Writing on trains

I felt that my opening post for this space really had to be about writing on trains, because I’m now on my third week in a row of what I’m dubbing ‘three city living’. I already commute between Newcastle and Edinburgh on a bi-weekly basis for my two main jobs (Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence at the School of Informatics, Edinburgh University and Creative Writing Development Officer at the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University). This involves an ever-changing timetable of packing and unpacking of my notebooks, laptop, video camera, favourite pens, books, cables, diary and so forth.

Then every so often more travelling has to be negotiated around. A couple of weeks ago I spent my ‘weekend off’ travelling from Newcastle to Harrogate, to Newcastle, to Edinburgh (pitstopping in all three places on the Sunday). The following week I went from Edinburgh to London (for an interview with my creative partner, Samantha Silver), to Newcastle within 36 hours. Then this week I’m adding an over-nighter in Sheffield into the weekly commute (currently travelling Edinburgh to Sheffield, back to Newcastle tomorrow morning). Over the next couple of months I’ll be negotiating trips to Dublin, Norwich, London, Glasgow (twice), and possibly Lisbon, in the gaps between being in the office in Edinburgh two days a week and in the office in Newcastle two days a week.

The practical result of this is that when I’m in one city (and not in the office) I’m exhausted, at a low creative ebb, and generally booked in to socialise with my patient and loving friends and family. When I started this year of ‘two jobs, two cities’, I told myself that the train commute would be a sacrosanct space, unsullied by any work; I would read enriching books for pleasure, nap, listen to music, and knit scarves. This has proven unsustainable. I amended it so that my commuting time is now my secret office for all the things that slide down in the gaps between the two jobs; for writing on specific projects.

I then amended it further; I now use my commuting time to do anything writing-related rather than admin-related. I have a writing space in my flat in Newcastle, and a desk in my bedroom in Edinburgh but don’t have the time to sit and use them. Since I invested in my MacBook Air back in November, It has become my main digital working space – despite the ickle 11 inch screen – for the simple reason that it’s the computer which I have on the commute, so it has the most up-to-date version of all my documents.

When I’m on the train i’m between commitments. I can’t be expected to be in constant phone or internet contact, which means I’m released from certain responsibilities. If I try not to expect anything more of myself than to let my mind rest and recharge, I find it a very fertile environment and get a lot of notes made in my notebooks. The well known trope of a physical journey mapping on to an emotional journey feels very close to home, so I make an active decision to try to avoid it in my work, which forces me to think of different ways of trying to express those kinds of movement in a narrative. I’m usually travelling alone, which means I get some quiet, personal time that I cherish and which I know I need in order to be ‘creatively efficient’.

Point one: Trains are unpredictable. The carriage could be unbearably hot, or unbearably cold and ruin your ability to concentrate. It could be too loud or – conversely – so quiet that you feel uncomfortable tapping away on a keyboard. Table space might be shared, ditto elbow room, making it impossible to work with any element of privacy. You cannot guarantee what your working environment will be like. I now try to book my train tickets at weird times so that I can afford to upgrade to first class where i can guarantee heating, reasonable leg and table space, and reasonable levels of background noise and elbow-maneuvering space.

Point two: Trains ricket and shuffle around. I’m typing this straight onto my laptop, and every so often I have to pause to stop my cup of green tea shooting across the table. I can only type with my wrists and hands in the air (rather than resting on the edge of the laptop or table) because i’m being jerked continually by the movement of the carriage and need to be able to steady myself. When I’m writing in a notebook, my handwriting becomes more illegible than usual, especially if I’m writing with my arm curled at a protective angle to give myself the illusion that the strange woman next to me can’t see what i’m up to. As a working space, trains are best suited to thinking, reading and note-taking rather than extended periods of writing or typing. even if you’re on a route with wi-fi, the connection is often unbearably slow so trains are not best suited for digital research.

Point three: Trains take you from one place to another. That may seem obvious, but you step away from one space and onto the train, then you step off in a different one. Unlike a car or a bicycle, you don’t have to engage in that process or face the way you’re travelling. Unlike a bus or a plane, you have a greater freedom to stand up and move around, a bit like being in a building (a wierd, living-room corridor). Trains enact a magic trick on you: they take you to a space inbetween spaces, often involving a gorgeous view across the rolling green countryside of our fair land. However, like a magic trick there is always the possibility of a nasty surprise: you never know if you’ll get to where you’re going when you’re supposed to. Trains are subject to ridiculous delays, like a physical enactment of writer’s block. The concept of a journey is a beautiful but unreliable one; always build in contingencies.

Today, my train writing has so far involved typing up Dirty Laundry #8, then writing this post. After I’ve put this up, I’m going to put the laptop away for an hour and read a book. Then because this is a working afternoon I’ll get the laptop out and do some office-type work (breaking my own rules about working on trains), including blogging for my Leverhulme Trust residency. Then I’ll change trains at Doncaster and wait and see how busy the next train is; I don’t have a reserved seat for that leg of the journey, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about what I will and won’t be able to do. Edinburgh to Doncaster has been in first-class (woo hoo!), which means I’ve had free wi-fi, which has allowed me to post the story and blog posts, and most of the journey I’ve had a full 4-person table to myself. We’ve just stopped at Newcastle, and I was strange not to be rushing to pack everything up and heading home. The emotional significances of travelling so much definitely impact on my creative processes, sliding between being beneficial and unstabalising, which I can normally track to being dependent on how much sleep I’ve had.

For more information about my writing, please visit my personal website, which includes a blog charting my experiences of the Leverhulme residency on a week-by-week basis. I can also be contacted via the two.5 email address: viccyandsamantha (at) gmail.com

*UPDATE* FYI, the next leg of my journey was far too cramped to do any work on the laptop, so I spent my time reading and editing some work a friend had asked my opinion on. Then I had a nap, and woke up feeling slightly emotionally recharged.