A Seat of My Own

There’s been a lot of  buzz recently about writing on trains.  I wanted to share a piece I wrote about writing on NYC subways for my friend Sherisse Alvarez’s website Penintime.

Poetry in Motion, and Finding Privacy in Public Spaces

The first inklings of my current book in progress were scribbled on a plane ride between Delhi and Bangalore soon after I immersed my father’s ashes into the river Ganga. At the time, I was working as an environmental engineer in New York. I didn’t yet know I’d be writing a book. I was just a daughter in grief writing to make sense of this world. I had typed up those notes and emailed them to my friends back home, telling them about this journey, which in the years that followed led to many others.

Much of my writing now continues to occur in transit. “Who needs a writing retreat when you have the F train?” I’d tell myself. Don’t get me wrong, I do dream of a future when entire days can be devoted to honing my craft in my pajamas with my dog by my side. Until then, I’m committed to my day job that supports me and my commute that affords me some time.

When I was completing my MFA in creative writing, I was living in Brooklyn, working in Queens during the day and traveling to Manhattan at night for my writing classes. The subway became the closest thing I had to a room (seat) of my own. While this arrangement evolved out of necessity, I’ve come to appreciate what my mobile office has given me. Some of these gifts are in the form of constraint. I can’t surf the web underground or get up to see what’s in the fridge, so the limited minutes I have to devote to my work remain focused. There is also a built in discipline by coupling the act of writing with another daily routine.

Part of my writing project is about migrations and journeys; about shifts in rivers, waters in constant motion. Perhaps being in transit is conducive to such subjects. For me, New York City subways surprisingly also enable a sense of solitude and a perception of privacy. I remember missing this when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area briefly.

“What are those graphs?” an elderly woman sitting next to me on the AC40 bus asked me one day on my commute from Oakland to Berkeley while I was reviewing earthquake acceleration time histories. “Is that the stock market?”

I laughed, shook my head and said no. I wasn’t used to being noticed on public transit. In the crowded trains of New York, despite being brushed up against, being breathed on, or having someone “eavesread” my paper, I could still pursue a deeply private act in very public space.

When I write on the subway, like I am right now, I am not self-conscious. I think to myself, gesture and perhaps even mumble, but nobody bats an eye. I can retreat to a deep inner world. Sometimes when I am working on difficult material, I start to cry. Nobody feels the need to ask me if I am okay. I wipe my tears and continue to type. I am grateful for their indifference, what I perceive as respect for my writing space.

There is also a particular mental state that only writing in motion provides. It has a sense of urgency. I write with deliberation for as long as I can. All of a sudden I’ll arrive at my stop, and I’m wishing for more time. It is not a bad way to end a writing session— craving more (as opposed to in defeat or exhaustion). And even after I’m off the train and going about my day, my subconscious continues to work on the piece, perfecting a phrase or connecting disparate thoughts. I make sure to catch these fleeting ideas, when they come.

As writers, we are often asked to come up with “an elevator pitch” for our books. How would you describe it if you only had the 15 seconds it takes to go from one floor to the next? I’ve always found this difficult, especially for works in progress where we are still discovering what our books are about. For writers, our books are journeys too, ones that can’t be made in a single elevator ride. Nor can they be made in a single subway ride, but this regular daily commute is an apt metaphor for my writing process. So much of writing is about revision. We don’t always get where we want in one pass. We revisit the same material, and we learn something new each time. When I’m working on the final stages of a story, I focus each subway session on polishing a particular aspect or section of the piece, and a final ride for a last look at an essay, article or chapter. Over time, I’ve developed patience and trust with this process and an evolving sense of how many rides I’ll need to get the piece home.

The train is also where I reflect on this progress. As Louise DeSalvo, a wonderful writing professor of mine, tells her students, “writers are both labor and management.” The subway is not only my place of work, it’s also where I keep track of my goals for the week, what I’ve done and what I want to do. Where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

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