Please Excuse My Daughter

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Writing in Trains

I.
My 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.

II.
Julie 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.

Joe 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.

III.
There 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]

A Year in Reading 2009

The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.

It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.

And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.

As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.

Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 | Support The Millions

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