Let’s talk about trains.
“I have written stories, essays, even whole books on trains, scribble-scribble.”
“For me, the best places to write are on planes, trains and at airports. Not hotel rooms but hotel lobbies. I’m really happy when I’m waiting for a plane and the message comes that it’s three hours late. Great, I’ll get to write!”
“The only way I have ever discovered of catching a train is to miss the train before.”
-G. K. Chesterton
Ah, trains. Light of the end of my tunnel, fire of my coal-burning firebox!
Train riding used to be something that everyone had to do in order to get from place to place.
All modes of transportation go through phases. First, they are everyone’s default. You can tell that this is the case because the ether is full of people complaining about the experience of riding on that mode of transportation next to a baby. Here’s an essay from 1858 talking about how awful it is to sit next to a baby on a stagecoach. The writer describes a “simpering schoolgirl” who loudly announces that “babies were a nuisance in a stagecoach, and she should think anyone would rather stay at home than travel with one.” Then the baby starts grabbing someone’s flowers. “Will no one take pity on me?” this person cries out. “Will no gentleman shield me from annoyances?” Then: “The lady was soon safely installed in the seat furthest removed from the vicious baby, and the old man installed in her place.”
Then someone finds a faster way of going from A to B and that mode of travel falls out of fashion, until the only people who employ it are wealthy eccentrics — witness horseback riding and zeppelins.
The train has found its own niche. Now, depending on distance, it’s a simple commute past traffic — or a fun novelty way to travel if you want to get to Montana, but not, you know, urgently.
Train writing is a time-honored and noble genre. The American humorist Robert Benchley offers up a great story of traveling by train with a small child.
“Those who have taken a very small baby on a train maintain that this ranks as pleasure along with having a nerve killed . . . There is much to be said for those who maintain that rather should the race be allowed to die out than that babies should be taken from place to place along our national arteries of traffic. On the other hand, there are moments when babies are asleep. (Oh yes, there are. There must be.)”
It sounds like life must have been unbearable back then. Picture all the joy of having to sit in front a small child on an airplane, as the child kicks your seat and experiments with making his first glottal stops. Then make this last for days instead of hours. The one thing that has not changed since Benchley wrote in 1925 is the fact that “the diner is never any nearer than six cars and usually is part of another train.”
And now, if you want to replicate that experience to help with your own writing, there’s a way!
Amtrak has started a writer’s residency program — you get on a train, you type and type and type as scenery scuds past the window, you emerge from the train with manuscript in tow, trailing clouds of glory, the way your literary forebears emerged before you. Presumably you thank the train in question in the acknowledgments of your great American novel.
Some writers are worried that Amtrak will be able to use their submitted writing samples to promote Amtrak. But why not? As Mallory Ortberg over at the Toast points out, “Frankly, if every train in the country suddenly decided that it had the right to all of my work, both published and unpublished, I would thank them for building America and sign the reversion cheerfully. The blood of John Henry and the spirit of Paul Bunyan and my own personal honor would compel me.” (The whole piece, “Trains Are Wonderful, People Are Garbage,” is worth a read.)
If you’re interested, applications are still open. The one trouble with trains as a location for writing is that they often have wifi, and if there is wifi at any place where I am attempting to write, I spend the next six hours frantically Googling things that I suddenly feel are Absolutely Urgent To Know Right Now, from the last name of Harvey on ‘Sabrina, The Teenage Witch’ to the hour-by-hour events of the 10th Thermidor, French Revolutionary Year Three, and at the end I have written nothing except the words “Abraham Lincoln???” underlined a couple of times.
And the babies, I guess.