In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who’s probably best known for Treasure Island, published the poem “From a Railway Carriage.” In addition to rhythms that mimic train motion—“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches”—Stevenson flings image after image at breakneck speed. A child, a tramp, a runaway cart, a mill, a river, “Each a glimpse and gone forever!” It’s quite possible that Stevenson, a frail man but one who loved travel, was on a train while he wrote it.
It’s delightful to write on a train. Amtrak or scenic railway or subway, the pluses are similar. The sense of motion, the engine noise, the coffee-shop feel of being around people without the pressure to interact. Because while a certain kind of person feels free to ask “What are you reading there?” nobody ever wants an answer to “What are you writing there?” Sometimes on fancy commuter rail there are even little tables for your laptop, plus outlets for your power cords, and cup-holders.
I’ve gotten a lot of work done while riding on trains, although I pale in comparison to someone like Scott Turow, who wrote most of his best-selling debut novel, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter rail. I started on the Chicago El, drafting my 50 to 200 word assignments for a banking association while I was traveling downtown. The city was slowly upgrading its subway system, but there were still some cars from the 1940s, and these were absolutely the best for writing. The seats were arranged in parallel rows. They had vinyl cushions—some of them with so many rips that they were all fluff and duct tape. The seats groaned when I shifted my weight. The cars had windows that could actually be opened. My stop in Rogers Park was near the terminus at the north end of the city, so I’d grab a window seat and settle in with my notepad. It took the train about 40 minutes to get to the Loop downtown. Forty minutes was long enough to get into a writing groove, but not long enough enough to feel oppressive. Besides, the environment provided lots of opportunities to take a breather or spark a story idea. We trundled past office windows, back porches with flowerpots and clotheslines, graffiti’d rooftops, elegant hotels, fleabag hotels, skyscrapers, and always in the distance the great lake. When the train went underground there was a wonderful rushing feeling and a change in the sound, and a short moment when we plunged into black and then blinked as the interior lights activated. The other riders kept me thinking and wondering as well. The shell-gamers and Moonies trawling for suckers, the girls dressed as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, sun-hardened street people, Bears fans, Cubs fans, frottagists pressing, sweat dripping down the backs of necks…
When I moved to Boston I switched from the El to the T, but the train-writing worked the same. I rarely ride the subway anymore, but sometimes when I’m feeling dull, I buy a Charlie ticket on the Red Line, made a desk of my knees and backpack, and write until I’m out of juice, then get out at whatever stop is closest and explore.
The pandemic put a stop to train-writing for a while. I feel that itch for a change, so bored with moving from my study to the dining room to the sun room. I have two windows open on this computer. One is Scrivener, where I’m writing the draft for this blog, and the other is a Youtube video: Driver’s Eye View of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which follows the Arkansas River for an hour and a half. I’ve maneuvered things so that it looks a bit as it would if I was sitting by a window. There’s engine noise, and the images passing by create a tiny sense of motion. I saw a flash of color a bit ago—some people were paddling bright-blue rafts—and then I wrote a bit, and now I see the river’s all frothy. I remember a day I spent at age 16, white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania with a church group with a couple of pro guides on each raft. Knees clenched onto the seat, water spraying everywhere, and how loud the rapids were, six foot drops scarier than a 60-foot roller coaster. Somebody on the boat behind us fell out and broke his leg. I think there might be a story nugget there..
It’s nice to figure out that with a little help from the internet, I can make my own train.