which gear it needs to be in next, and thus you do not need to jerk and shove the shifter violently. Lightly encourage it in the right direction.
  • I was terrified that my car was going to stall without warning on the highway. This doesn’t happen, apparently. It stalls when it’s going super slow already anyway, and the car suddenly stopping is not the end of the world because you were previously moving at a worm’s pace anyway.
  • Reverse took me awhile. You do NOT need tons of gas. You do NOT need to remove your foot fully from the clutch. Keep it in that chewy stage of mid-pedal, tiny bit of gas, and you’ll slowly move backwards. Slow is nice, when you’re moving backwards.
  • If in doubt, pressing in the clutch and having the Things take a moment is usually a fine idea.

Just relax. You might stall, whatever, it’s okay. Everyone’s going to get over it. Take a deep breath, take your time, maybe adjust your mirrors, try it again. Relax. Chill.

You are still a solid human being. This moment right here, it’s not defining you. 

Good luck.




2 thoughts on “how to drive a stick shift

  1. That place in the middle where the clutch pedal is to the floor and you’re off the gas is where you take the shifter from first to second. Get those feet and hands used to working together.

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