Creativity and the Commuter

The only way to travel.
The only way to travel.

Last Friday I rear-ended a truck while driving to work. I wasn’t going fast or being careless, the roads were just terrible. Long sheets of ice, really. All I could do was skid and brace myself for the collision.

After the impact, we pulled over to assess the damage.

“Wow!” Truck Guy exclaimed, looking at the nose of my car, which sported a grille cracked in several places and a flapping bumper. “I didn’t think that little hit would do so much damage!”

“It didn’t,” I replied. “I did that five minutes ago when I hit a telephone pole.”

Truck Guy laughed appreciatively.

Then there was a pause.

“Wait. You serious?”

I was.

My average speed for the rest of my journey was, I think, 3 mph – because when I hit that pole at 12 mph, and then the truck at 7 mph, I was being just too dang reckless.

As I puttered along, cursing my luck all the way, I reflected on the commute I had 20 years ago. I worked in New York City. It was a much longer haul than the one I have now (two plus hours, as opposed to an-hour-and-a-half) but it was by train. And, like the road less traveled, that had made all the difference.

A train is a perfect place for reading, so I delved into books that I probably should’ve read in high school.

I read about Trees Growing in Brooklyn and fell madly in love with the bookish, myopic Francie.

I read 1984, fruitlessly hoping that Orwell put a happy ending in there somewhere.

I read Kafka who, by comparison, made Orwell look like Dale Carnegie.

I wondered why Victor Frankenstein lacked the parental love so very evident in his comedic alter ego, Victor Frahnkensteen.

A good parent. Pay attention, Mary Shelly!
Pay attention, Mary Shelly. Your Victor should’ve been like this guy.

I fantasized about being the travel companion of Mark Twain, or better still, John Steinbeck.

And I read Nectar in a Sieve, a book that should’ve been titled Just One Damn Thing After Another.

It was a great way to get to work.

But that was only the New Jersey Transit part of my journey. I stopped reading once I got to Hoboken. After I hopped onto the PATH Train, which scooted me under the Hudson River and up to 33rd Street, I switched from reading to writing.

Back then my passion was theatre, and the PATH, with its herky-jerky motions, frequent stops, and Subway-ish vibe, seemed to be a fine place to come up with authentic dialogue.

From 33rd Street, I walked the 10 blocks to my office, where I could reflect on what I had written and/or read.

At the time I was a graphic designer. I hated the job. A lot. I was lousy at it, too. That decadent commute, however, made it all sort of OK. No matter how badly my day went, I knew it would end with me writing on the PATH and reading on the train.

Now the situation is reversed. I have a job I enjoy very much – one that allows me to stretch myself intellectually and creatively – but my day is book-ended by a hellish commute. To get to work I drive on both the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. And then I motor down the side streets of hick towns – places where salt truck drivers are not considered Essential Personnel.

By the time I come home, I am exhausted and crabby and uneager to write and read. “I wrote and read during my entire workday,” I tell myself.Isn’t that enough?”

At this point I would love to write: “Well, no, it is NOT enough! Despite how tired and crabby I am, I continue to write and read! I am a writer and a reader! Writers and readers must always write and read!”

But I can’t, because, well, sometimes after getting home from work, I choose to sit on my butt and reach for a second glass of wine. One such day was Fender Bender Friday.

I think that’s OK.

My point is, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to get out that corkscrew once in a while. Your mind is not always going to be in the right place. Your schedule is not always going to be kind. We can’t all spend several hours a day on trains. If you truly love writing, you will find and make the time to write. The time might not be every single day, but the time will reveal itself.

As for me, I soon made up for my lazy Friday. I got in a whole lot of writing time the other day. I worked for hours and hours without a break. I was sitting in a molded plastic chair waiting for the nice man to replace my bumper.

73 Replies to “Creativity and the Commuter”

  1. Goodness, two accidents in one journey! The commute at each end of the day makes such a difference to the day as a whole. I have roughly a half hour drive to and from work every day, and generally it’s fine, sometimes there are problems and it takes much longer, and it just leaves me feeling drained, which I always find strange because I’m only sitting in the car for longer, but I guess something about the frustration is exhausting. I can’t imagine having a long and difficult commute every day. The train one sounds great though, what a fab opportunity to read and write every day. I keep thinking I should listen to audio books in the car rather than mindless drivel on the radio 🙂

    1. I listen to audio books sometimes. But many of them get on my nerves because the actors reading the books are often too hammy. They over-emote to the point of distraction.

      You should read for audio books, Vanessa! Your charming British accent would beautifully dress up literary crap. I would, honestly pay good money to hear you read a book by Snooki.

  2. Yes – “waiting room” takes on a whole new meaning when you are a writer. Car repair shop, dentist office…all are surprised when I say things like, “What – you’re done already?”
    Sorry about your fender bender(s) – I second the audio book idea. ^^

  3. I miss the days of taking trains into work. I got so much reading done! Now, it’s a struggle to get in what I want.

    It sounds like you got out unharmed, though. Be careful on those roads. I don’t know where you are, but where I am, there’s freezing rain headed our way.

  4. Isn’t it funny when one romanticizes about an earlier time when they had hours to read and write, they always forget the hellish moments…like walking 10 city blocks in the freezing sleet!

    I could never do a long commute…in fact most of my life, I have been opposite commute traffic when I did have to travel any distance. My idea of a commute is driving 15 sunny minutes, taking back roads along the way. On my longest treks I might travel 30 minutes of open highway, long after the nine to fivers have left the road, with the occasional nemesis of a shower pouring down faster than wipers can push it off the windshield…but even that only lasts a minute or two. One can easily get used to driving blindly for short periods. Not nearly as bad as driving on ice which, to me, is like someone suddenly pulling the rug out from under you. It’s unexpected and you have absolutely no control of what happens next.

  5. “…the time will reveal itself.” I love this—but WHEN?!

    I’m glad the only damage was to your car, Mike. And thanks for putting my twenty minute commute—stretched into an unreasonable thirty minutes this morning, due to half an inch of snow (the horror)—into perspective. 😉

  6. Whew! — glad that accident wasn’t serious. Funny how this incident shaped your reflection on your life as a writer. Careful out there on the road now!

    1. I’m usually very good in snow and ice, so this accident — especially the second accident — really drove me crazy.

      As I felt myself sliding toward the truck’s bumper, I heard myself say, “Oh, come ON! Didn’t I just do this?”

  7. Ah, the silver lining 🙂 I knew you’d find it 🙂 I’m glad you were okay though – that’s too many accidents in too short a time! And hey! You drive on the GSP and NJTP? You must not live THAT far away from me! Maybe one of these days we’ll meet at a book signing or a conference or something 🙂

  8. Mike, you’re very fortunate that you just ended up with some fender benders. I’ve always been fond of writing on public transport. (Short periods of time have always worked well for me.) But sometimes a change in routine can be good — just different and you just need to figure out how to make that difference work for you. Good luck!

  9. Oh, I remember those days and the car accidents. Spinning 360’s at the bottom of black ice chilled hills, lucky to miss anyone coming from either direction. The adrenaline rush at the end.

    Can I just say I’m thankful I now live in San Francisco, where we only have to dodge skateboarders, joggers and bicyclists on cell phones, one-person recycling operations with laden grocery carts, taxi drivers, leashless dogs (and their piles), and exhausted parental sherpas while driving. That said, my commute is now about 6 feet because we rearranged the bedroom so that the bed is close to my office door.

    I’m thinking you deserve to use that corkscrew more often. But then, I just watched a video in French that shows one how to open a wine bottle with the heel of your shoe. Impressive. So if the corkscrew goes missing, give me a holler.

    1. Based on what you’re telling me, I think I prefer the ice. But since I have never visited San Fran, I will reserve judgement.

      After all, if living in California means that I would have neighbors who can open wine bottles with shoes, I just might have to consider a move.

  10. And no mice, nor men, were injured. Yay!
    My happiest commute was walking to and from Harvard Square for about 2 miles each day. I may have slipped on ice once, but I also found over $12 in change!

  11. Oh my goodness! Glad you’re okay. I’m surprised you didn’t just chug the bottle down when you got home, that’s crazy. I don’t miss commutes at all. I can’t see myself writing every day with all that going on. Hey, do you like that show Mike and Molly, it’s my new addiction, she’s a writer and it’s hilarious!

  12. Wow, Mike, two accidents in one commute. That’s a bit frightening. Glad you were ok, and managed to keep on going. I would have hit something stronger than wine when I got home. Husband and son both have commutes on bad roads – at different times of day. I worry like crazy until they are at work or at home. Son comes home at 2:30 in the morning. It completely stresses me out, and I might as well have been driving in it myself. I can’t drink in case I have to venture out to rescue one of them. Oh, maybe that’s a good thing. February is on its way. Keep driving 3 mph; people can go around you. Stay safe!

  13. What a day you had! If I had two accidents in one day I think I would have skipped the wine and headed straight for a dry martini!

    I LOVED A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. LOVED IT. But you know what is weird? I thought of that very book today. I did a post (or rant, depending on your perspective) yesterday and threw out a few of my favorite reads. I forgot to include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on the list. Grrrr.

    P.S. I can’t imagine that you are grumpy EVER.

    1. The best part about ATGIB is that I married someone who is a whole lot like Francie. I am a lucky fella.

      Glad I could mention one of your forgotten favorites, Robin. I wanted to help you out. Haven’t you heard? PFBFFs can often read each other’s thoughts.

  14. During the dark, dreary winter months, I call your mother weekly just to remind her of how much I HATE winter and all that it brings to my life. Two accidents probably would have sent me back home until my calendar announced that lovely spring had arrived. Sorry the year got off to such a nasty start for you . . . . . love that you can still see the big picture!!

    1. You might want to avoid mention the car accidents to my mom, Aunt Elaine. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but news like that can sometimes make her tense.

      By the way, I just got your lovely note today! I think I’m gonna go camping!

  15. You just need to get a robot to drive your car for you. Then, you can read and write all you want, and blame your robot for any accidents.

    As for waiting rooms – that can often be one of the best places for a writer. What else are you going to do while simply waiting?

  16. The upside of a waiting room is that free time you are allowed to read or write or just dream if you like. It can be golden time and you have no control over how long you get. It is out of your hands so it is guilt free. My doctors are usually pretty punctual and I seldom wait for longer than 3-5 minutes (if I am on time) but I went with my husband to his doctors not to long ago. I had over three hours in that waiting room, first waiting for his turn and then at least 45 minutes while he was being seen to. It was a wee bit of heaven being able to read guilt free.
    I’m glad you weren’t hurt in your mishaps.

    1. My dentist is speedy, too, which is a shame because he has the most comfy waiting room on the East Coast. Leather couches, coffee machine, plenty of current magazines. It’s what I assume a room in Heaven would look like.

  17. Glad you are okay! I was just going to write my “commute” story too! I took pictures of the icy sidewalk that was trying to make me fall at every step on the way home (after dropping girls at school) I won. It took me 55 minutes to walk home and I have frost bite, a few toes fell off and I will no longer need that nose job. But I won!

  18. Computing is one of the greatest time sucks out there. I’ve never had anywhere near the commute you have, but one of my jobs netted me a 40 minute drive each way. I enjoy driving, and I love listening to music, but 80 minutes tacked onto my work day was more than any favorite song could overcome. A train would’ve been nice; could have done so much work while en route.

    But look at me complaining when you have 3 hours every day of this. Yikes. Maybe you could record blog posts while you drive. Edit and type them out later.

  19. Wow. I can’t believe you had two wrecks on one drive. That’s absolutely brutal.
    I love public transportation for writing and reading… I think it’s something about moving at such high speeds with so little effort… But the New Jersey Turnpike is a whole new level of hell. Do you ever listen to podcasts or audiobooks? That’s how I survive long drives.

    1. I do the audiobook thing, but I can be easily distracted by readers who offer up hammy performances. For some reason hamminess is the rule rather than the exception.

      I guess what I’m saying is, I want Bob Balaban to read me every book ever written.

  20. I hate driving on icy roads, though we’ve had a very mild winter here so far thank goodness. Wow, that’s a monster commute you have. Your previous train version sounds much better. It’s so true that traveling can be very a-muse-ing, watching all those people come and go, and meet and greet, and wondering what their stories are…and I love seeing what other people are reading on the train too. Blessings of bumper-bash-free commutes for the rest of 2014! H xxx

  21. Hi Mike,
    I am so sorry to hear about your two fender-benders! Sounds like a new set of tires may be in your future as well as the new grill. But I love the nostalgia of commuting by train. I haven’t done that since I lived in England in the mid-1970’s. I remember that as a great time too. And I met a woman who said her father wrote a series of Westerns while he commuted from Portsmouth to London each day. Hmm. Maybe we should rethink our need for cars if we’re traveling to and from work only. Even on a bus I wonder if there’s a story (bet Jackie Gleason thought so 🙂

    1. The tires ARE new! That’s the thing that drove me nuts (and drove me into a truck); no tire could do its job on that road.

      Public transit is a great idea for a whole host of reasons, of course — but if everyone did it, just imagine how many books could be written!

  22. Mike,
    Thank you for the break from the never-ending circus. I’d rather spend time in your head than my own. We need to establish a Kickstarter fund for your automotive repairs, buddy.
    I’m brilliant, aren’t I?

  23. Isn’t driving on ice so much fun?

    I have done a fair amount of writing while waiting at the mechanic shop the past few years, and I see more of it in my future since I was told almost a year ago that we’re going to likely need to replace the catalytic converter in the car, blah. Just trying to figure out where I’m going to find that money in the budget. It’s a hoot…

  24. I enjoyed two days last week when I had to travel by train, read more than I had in the previous three months on those journeys.

    What were you thinking driving at 7mph?? Accident waiting to happen!

  25. This is such an amazing story! It is so great how anything can bring about the joy and gift of writing. As someone with a literary blog, I really admire your writing style, and I value the experiences you have learned from. Great post! Keep writing.

  26. I have lived in five states, visited about 25, as well as traveled in Europe and Asia. My point? There are NO highways worse than the Garden State Pkwy or the NJ Turnpike. NONE. I once worked for a wonderful small publishing company in NJ as a medical editor. Loved the job, the writers/doctors I worked with, the staff, but hated that commute (yup, NJ Turnpike). And the ‘restrooms’ and restaurants on the Pike? Don’t get me started. So, I feel your pain. Horrible commute. Thank God you love your job. I’m with Vanessa – books on tape (cd). Or, maybe better yet, mediate (with your eyes open) and create characters while you’re driving. No? No, maybe not a great idea. Sigh.

    1. God bless you for understanding.

      I do muse about my stories and characters as I drive. I listen to books on tape, too. But what I really need is one of those Google self-driving cars. Or a chauffeur. Or persuade the job to commute to me…

  27. Five-o’clock-traffic will never again seem so bad. Hopped over from a 2015 post. Talk about a harsh commute!

    Finding the job or career you are meant to do can send one through some awful places, just for the experience . . . or God has a sense of humor. Glad you are where you are now else we may not have met. I feel bad for the journeys that were not the best for you, but then, I am so glad you traveled through them to where you are now (2015).

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