Ever since the news, my inner Arlo Guthrie hasn’t stopped singing.
Writin’ on The City of New Orleans,
Simon & Schuster, Monday-morning rail,
It’s got 15 cars of would-be J.K. Rowlings,
Three pot-boilers, 25 plots so frail …
The occasion, of course, is Amtrak’s decision to begin a “writer’s residency” program aboard its trains. As in take a seat, hit the keys and type the miles away.
It’s a rolling dream for a lot of writers, and not just because it’s free, though that word does hold a lot of power for the Order of the Smoking Word Processor. Anyone in the press knows that the best way to draw reporters isn’t to issue a release, it’s to serve free food — an observation that has broadened both coverage and waistlines.
But while a free train ride might hold some attractions by itself, the real draw is in what the train can bestow. Separation. Focus. Time.
Time, maybe most of all.
Every writer has their own idiosyncracies. Lewis Carroll wrote standing up, Truman Capote lying down. Mark Twain needed yellow paper, Rudyard Kipling demanded black ink, and Roald Dahl had to have his Dixon-Ticonderoga pencils. Isaac Asimov didn’t seem to need more than oxygen, and if he could have made his prose literally breathless, he’d probably be writing still.
But the one thing we all have to have, the one indispensable, is time.
Not time to write. That’s actually the easy part. Anyone who can spend three hours a day looking at cat pictures on the Internet can find a way to write a page or two. The time spent watching the last Super Bowl could have produced several anthologies — and arguably would have been more productively spent, especially for Manning and Co.
No, the hard part is the time to germinate. To let ideas lie fallow. To let your brain absent-mindedly chew on a thought, a thought that mingles with others and evolves like the monster in a B-movie, suddenly alive and demanding attention.
It’s important. And these days, it’s difficult. The absent mind has a plethora of things racing to fill it, from headline news to bacon jokes. We live in a sea of stimulus and interaction — great things for starting an idea, but not always so for nurturing it.
It’s like trying to plant a flower garden on the interstate. And daylilies versus Peterbilts was never a fair match.
And so — separation.
The retreat is an old idea, especially in religious tradition; to step away from the world for a while in order to refocus your mind and soul on what matters. Like most things, that deliberate loneliness gets more valuable as it gets harder to find. Not just for writers, either; who couldn’t use even 20 minutes to get away and let the mind be a field instead of an engine?
The Amtrak idea, of course, promises a lot more than 20 minutes. (Well, so long as the WiFi is turned off, anyway.) But while that’s attractive — OK, downright seductive — it doesn’t have to be that extreme. It can be an hour at night after everyone else has gone to bed. Or a weekend away. Or even an uneventful drive on a boring road, one of my favorite spots for musing on columns, fiction and intractable problems.
If you’ve ever been behind me in traffic, by the way, I do apologize. And I swear, that light was yellow when I entered the intersection.
Time set apart. Mind set apart. A chance to be quiet, even bored. That’s where souls are refreshed and ideas are born.
In fact, it’s worth volumes.