Writing in Trains

By posted at 1:28 pm on December 16, 2009 10

coverMy subway writing habit began a few months ago, in the feverish time around the publication of my first novel. It was a hectic summer: my second novel was acquired just before my first novel came out, and it required four or five rounds of fairly intensive revisions, so I was revising the second book at exactly the moment when I needed to promote the first. And this juggling act was actually perfectly doable (and often even fun, in a hectic kind of a way), except that I’d already begun writing a third.

Devoting time to the third book in those days felt vaguely irresponsible—there are only so many hours in a day, and the demands of the first two novels were so much more pressing and immediate. I felt that I couldn’t in good conscience sit down at my desk and work on a book that wouldn’t be close to ready for another year or two, with so much to be done on works that were either already in stores or mere months from publication.

There were, however, a combined total of six hours a week spent on the subway, commuting to and from my day job, and it felt like extra time. My job’s far from where I live—if the trains are running smoothly, it’s a solid hour each way. I began scrawling fragments of the third novel on folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book as my desk.

A lot of reading goes on in the subway, but it’s rare to see anyone writing down there. I’ve only seen anyone else writing in the subway once or twice, and I began to wonder recently how common it is. So I turned, as I always do when I want to take a wildly unscientific sample poll of the general writing population, to Twitter and Facebook.

coverJulie Klam writes on the 1 train. Her memoir, Please Excuse My Daughter, was published last year. “Being a work-at-home mother,” she told me,

I take any writing time I can get. Since my daughter’s school is a half-hour subway ride away, I can work on the two trips (the ones without her). I also work when I’m meeting someone for lunch to alleviate the guilt of not being home writing every free second I have. 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. I also like having to beat the clock—knowing that I need to get a thought down before my station. I write notes about whatever I’m working on—a book or magazine piece and generally find the best stuff comes from when I’m out and about and not home and focused. It is also the only time I am not using a computer and there is something very useful to me about having to slow down my thoughts to hand write them (rather than hammering them out at the speed of light on my Mac).

This closely mirrors my own experience, except for the bit about working at home and having a kid: it’s partly a question of only-so-many-hours-in-a-day necessity, but there’s also something about trains that’s oddly conducive to writing. For me it’s not so much about the hand writing—I write almost everything in longhand before I transcribe it to my computer anyway, whether I’m at my desk or on the F train—but the rhythm and the white noise, the momentum of travel, the feeling of being immersed in the life of the city.

coverJoe Wallace’s first novel, Diamond Ruby, will be published this spring. He no longer lives in New York City, but he told me that “back when I lived in the city and rode the trains every day, I frequently spent most of my time writing… working on whatever novel I was dreaming of having published. I never planned to write on the train. It’s just that I never know where some knot in the manuscript will untie itself, what intractable character will suddenly come clear, which brick wall will suddenly crumble away.”

In many ways we’re lucky, commuting the way we do. It’s much harder to scribble your revelations in a moving automobile.

coverThere are a few who’ve taken it a step further: writers who actively seek out the subway as a work environment. One of my favorite novels of 2009 was Lowboy by John Wray. A lot of the action of the book takes place in the New York City subway system; I was somewhat startled to read in a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that most of it was written there too. Wray wrote much of the first draft on the F, C, and B trains, although “there was a time,” he told the Journal, “when I was really into the G.” For the better part of a year he sat near the conductor’s booth with a laptop, sometimes for six hours at a time.

Wray’s arguably an outlier here, but he isn’t alone. New York playwright Mark Snyder lives and works in Manhattan, but he sometimes boards Brooklyn- and Queens-bound trains in order to write all the way to the outer boroughs and back. He wrote:

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—vs the desk in my apartment, with life happening “out there”, behind the window—and somehow makes whatever I’m working on feel more important, more vital, more “I have to get this down NOW!”

I would personally prefer, all things being equal, to do most of my writing at my desk. That said, I understand where Mark’s coming from—it’s why I sometimes write in cafés—and even the idea of writing an entire novel on the subway makes some sense to me, although I probably wouldn’t do it on a laptop. (I’ve used a laptop on the subway a few times, when faced with particularly looming deadlines; I find the “I wonder which of my fellow passengers is planning on mugging me?” calculus a little nerve-wracking.) I had an interesting Twitter conversation a few months ago with Drew Goodman, a writer and bookseller living in Utah; both of us, we discovered, like writing in fairly noisy environments on occasion. There’s something about white noise that helps people like me and Drew focus; even in my quiet office, I’m usually listening to ambient electronica while I write.

White noise aside, there’s a certain paradoxical privacy in working on the subway. It’s New York City, and we’ve all seen everything down here: if you start writing on the train nobody’s likely to give you a second glance, unless of course you’re writing on your laptop and they’re planning on stealing it at the next stop. Except on the rare elevated sections of track, your phone won’t ring. The odds of running into anyone you know are fairly slim. And Mark Snyder’s right, you’re less alone in the subway than you are at your desk, but what makes writing on a train viable at all is that your aloneness is still a matter of degree. You’re out in the world, surrounded by other people, but there’s enough solitude in that crowd to get some writing done.

[Image credit: Jim Kuhn]

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10 Responses to “Writing in Trains”

  1. Mike McQuillian
    at 1:39 pm on December 16, 2009

    This makes me wish there was a subway in AZ.

  2. JK Evanczuk
    at 6:41 pm on December 16, 2009

    Great post. There was also that guy who wrote an entire novel on his cell phone during his daily commute. Not quite the same thing, but close.

    I’m a big fan of ambient noise when I write. Or do any sort of work, really. I did a lot of studying in coffee shops in college. There’s something about the noisy coffee shop atmosphere that makes me feel more relaxed and creative, and less like I’m doing actual work.

  3. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 9:12 pm on December 16, 2009

    JK – I know what you mean! There’s something about writing in a cafe that sort of makes me feel like I’m taking the afternoon off, no matter how hard I’m actually working.

  4. Joe
    at 5:01 pm on December 17, 2009

    Great article. I’ve been writing on the subway since 2006, and I think I agree with Julie Klan that bursts of inspiration can happen there fairly regularly. Sometimes it’s tough. There are riders occasionally who are not totally sane and cause a lot of commotion. There are kids selling candy bars, break dancers, Mexican folk bands, sax players, pan handlers, a capella singers and all the rest. But generally, it’s a pretty great laboratory for writing. I agree with the feeling of immediacy. I agree with the white noise/ambient sound idea. As an aside, I was told once that James Thurber wrote on the subway, so it may be a tradition in NYC.

  5. Amber
    at 12:35 am on December 18, 2009

    When I was in school, I used to write on the school bus. Not quite the same, but the noise of the kids talking and playing made me focus harder on what I was doing.

  6. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 12:29 am on December 21, 2009

    Thanks, Joe. It is tough sometimes, I agree… people with their iPods turned up to 11 and raving lunatics are a problem. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were a New York tradition; we all spend so much time underground here.

  7. Friday Five « Jacquelin Cangro
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  8. Jonathan Tolentino
    at 9:44 pm on September 29, 2013

    I live in Thornhill, Canada, and take the commute down the Yonge-Subway line every day and night. Its fairly enjoyable during the morning since I’m at the end of the terminal and can get a fairly good seat to read and write on my netbook. (I’m reading writing books on the kindle at the same time sometimes). During the night home the place is packed, though I think I’ll find a way of writing my stream of thoughts. It really is an uncommon sight to see people writing on the subway but I’d love to see more of it.

    Something I’m planning on doing tomorrow night is closing my laptop screen and whipping out a usb or bluetooth keyboard and just write standing up. Sure you can’t see what you’re typing, and maybe you might get more than a fair share of spelling errors, but at least I’ll be able to do something and its more space efficient until people get off the next major intersection.

    I’m a lazy writer, don’t feel like writing at home, and can’t write at work, so its logical to do it on the commute. Something I wished I could have done when I was commuting 2 hours each way to Missisauga. Just don’t miss your stop.

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