15 Aug 2014

Why all creative types should take the train

As I settled into my seat on the quiet carriage of the train from Sydney to Newcastle a few days ago, a high pitched voice caught my attention. I looked across the aisle to see a slightly overweight man talking to someone sitting nearby. His jeans were ‘at half-mast,’ flashing his back side without noticing or without concern. Admittedly the carriage was nicely heated, so it would have been hard for the cold on his skin to alert him to the fact he was showing the world more than necessary. Little did I know this was going to be the least annoying part of his behaviour. For the rest of the three-hour trip he read his newspaper aloud but only in this ever so soft tone of voice, giggling every now and then. I never thought I would find this more irritating than having a loud conversation near me.

Some people may think it’s pretty much impossible to have a pleasant journey on the train. The ‘funky’ smell, the proximity with strangers, the feeling of being ‘trapped’ and not being able to stop and get off whenever you want…However I love travelling by train. Most times I find anecdotes like the one about my fellow passenger amusing. Apart from the fact I think public transport is essential and I totally disagree with the quite common view in Australia that public transport is for those who have no other option (the elderly, the less well-off, students…)

I think it’s a great environment to get inspiration as a writer.

Firstly, you share a space with people you may not otherwise ever meet. This can help you with come up with plot and characters. I’ve taken a few memorable train rides, for good and bad reasons. On a ride from Sydney to Newcastle there were the two young women asking each other biblical questions for some kind of priesthood exam they were taking (and being religiously competitive about it.)

Also, the best way to write good dialogue is by listening attentively to how people speak. You could say we do that every day but that’s not true. When we’re having a conversation we hardly hear what the other person is saying. We’re either waiting for them to finish so that we can speak, or too nervous/ hungry/ bored to hear what they say. There are exceptions of course. Some people are so interesting and exciting to listen to, you feel like you could listen to them for hours. This is of course the case with all my friends. If you’re travelling by yourself you can sit back and eavesdrop without feeling too guilty about it.

You learn vocabulary. If it weren’t for the train ride to Sydney, I would never have known that ‘armed-rob’ is the way to shorten ‘armed robbery.’ I learnt it thanks to the conversation I overheard between a teenager and his mum, where he mention he had been falsely accused of an ‘armed-rob’ but he had been cleared thanks to footage on a CCTV camera showing someone else.

You can daydream. I want to believe this is the key to any creative process. Otherwise I’ll have to accept I’ve wasted massive chunks of my life in an unproductive way. You can enjoy the landscape.

For many Australians this may be taken for granted but the view along the Central Coast and Newcastle line is stunning.

Not only is travelling by train good for creative types, I think sometimes looking at fellow passengers as possible characters in a story can help you deal better with their annoying habits. The voice of my fellow passenger reading softly and incessantly was a bit like having a fly buzzing around my face. But thinking I could one day use him as a character in a story made it more bearable.