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Writing the Rails

photo [1]
Crossing the Merrimack River

Ever since I read an article about writer Jessica Gross [2] taking a writing residency aboard Amtrak, Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” has been on endless loop in my mind. Then, when I  heard about the possibility of more residencies on trains, I immediately tweeted:

@Amtrak Would love nothing more than to write an #AmtrakResidency from Maine to Cali, blogging all the way…#dreamcometrue #pleasepickme

I knew it was more than a long shot because within seconds I saw more tweets (and Facebook postings) than I could count—other writers like me, wanting a residency. Now six days later, with no reply from Amtrak, I impatiently took matters into my own hands. I made a reservation on Maine’s Downeaster that goes only as far as Boston’s North Station. I wanted to take a test run: seven hours round trip, a daylong residency.

The Railroad is in my Blood

My grandfather was a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Baltimore. He lost all the toes on one foot when one very cold day he slipped while he was climbing a freight car’s ladder and his foot went down to the rail and was run over by the car’s wheel. If the railroad is in my blood, it’s in mind and soul as well. The year after we were married, my husband and I took Amtrak from Denver to New York City. The next year we completed the romantic cross-country trip and rode Amtrak from Denver to Los Angeles.

Just hearing the conductor yell All Aboard yesterday gave me a shiver. I boarded and sat at a window seat—I stopped short of pressing my nose against the smudged window. I had my laptop unpacked before the train even left the station, though. As the train began to move, I was faced with my first of several challenges: I was sitting facing backwards. That’s when the reality settled in. The train would be moving, consequently I would be moving. And sometimes (just sometimes) I get a little motion sick, especially when I’m traveling backwards.

I moved to a forward facing seat. First problem solved. I opened the tray table and realized Problem 2. The tray table was unsteady, enough so that typing was out of the question. I closed the tray table and took out my Moleskine notebook.

Train-writing Challenges

On my return trip to Maine, I met Ben (an environmental science graduate student) who told me that it’s easier and less jostling to hold the laptop on your lap. The tray tables can be useless, he told me, while I looked at him with something bordering on panic as we experienced what on a plane would be labeled “extreme turbulence.” Ben is a frequent traveler on the Downeaster, making the trip from Boston to UNH to study, as he described it, “lake farts” (turns out lakes “belch methane” like cows and people).

People like Ben were a distraction from writing, no question—but they are also the lifeblood. On the way down to Boston, I spent half an hour talking to my seatmate (who got on the train after I did, at a stop in New Hampshire), and during that half hour I didn’t write anything or even think about writing, except that her day could be the basis for a story. It was a problem—is that number 3?—the inability to get away from other people. For her residency, Jessica Gross was given a compartment on the train—a place to go and sleep and write in solitude—which I believe might be a necessity. I didn’t have this so I eventually resorted to ditching my talkative seatmate and writing in the café.

While in the café (in days gone by, “the dining car”), I conversed with two more people—one was a writer, not writing just traveling—before settling down to really write. There’s something about the changing scenery and passing landscape whilst warmly ensconced that conjures ideas, dreams, even longing. Sun-dappled snow and ice covered fields, isolated houses and occasional people in Maine gradually morphed to lines of cars stopped at railway crossings, graffiti on buildings, and more and more populated areas—and in everything I saw a story.

[pullquote]When I finally did settle down, I wrote nine longhand pages in my journal. I rarely write longhand at home, and I’m certain I’d never have written those pages, all directly or indirectly inspired by the train.[/pullquote]

Last summer I drove across the country and I was similarly inspired—with no way to write as I went, even my plan to record things on my iPhone didn’t pan out because it was awkward to juggle while driving—and therein lies the beauty of the train trip: all of the changing scenery, interspersed with train whistles and half-overheard conversations, the clacking of the rails…everything adds up to the perfect writing environment, and you are unencumbered, free to write.

When I finally did settle down, I wrote nine longhand pages in my journal. I rarely write longhand at home, and I’m certain I’d never have written those pages, all directly or indirectly inspired by the train.

10:35 Boston North Station

The summer after my son graduated from high school, and before he started college, he took a cross-country train trip—by himself. There was more than a moment of “what the hell am I letting him do?” as I watched him board the train…even more of that when he called from Chicago to tell me he was sharing a locker with a new traveling companion (a guy from the city, he said), someone who nicknamed him “Jesus” for wearing Birkenstocks and for being “from the country.”

You meet interesting people on the train and they help inform your writing, can even provide character studies or sketches, and they are all encapsulated with you in a short tube of metal. Each one has a story of their journey, a story of their life, all against the setting of the shifting vista and the theme of all the time in the world. Who knows what might be inspired or conjured up? No obligations. No responsibilities. No distraction from the dishes, the dog, the house, nothing. Isolated and suspended in reality yet moving through space and time with all the inspiration you’d ever want to find.

In Boston I parted ways with my seatmate (who boarded the train with no ID, no ticket, and with no real proof of who she was, the conductor reluctantly allowing her to stay, based partially it seemed on her flimsy association with me—someone she’d met merely five minutes before). During my hour in North Station, I sat anonymously: I read, I watched people, and I bought hand sanitizer.

All Aboard (again)

More passengers boarded in North Station than did when I got on in Brunswick, Maine, but passengers were also more spread out and subdued, making it easier to concentrate. I made the same mistake of sitting backwards (and moved), and this time I made sure the tray table wasn’t unsteady. I didn’t get up and go to the café, I just sat and wrote in my journal.

Until Problem 4—the extreme turbulence—reared its ugly head. It was so bad that I couldn’t write on the computer or by hand. It was so jarring it was hard to even think. I overheard another passenger ask a conductor if there was something wrong with the wheels. “No, it’s the tracks,” the conductor said. “Sometimes they’re like that…” I read for a while, then I gave up on even that and looked out the window.

When we pulled into Portland, I was surprised—it seemed like we’d barely left Boston (it’s a two and a half hour trip), and I had just gotten into the rhythm of life on the train, used to how to do things, and used to the people and things around me: Ben of the farting lakes, the grumpy red-haired guy in the seat across the aisle, the Dad and his two daughters six or so seats ahead, the café car, the bumpy tracks and everything else…reading, writing, thinking, living aboard the train. (Which brings me to Problem 5, it was too damn short.)

I know other writers who write on the train (some as commuters) and they swear by it, and every writer I’ve talked to about the Amtrak residency says they’d jump at it. Which brings me to this: did my train trip accomplish what I set out for it to do? Without question, yes. Were there problems? I have a laundry list, all easily managed. But was it worth it? Absolutely.

When I started writing this post, I downloaded “The City of New Orleans from iTunes.” My bag’s packed. I’m ready to go. And every time I hear the whistle of a passing train, now I hear it calling my name. My only question to Amtrak is: when do I leave?

How about you? All aboard? Have you had train writing experiences? Would you want to try an Amtrak Writing Residency?

About Julia Munroe Martin [3]

Julia Munroe Martin [4] (@jmunroemartin [5]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.