Written by A Guest Author November 2nd, 2023

On Writing and Commuting

By Ellen Levitt

Lately when I ride my local trains and buses, I see most passengers spending their time on their cellphones. A few might read tangible printed materials such as books, magazines, even a newspaper. Others chat with people, stare into space, or nap. Maybe one person is knitting.

Occasionally I find someone doing what I’ve often done, which is writing. They might be jotting down ideas in a notebook or tapping at a tablet or even a small laptop. (I admit to looking over their shoulders.) I’ve seen a few who sketched diagrams or actual pictures and wrote, going back and forth between the two activities. Ahhh, the life of a dedicated writer, using time wisely while traveling on mass transit! And some intrepid (and fast-thumbed) folks might try to tap out short stories and novel segments on their phones.

It’s not exactly easy to write on a bus or train while it’s in motion but it can be done, and if you are willing to overlook your possible messy penmanship or misspelled words, it is a wonderful endeavor. You can also write or jot down notes while you are waiting at a train or bus station or waiting room, or in a bus shelter. This is why I, as well as other writers, do carry around notepads and pens, tablets or even scraps of paper, so as to write when the inspiration strikes.

Last year after seeing plays on Broadway, while riding on the subway trains homeward, I wrote notes for reviews in the playbills that I carried. Some of my notes were messy but I was able to decipher them, sat them next to my laptop the next day, and wrote out the actual review pieces.

What about driving? Many people commute in that manner and I’m not advocating writing and steering simultaneously. Multitasking is dangerous, I’m not joking. But some writers will take notes verbally while they drive (speech to text). Or if you want to devote more time to a particular writing piece or sketch, pull into a temporary parking spot, or a rest area, and write. Keep a notebook and pens in your car.

Perhaps the commute itself is offering something inspiring to write about. Did you just pass by a gorgeous tree, an eerie abandoned house, a bizarre billboard, and you want to write about it? Is your train going over a bridge or along an elevated segment, and something catches your eye that you want to turn into a poem, lyric or mini-memoir? Is there an intriguing person (or persons) in your bus or train car, and you want to write a scene for a play about them?

One year while taking the train to and from a particular high school where I taught, I wrote a series of poems about New York City. Many of the poems, free verse as well as haiku, I wrote first during my afternoon return commutes, primarily because those trips were less crowded than the morning commutes which were often so crowded with passengers. I wrote many of those poems on scraps of paper, and at home I would put them in a large envelope for safekeeping. I accumulated an assortment, which I occasionally edited, and a few were quite good.

Those who use their commutes to write often perceive it as a valuable use of their time, especially when we have so many other daily responsibilities and tasks. Especially for those people who face lengthier commutes, this makes writing possible at all. But you might feel the pressures of Writing In Public, feel exposed and vulnerable. You need to overcome that feeling and realize that the majority of people surrounding you on the train, bus or waiting room are not paying attention to you; they are immersed in their music or reading or perhaps their own writing!

If you are reluctant to try writing during your commute, particularly if you are surrounded by other people, don’t write penetrating journal entries. Try less personal work. If you feel pinched for time but want to write, work on letters to the editor, short poems, haiku, review pieces, sketches that you can flesh out more fully later on, and the like.

However you commute and write, please remember to be aware of your environment. Never completely let down your guard. Stay alert, to some extent. You will probably find it easier to write if you are sitting. But if you are standing, you can still write. Find a comfortable way to stand and try it. Hey, maybe this will force you to stop procrastinating on a writing assignment.

For the drivers amongst us, perhaps if you do some writing while you are still in your parking spot, and then make one or two stops along the way, you can push through with your writing work.

Come to think of it, there are other times and situations where you could be writing instead of playing games on your phone: during downtime on jury duty, in the waiting room of a medical office, on the line to be seated at a restaurant, and so on. Keep a notepad and pen, or a small tablet, with you most of the time so that you can do some writing.

There are authors out there who claim that they were able to use their regular commutes so as to write full novels, memoirs, or collections of essays. While this might be rare, you can still board that train or bus, or find time right before your car ride, and do worthwhile writing, brainstorming or lines. Perhaps get into a regular routine with this, and you might find yourself producing quality work.

Bio: Ellen Levitt is a writer and teacher, and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens, and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (www.avotaynu.com) and Walking Manhattan (www.wildernesspress.com). She has also written many freelance articles and essays for online and in-print publications.


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