Tag Archives: behind the scenes

Take The A Train . . . Provided It’s Going The Right Way, Of Course.

I hopped the 6:21 a.m. Acela train to New York yesterday, on my way up to have my second extended sit-down session with An Amazing (and Important) Person. It was my first time on the Acela — normally I’m a Northeast Regional kinda guy, but I couldn’t make the generally skittish NER work, as one arrived waaay too early, while the other pulled into Penn Station much too close to my meeting time. And given that the NER is famously delayed on its arrival in New York, I didn’t want to risk missing one moment of the three hours my subject had generously set aside for our conversation.

After riding the NER almost monthly for the last year or so, being on board the Acela seems like stepping onto the set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Everything seems vaguely futuristic: doors open between cars at a touch (and without the rattle of the NER), the seats look like command chairs, and the cafe car features a streamlined bar area where diners sit on stools, rather than at the cramped booths of the NER. There’s even wi-fi humming throughout the train, allegedly for the courtesy of business passengers who need it for work, but I notice that most passengers — including yours truly — are using it to check Facebook or update their Twitter feeds.

On my arrival in Penn Station, I decide to see if I can navigate the underground tunnels that will take me to the Red 1 subway line I need to get to my destination (usually I exit Penn Station then walk outside for the two blocks or so it takes to get to the station at 34th Street). I’ve tried to do this before, but ended up either dead-ended or completely turned around, and thus simply headed for the closest EXIT sign, which, more often than not, seemed to eject me into the middle of a shopping mall.

This time, however, I manage to successfully weave my way to the subway station, follow the arrows for the 1 and board the train marked 242nd Street.  For a moment, I’m very pleased with myself for my successful navigation of a system that your average New Yorker can navigate drunk—then immediately realize, as I watch the street numbers at the subway stations go down instead of up, that I’m headed the wrong way.

Unlike the Metro in Washington — where you can exit any train boarded in error, cross over to the other platform and board the correct train without ever exiting the Metro — most stops in New York require that you exit the station, cross the street, and re-enter the station (and pay again) for the train going the other direction.  I had learned this lesson months earlier when I boarded the wrong train from Long Island to Brooklyn, but that apparently didn’t stop me from boarding the wrong train at 34th Street.  Rats.

Humbled, I exit and re-enter and board a train going the right way, and make it to my interview with gobs of time to spare — so much so that I have enough time to sit for a bit in a park overlooking the Hudson, where I watch a young woman get pulled along like a waterskiier behind the five large dogs she was walking at once.

At ten on the dot, I ring the bell at my destination, where I’m greeted like an old friend. While we’ve traded e-mails several times, this was only our second face-to-face — but I’m welcomed enthusiastically and ushered into a cozy living room with comfortable furniture and framed by a large open window overlooking the street. For the next three hours, as a cool breeze and birdsong flutter in through the open window, we have a wonderful conversation, during which I scribble notes frantically on a yellow note pad, trying to get it all down and completely ignoring the lines on the paper as a I scrawl in large cursive with a black felt tip. At one o’clock, we’re done. We shake hands warmly, and my subject makes me promise we’ll get together again soon.  It’s a deal.

Afterwards, I sprint for the subway — and board the correct train this time — then slide into a booth at the TGIFriday’s at Penn Station, fire up the laptop, and start typing my notes as quickly as I can while everything’s still fresh, stopping only a few times to squint at my handwriting to figure out what I’ve written.  By 2:45, I’m only about a third of the way through my notes, but it’s time to catch my train back to Maryland.  This time, I’m on the Northeast Regional, which gets up in my face by pulling into Penn Station right on time.

On the ride home, I grab a seat, as I usually do, in the Quiet Car, where chatter and phone calls are strictly prohibited. I do this even when I don’t have work to do because if I don’t, it seems I always end up with someone in the seat next to me who spends the three-hour train ride back to DC discussing the results of their latest physical, their aunt’s rocky marriage, and the personal lives of everyone in their office.  I drop the tray at my window seat, crank up the laptop again, and return to my task at hand for the next 90 minutes or so.  The seat next to me is eventually occupied by a Richmond-bound passenger in a ballcap and shades, who plays video baseball on his iPhone, and tries briefly to engage me and the woman across the aisle from him in conversation. From our stage-whispered responses, he realizes he’s committing a breach of protocol — but that still doesn’t prevent him from answering a phone call and chatting for several minutes before a conductor stops by and loudly announces that those who wish to talk on the phone must move to another car — “or I will put you out,” he adds matter-of-factly. The phone disappears.

I get off at the BWI stop, pay for my parking (when will the BWI station finally get all their ticket booths working??) and head for home in DC-Baltimore rush hour traffic.  To my surprise, I’m home before 7 p.m, just in time for Barb, Madi and I to take in the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which we all thought to be a bit plodding and about 45 minutes too long — but that’s for another time.

Working With Distra . . . Look! A Chicken!

I was watching my 11-year-old daughter the other afternoon as she did what 11-year-old girls do: multi-task to the nth degree. All at once she was reading, listening to music, chatting on instant messenger, and still paying some peripheral attention to me as I asked her what she wanted for dinner and where she hid the Hershey’s Kisses. And it occurred to me: I can’t do that any more.

I mentioned in an earlier post how I’m not one of those writers who, like Dickens, can work while there’s a party going on around me. I can’t write at a Starbuck’s, or sitting on a park bench — and it’s not because I need my Own Place, necessarily. Rather, it’s because I just can’t shut out noise and external stimulus all that well.

I used to be able to. In high school and college, I could read and study and talk and listen to music and have the television on and I never had any trouble focusing. I could read Chaucer with Huey Lewis and the News throbbing on the stereo (What? This was 1988, remember!) or write a term paper with the television blaring all night.

It’s different now. When it’s time to write, I have to close the door. I like a wee bit of music, but I have to turn it down very low — and even then, the music can’t have any vocals. Mostly I play old jazz and blues over my computer speakers, using either the shuffle function of iTunes or tuning into Sirius Pure Jazz on line. But that’s the extent of the external stimuli I can take.

That’s not to say I can’t work with noise. For most of the ten years I worked in the U.S. Senate, I shared an office with three, and sometimes four, other people (despite what you might see on TV or movies, life in a Congressional office is decidedly unglamorous). The Senate floor played on the television at all times. Every phone conversation was held in the open, every colleague’s chat with another staffer occurred six feet away. The din and distractions were constant, and yet I had no problem writing speeches or memos, talking with constituents on the phone, and generally doing my legislative duties.

And yet, nowadays, as soon as it comes to writing, I’ve gotta reduce my distractions. Perhaps part of it is age — I find that as I’ve gotten older, I can’t even read a book with the television on. As my wife and I are getting ready for bed each evening, she likes to turn on Law and Order to help her wind down, and I generally sit back with a book. Despite my best efforts, my eyes keep flicking from the page up to the television, my ears keep trying to tune into the dialogue, and I soon find I’ve read the same paragraph thirty times so I just pack it in and watch to see if either Sam Waterson or that annoying blonde attorney is gonna blow a slam-dunk case in court again. (*glunk glunk!*)

Where was I? Oh. Right. I just made my own point.

I am getting better, though, I suppose. I did some of my background reading for Washington Irving while sitting in airports, for example, or while waiting for my car to be serviced, so I guess I’m not a total loss. And I can work right next to a window without finding excuses to gaze out of it for hours at a time (Stephen King in On Writing says a window near your workspace is a big no-no for that very reason).

Still, I doubt I’ll ever be one of those people who can sit in a cafe or park and pound happily away while I . . . hey, look! That dog has a curly tail!

So how about it, folks? What are your distractions? And how do you beat them?

A (Somewhat) Clean, Well-Lighted Place

It goes without saying that writers–for a variety of reasons–are an odd bunch. We obsess over lots of different things, but one of those little issues that gnaws at us most is a sense of place. Because writing is an inherently lonely profession, we’re very picky about our work space.

Now, certainly, there are many writers who can sit in a noisy cafe or a random park bench with their laptop and immediately lose themselves in their work, blanking out all outside sound and other stimulus. Charles Dickens was that way. He could allegedly sit in the corner of a room with a party whirling around him and scratch out (in longhand, no less!) chapter after chapter of his latest doorstop.

I’m not like that, though. I need quiet, I need a closing door, and I need a space of my very own with my own stuff. It doesn’t have to be a big space — in fact, I sorta like a smaller, more intimate space. It’s like having my own clubhouse. And if it’s a mess, it’s my mess and mine alone.

Anyway, writers like to see where other writers work. We like to visit their houses and see their desks or the places they hunkered down with a piece of wood in their laps to grab a moment to write. Our passion for those places has even inspired a beautiful book, American Writers at Home, that provides sumptuous photos — and really spry prose by poet J.D. McClatchy — of the homes of writers like Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott and, yes, Washington Irving. You’ll see how writers made use of their own personal spaces, often writing plot outlines on the walls or scratching notes into the windows.

What’s most surprising about these spaces is just how inelegant most of them are. Most writers don’t have a workspace that looks like a stage set. We might think we long for a room with an enormous oak or rolltop desk, with huge, creaking bookshelves groaning under the weight of leather-bound classics — but really, we wouldn’t get much work done sitting in the Merchant-Ivory version of a workspace. Most of our workspaces are much less elegant and disorganized–and therefore more useful and conducive to the way we work.

Here’s mine.

It’s a bit cleaner than normal (I knew you were coming, so I tidied up my piles), but for the most part, it looks exactly as it did for the ten months I wrote Washington Irving here — all the way down to the row of Post-It notes stuck to the bookshelf just over the computer monitor.

The room that I turned into my office was originally a small, narrow upstairs kitchen (odd, I know — the home’s previous owners had at one time hosted missionaries, and our upstairs area was essentially a dormitory). It’s essentially a long skinny walk-in closet. We ripped out the cabinets and the rather gerry-rigged plumbing, painted the walls, shoved in a day bed, desk, and bookshelf — all courtesy of IKEA, nothing fancy there — hung some blinds, and there you have it. It’s small, cozy, sometimes messy, but it’s mine, and I always know where everything is.

At some point, I’m actually going to move my office to a new spot in the house, mainly to give myself just a bit more shelf space. And while the new room has a fireplace, giving it a bit more of a 19th century look, the feel of the place will be essentially the same — cavey, cozy, and inelegant. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.