No doubt you’ve heard that quote attributed to activist writer Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
Okay, it’s a cliche, and writers are trained to give cliches a wide berth, avoid them like the plague and otherwise handle them with kid gloves. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.
But in the case of the seat-of-the-pants axiom, it’s true that much of writing depends upon our ability to sit still. For long periods. Have you noticed that when you plop down to write, suddenly the litter box needs changing, dirty laundry finds its voice, and you realize you cannot put off the reorganization of the junk drawer last cracked open during the Roosevelt era (Teddy, not Franklin)?
Yep. Well, I have the perfect therapy for you. Ride the train.
I could fly to see my firstborn Hillary and her husband Jason in Seattle. The trip, including driving to the airport, wading through security (ugh) and the flight itself, would last 3.25 hours.
Or, I could board the train. That trip, including a 10 minute drive to the station and a leisurely stroll to the tracks, stretches to a delicious 22.75 hours.
Now I ask you, which transport mode is superior? Think about it.
Here are the top five reasons the train is perfect for writers.
1. No one will go with you, leaving you free to write. Instead, your loved ones will roll their eyes at your “stupidity” and inform you with maniacal glee that you could arrive at your destination by plane in one eighth of the time. Like you didn’t know that. Like you didn’t know that was the whole point.
2. You will reap the benefits of enforced seat of pants writing. The only possible excursions on a train consist of strolling to the observation car (1 minute), descending to the snack car (1 min 20 seconds), or ambling to the dining car (1 minute 30 seconds). Assuming one excursion per 1.5 hours and excluding meals, which you have to partake of anyway, that leaves a big % of chair time. (I planned to figure out the exact percentage, but I failed. I’m a writer, not a mathematician.)
3. Scenery outside your window can morph into setting details in your writing. On the Coast Starlight route, you will see velvet marshland, dive-bombing pelicans, grooming egrets, amber grasses. Barreling down the tracks, I penned this sentence for my first novel The Circle Line. “The train bisected farmland spotted with cattle and the cattle was hemmed within boundary markers–tires impaled on wooden spikes–a disturbing image, so she pretended the markers were giant root beer lollipops.”
4. Movement stimulates the “write” brain. National Public Radio interviewed neuroscientist Dr. Michel Muhlethaler who conducted a study on the effect of train rocking. Dr. Muhlethaler found that participants on the train slept more deeply with a resultant boost in memory (good for writers and other living things) and a positive correlation to cognitive function. Numerous studies demonstrate that side to side motion is critical to the brain development of babies. I can personally attest to the ability of rocking–train or chair–to stimulate my creative center.
5. You will create unique character sketches. We all need these. Particularly difficult are those secondary characters that we wish to paint with just a few brush strokes. Real models help us avoid character stereotypes. You know the ones I mean. Messy bachelor, clueless nerd, blond bimbo. By noticing your fellow passengers, you can keep a journal of characters to draw upon as needed. Some examples from my trip:
Eighty-year-old ethnic Aztec from Kansas City who refuses to speak Spanish outside of his home.
German Catholic journalist reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. (There’s a juxtaposition for you.)
Cherubic-faced Australian teen wearing brown overalls and a prayer shawl, just back from Burning Man.
You could make this stuff up, but isn’t this easier?
Two rules to make your train trip more productive:
1. Don’t bring your laptop unless you use it for writing. And then, ahem, use it for writing, not movie watching or web surfing.
2. Don’t let people chatter at you. Some travelers regard the person next to them as open season for nattering on about the minutiae of their lives. (Actually, that’s why I know so much about the Aztec from Kansas City.) If your seatmate does this, move to the observation car where there are tables and chairs. My daughter Manda recommends dummy ear phones to pop on as needed. Just smile and mouth, “Sorry. I can’t hear you.”
Have you had any experiences writing on the train? I’d love to hear. Until then, I’ll see you on down the tracks.