February 23, 2014

NO ONE EVER WROTE A WORD WORTH READING IN A CAR:

Writing the Lake Shore Limited (Jessica Gross, 2/19/14, Paris Review)

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a "Folding Sink"--something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3'6" by 6'8". It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I'm only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I'll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit--forty-four, with delays. And I'm here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. "I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers," he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers' residency "test run." (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)

So here I am.
Why do writers find the train such a fruitful work environment? In the wake of Chee's interview, Evan Smith Rakoff tweeted, "I've been on Amtrak a lot lately & love writing while traveling--a set, uninterrupted deadline." The writer Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as "suspended impregnable time," combined with "dreamy" forward motion: "like a mantra, it greases the brain."

In a 2009 piece for The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel describes working on a novel during her morning commute on the New York City subway. "It felt like extra time," she writes. "I began scrawling fragments of the third novel on folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book as my desk." Mandel polled around and found other writers used the subway as a workspace, too. Julie Klam: "Part of the reason I like it is because it has a very distinct end. It's not like having six hours at home. I tend to have great bursts of inspiration that last about six stops." Mark Snyder: "I think the act of working, surrounded by other people living their lives, can be quite a compelling act for yourself. It makes me feel less alone."
Posted by at February 23, 2014 7:37 AM
  
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