When I first began commuting I couldn’t imagine writing on the train–or, indeed, writing anywhere except on my laptop, preferably in my home office, or occasionally in a coffee shop. I was reading Robert Olen Butler’s book on writing, From Where You Dream, when I came across his note on his own writing practice. He wrote his first novels longhand, sitting on the LIRR.
The truth is, you can write anywhere if you’re willing to push through discomfort. I already knew that I write best in the morning. I wasn’t willing to get up earlier than 6 AM, so my only other choice was to write on the train.
How to Write Anywhere
Decide what’s important.
I made a decision that dedicating time to my writing practice was more important to me than reading or staring out the window. Once I decided that writing was a priority, I made the time and space to make it happen.
Listen to music.
Putting in headphones and listening to music–without words!–gets me in the zone for writing. I can tune out the group of high school boys who are poking each other and then tussling in the train aisle. I can tune out the loud cell phone talker. I can tune out the heavy sighs of the person sitting next to me, who’s not so thrilled with the noise of the first two distractions. Listening to music allows me to enter a creative space. And because I have access to the same music wherever I am–on the train, in a cafe, in my office–I can choose the emotional register of the space I want to enter into (playful–a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack; moody–Debussy’s La Mer; epic–the Lord of the Rings; sprightly–Mozart).
Use an environment-friendly medium.
When I’m at a desk I usually write on my laptop. As I’ve said, on the train I handwrite in a notebook. When I was waitressing, I literally used to keep a second order pad in my apron and I’d write scenes on the tiny pages. One friend from my MFA program had a long driving commute, so she would speak her thoughts aloud and record them on her phone, then edit them later on the page. Wherever and whenever you have time, use what you can to squeeze some writing in. After all, novels often aren’t written in forty-page spurts every third Saturday, but in one- or two- or three-page spurts every morning.
Use what’s around you.
Sometimes I see crazy things on the train. I saw a guy get arrested for not stepping off when he didn’t have a ticket and refused to pay for one. I saw a guy watching The Hobbit on his laptop–the week it came out in theaters. I saw two twenty-something guys playing a hand-slapping game (you know, similar to “Miss Mary Mack”). While I haven’t included any of these shenanigans in a specific plot line, I’ve learned to surf the energy and use distractions to fuel my writing instead of detracting from it.
Keep up the momentum.
Because I write on the train, my writing time is naturally timebound. But before I get off at my stop, I always try to jot down a note about what comes next in the sequence of my piece. Maybe the next scene is between my protagonist and her boyfriend, or I know that I have to write a scene from her brother’s perspective. The next morning when I sit down, I know where to start and can jump write in.