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Writing on Trains

Writing is a mysterious endeavor. The summoning of ideas and sentences often feels like appealing to a capricious god. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to when and how ideas present themselves, so writers tend to be a superstitious bunch, and there’s much discussion about the irrelevant factors that might – just maybe – lead to success. Over the years I’ve experimented with all sorts of silly rituals and gimmicks, from pairing a certain type of pen with a certain type of notebook, to writing before dawn or after midnight, to aiding creativity with an adult beverage. Or two. And like so many other aspiring writers, I was fascinated by the rituals of authors I admired: Nabokov wrote on index cards, often standing at a lectern; Truman Capote wrote lying down, with a glass of sherry; Cheever apparently wrote in his underwear.

Ultimately, the fact sank in that there is really only one true key to success as a writer: time. That is, putting in X minutes or hours of writing at a certain time every day. Not until you commit to putting in the time and establishing a routine will you ever write anything of substance, I finally realized. Ah, but there’s the rub. Who has the ability in this age to carve out 90 minutes of quiet concentration every blessed day? The answer to that question is: How badly do you want to succeed? Those who truly love to write, and want badly enough to make that thing they envision in their heads come to life, will sacrifice to make the time. Those who don’t, won’t.

When I began my first novel, I started carving out my 90 minutes a day by getting up at five a.m. and writing from 5:30 to 7:00. I’m a guy who needs his eight hours, badly, and that meant either going to sleep at nine every night, or being tired and cranky. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and commuting to Manhattan for work every day on the New Jersey Transit trains. I began to take my laptop with me, grab a window seat (even if it meant walking to an earlier stop to get one), play some lyric-free jazz on my headphones, and write from the moment I sat down to the moment we entered Penn Station, a period of roughly 45 minutes. I soon realized I had found my secret recipe: two 45-minute sessions a day on the train. Bingo.

There’s something about a train. Maybe it’s the forward momentum, the lack of jarring stops and starts, the tempo, the gentle passage of the landscape in the periphery of your vision as you focus on the words you’re writing. Or maybe it’s the captivity, the inability to get up and see what’s in the fridge, as if its contents might have changed for the better since you checked it ten minutes earlier. The lack of internet access definitely helps. There’s a certain magic the window possesses: when you find yourself stuck for that perfect word or phrase, you can look up and gaze absently through it and the scenery sliding by establishes a sort of slide-show rhythm for you to match with the words and phrases you test out, or helps spin the tumblers in your head until the perfect combination of words fits into place. Because of the spell of forward momentum they cast upon me, I’ve come to love trains. I wrote the lion’s share of my first novel on them.

I now live in New York City, and I miss that ride (although the weary commuters who use New Jersey Transit, with its frequent delays and cancellations, might be surprised to hear me say it). I have to find other ways to set my routine these days. But I’m hoping that with a lot of luck, and many more units of quiet concentration, I can someday quit my day job, buy myself a monthly pass, and spend a few hours every day riding the train out to the end of the line and back again with my laptop and headphones. The productivity would be out of sight. And the quality of work always seems just a little better than that done at a desk. So if you find this entry a little clumsy, there’s a simple explanation: it wasn’t written on a train.

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