Here’s the idea: You get a bunch of writers together and you take them someplace cool, someplace evocative — the Santa Fe Depot, say — and you tell them, “Go ahead, write something.”
This could be a very bad idea.
Because of all the things an individual can do in the company of others, writing may be the one thing that must be done alone. Think of the solitary writer in cramped garret or cheap room or shambled studio, alone and alone, working into the night, working in the cool silver glow of her monitor with only her dictionary, her stamina, her small imagination.
Writing in a group might be OK for therapy, for an avant surrealist experiment, for some airy-fairy New Age outdoor campfest, but Real Writers, they have to go it Alone.
Or do they?
The old idea of the writer as solo artist is as outdated as the belief that you can’t make jam out of jalapeños. Writers can and do write in community. And they write good stuff. I know. I’ve participated in real-time writing groups for more than a decade, and I’ve led twice-weekly drop-in writing groups for nearly seven years. This is what I know: On any given day a writer can write the best she’s ever written. She can also compose a piece that’s clunky and misshapen and downright embarrassing. Just like when she’s alone.
I know that the brave writers who participate in these groups are often remarkable creators who paint word pictures, spin and weave and reel in tales. Writers who make it up and get it down. I know that stories and poems and essays and even novels get written in these groups. Seeds are sown, characters appear (and disappear), ideas take root, and notebooks get filled. There’s something else that happens too. The certain and electric current of connection, not just one writer to another, but one human to another.
So when the idea was presented — take a group of writers to the Santa Fe Depot and see what happens — I couldn’t get my pencil sharpened fast enough.
As a way to prepare myself, I started the morning with a read from Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. My meditation into the day of writing. Looking for opening or closing quotes that I might read to the group, something to inspire our writing, to set the tone for our time together.
Sitting on the floor before my bookcase I read, “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” I read a few more lines, remembering the pleasure of reading and re-reading this and other Theroux books during my travels aboard the rails — in America, Europe, India.
I skipped through the book, fanning the pages, noting a line here and there, tagging sections with sticky notes. On the last page Theroux wrote, “All travel is circular,” and closed with a repeat of the opening lines: “Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it…”
San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot is a grand, echoey place of high, rounded ceilings, golden tile floors. Constructed in 1915, the station’s two cerulean blue and yellow tiled domes are the same old Spanish design as those on the exposition buildings in Balboa Park.
Like any woman of a certain age, the station has had her share of face-lifts. Today a fountain splashes in a terra-cotta courtyard lined with benches tiled in colors brilliant as wild parrots. I remember a parking lot there. Meeting my grandmother one October day in the mid-’50s as she arrived battered and weary after a two-day trip from Kansas City.
Inside, 16 bronze-and-glass chandeliers on chains the size of a man’s wrist are trussed to plaster arches high above the main waiting room and ticket counter. On the walls, tiled wainscoting in a Moorish design gives the effect of a Turkish rug. Long oak benches reflect burnished light from great windows to the west, where sets of train and trolley tracks parallel one another.
Great ambiance for a writer. All that light. Color. History silhouetting the walls like an aura.
The sign still says “Womens Waiting Room” though what’s currently beyond the portal is a tourist company and, to the left, a utilitarian restroom with metal stalls and the banged-up bones of an old radiator. Still, in this memory-laden place you can glimpse pale shadows of sailors in their summer whites and hear soft echoes of a black-suited conductor’ with his calls of “ ’boooaaard!”
Opposite an enormous Plexiglas-enclosed model of the USS Midway anchored in the southeast corner of the waiting room is the Silver Streak Café. Sandwiches and sweets in clear plastic boxes, coffee drinks explained on a hoisted menu. Film and postcards of San Diego scenes on a metal go-round below which a hand-written sign, “Please don’t read the magazines,” sits atop a stingy display of reading matter. Behind the counter, a ponytailed young man on a cell phone leans against the espresso machine.
This is where our group will meet.
Eight writers — refugees from the Writing Center, the nonprofit literary arts organization that had a spontaneous and lively five-year life span in the mid-’90s before it expired for lack of funding.
David Cohen, Amy Wallen, Karen Swank, Greg Gorga, Lavina Blossom, Allison Riley, James Spring, and me.
With one or two exceptions, everyone knows everyone else. Most of us continue to write together regularly in my drop-in groups and other gatherings.
We come together to write because we have experienced the collective energy that occurs when we join with writing as our purpose. Some call it the creative force. Magic. I say the Muse likes to work crowds. Something happens when we write together that — if you trust it and go with it — can take the writing and the writer to unexpected, surprising places of memory and imagination.
In writing groups, we bear witness to each other’s work, we learn from one another and spark each other’s creativity. We share camaraderie and create community.
There’s something else that happens in group writing too. A synchronicity that is as inexplicable as creativity and as mysterious as inspiration. Two writers use the same unusual word — effervescent, for example, or both mention Bach and Karen Carpenter in the same piece or write about deep-rooted trees. This seemingly coincidental occurrence of words or images is so startling it never fails to take my breath away, yet so common that those of us who are veteran group writers accept it as a predictable part of the process.
At the café, we claim squatters’ rights and pull tables together, creating our own workshop space. Around us other travelers stand by for trains to take them on a journey; for us, our notebooks await.
“My expectation is…that, as always, I will go on a tour of places I do not expect to go and had no idea about this morning when I woke up,” said David as we went around the tables for a check-in before our first writing exercise.
“More than anything, I expect to have a hidden memory or truth revealed,” said Allison. “From my own writing or somebody else’s.”
David and Allison are both actors as well as writers. And, like the rest of us, they have “day jobs” to support their creative lives.
Though some of us have studied writing formally, a sprinkling of undergraduate degrees in English and creative writing and at least one mfa, we’re like thousands of other writers who earn their living otherwise. We fit the writing in the odd morning hours before the sun and our families arise or long, long into the night after everything else is done and the only thing left is the writing. Always the writing.
Some of us are published — a story here, a poem there. A book, an article, an essay. Among us, some are writing novels, some short fiction, poetry. Some are still looking for the form that will carry the voice, winged and true, to a place that feels like home.
A couple of us write for a living — we call ourselves commercial writers: marketing, advertising, public relations. Writing for money, not for love. Not the same. And whatever we do for a living, outside the group it doesn’t matter. The place that we connect, our touch point is the writing.
Amy said, “I write in community because it’s the safest bunch of strangers I know. Because in a room full of people wielding writing instruments no one talks and yet we gain a deeper respect for one another on a remote level. We are strangers and acquaintances, and yet there is a greater sense of safety than even with my own family.”
“I do more risk-taking in groups than I do alone” is how Karen put it.
We span the years — early 30s to nearing 60. Age doesn’t matter. On any given day, with a blank piece of paper, a pen, and time, anything can happen for any of us. We salt each other’s writing stew with our individual creativity and turn up the burners with our collective energy.
The noise level in the waiting room rises as travelers line up to purchase tickets for Train #581, an Amtrak daily departure to Los Angeles. During our time at the station, one more San Diegan will depart for L.A. and points north; two trains will arrive. And in between, trolleys painted a red as loud as the racket they make wrap around the south end of the station in a continual clanging, whooshing loop. The Santa Fe Depot is a clamorous place to write. But this early into our session, we are undaunted by the cacophony of sound and color. Instead we anticipate the spontaneity that always accompanies creativity. We hunch over our notebooks, fingers itching at the nibs, ready to begin.
“Write about departures and arrivals,” I offer as the first topic for our warm-up writing exercise. We are, after all, in the train station, and I have decided all the prompts will be travel themed, in keeping with our venue. And the work begins.
By now, everyone knows the “rules,” a set of guidelines I read before each writing session. Loosely adapted from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Wild Mind, we’ve altered and changed her 7 rules to create our own that currently number 11. “Keep your hand moving,” the rules begin. “Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.” “Go for the jugular.” “You’re free to write the worst junk in America.” We added the last rule, number 11 — “Remember to breathe” — one Tuesday last summer when the air lumbered with humidity and, for some reason, tension in the room was palpable. Recently, I’ve taken to turning the words around from time to time as I read. “Breathe to remember.”
And so, for the next ten minutes, we write. David seated next to me on my left, Lavina beside him, followed around the bend of tables by Greg, Karen, and James. Amy sits at the corner, with Allison next to her, directly on my right. I write too. It is my practice to always write with the groups. Over the years that I’ve led these free-writing sessions, I’ve created short stories, poems, narratives, bits and pieces of nothing and everything, and the better part of the first draft of my novel.
Usually you can hear the sound of pens gliding or scratching or spiraling across the page, sometimes a muffled sniffle or half-suppressed giggle or sigh as the words work their way from birthing place to notebook cradle. But today the rabbling and scraping of noise floats over the place like choppy seas. It echoes off the tile floors to the plaster walls, up the cavernous open space to the hard curve of the ceiling where it is rebounded downward. All around us, people tug at luggage on little wheels that bump against the wooden benches, and the careening energy of kids screeches and whines.
Seemingly oblivious, we write.
I track time on the little clock that I’ve set on the table. At nine minutes into the exercise, I say, “Write for another minute or so.” No one looks up; Greg leans into his notebook with a shrug of intensity, Allison gives a little shake of her head. At the end of ten minutes, I say, as I always do, “Find a place to end your writing,” and try to find such a location in my own rambling meander.
These short exercises are not intended for neat beginnings, middles, and ends. There’s not enough time for completed writings, though some writers are amazingly adept at creating a whole piece within any given time limit. Some continue writing after time’s up because they can’t bear to have the thing left open-ended. I have come to accept this anxiety of the unfinished work as part of the process. I may or may not complete the piece, may continue it on the next go-round, or later at home. Maybe weeks from now. Maybe never.
After each writing session, I make time for reading aloud. This is as important as the writing. The purpose isn’t for feedback or critique; the work is too raw and unfinished for that. Rather, hearing his or her words aloud allows the writer to locate the knotty bone of truth in the work, if it’s there, and to hear his or her writer’s voice. There are other reasons for reading out loud: Listening for repetition and cliché, to feel the breathing of the piece, its heartbeat. And, often, the writer won’t even know what he or she has written until it’s given voice.
David begins in a voice smooth with the familiarity of saying words aloud — his own as well as other writers’.
- We shall not cease from exploration
- And the end of all our exploring
- Will be to arrive where we started
- And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot’s words are the ultimate statement of the arrival that’s departure, the departure that’s an arrival in the continual comings and goings that define not just our travels but our steady progression of new selves for old.
It’s a lovely thing to think of in this huge arched room, lined with these great hanging chandeliers, with the concrete spines that circle it and interspersed those vertebral wooden slats — with the ambient sounds of signal bells and train wheels…
— because I’ve so often departed, so often arrived from this very place…knowing when I left that the person who returned would both be and not be me, that the very fact of embarkation implies a transformation, so the returning traveler is, by definition, not the traveler who departed. Just like each one of these written journeys, when the pen sets off and keeps gliding out words and sentences and memories and thoughts, and insights, if we’re lucky…
No one comments on David’s piece; it is not our place to judge or critique. We let the words hover around us, light upon our shoulders, breathe against our hair, our sleeves. In our silent support, we acknowledge his work.
I am aware that David wrote of the full circle of travel, echoing the image from the Theroux book I read at home earlier in the day, a faint synchronicity. An intimation of what is possible.
Though we don’t usually read in order, it happens that Lavina, who is seated next to David, volunteers to read, followed by Greg and Karen, and all the way around the tables, ending with me.
Lavina, the only non–San Diegan in the group, has driven down from Orange County for the session, as she often does for our writing marathons. Her piece begins:
A baby arrives by time, by weight, an intake of breath, a train of cells that gathered in a dark wet station. The newborn holds the light in its cloudy eyes and wails, the failing umbilical cord about to be cut. Already at birth she is learning so much. Her mother’s contractions foretell that every new world will resist her, that she’d better stay flexible. At each threshold she’ll go blind, experience compressions as she’s wrung through. Eyes open to a blur she’ll have to learn focus all over again while speeding across a terrain she’s never seen before, never imagined. But now she can and perhaps even fathom this territory for which all explanations are inadequate.
Lavina’s voice is soft, and though it’s less noisy in the station now that the 581 has departed for Los Angeles, it’s still difficult to hear her, especially for those at the far end of our train of tables. A poet who now writes fiction, she gathers metaphor and image like the homeless woman who digs through the trash outside beneath the sprinkle of the fountain, looking for something of worth amidst the detritus. Faulkner said, “In every writer there is a certain amount of scavenger.”
In a style of art that he’s practiced since I’ve known him (we’ve been writing together since 1994), Greg pens geometric shapes on his notebook cover while other writers say their words aloud. Now he opens its curled pages and begins to read. I’m surprised and not surprised that his writing, following Lavina’s, begins with the arrival of a baby.
Davey kept a journal. His doctor said it would be therapeutic. The entries read like an Amtrak schedule. Arrival time: 5:22 Sunday morning, September 22, 1963. This one, being his birth date, was postdated, but he liked to refer to it as “Where it all began.” He described the flush of fluid he rode into the world as similar to his experience at Roaring Rapids, at Sea World, with similar results. He ended up soaked, blue in color, and scared as hell. He imagined his first sound to be a long, rising, high-pitched wail, punctuated by sharp gasps for breath, tears, and an occasional fist pumped in the air for effect.…
Karen’s piece, a meander through her own poetic map of arrivals and departures, ends with the words, “Travel is always full circle.” I smile. I love when this stuff happens and wonder how often this “chance occurrence” of words and phrases and images will occur on this rain-spotted Sunday afternoon. I glance around the table, notice how many of us are dressed in black (the writer’s persona we have adopted, laughing at our ridiculous selves and yet half-serious, we do it anyway). I note how many of us are redheads, how many have the same notebooks. What else can I throw into my synchronicity bag?
It’s almost quiet in the station now. An uneven silence that carries the residue of hubbub. Except for the young man behind the counter who counts out sugar packets and straws gloved in paper, our group is alone in the Silver Streak. We lean back in our chairs, looser, and breathe easier. We don’t have to nearly shout now to be heard above the babel.
James reads next. He’s sunburned, healthy-looking, with the nubbiest of dark beard. He’d told us earlier that he spent the morning aboard his boat, Tequila Sunrise. His exact words were, “Two hours ago I threw a dead guy in the water.” He said it for effect. Actually, James is licensed by the Port of San Diego to ferry the ashes of cremated bodies a mile or so to be sprinkled at sea.
This was not what he wrote about when he wrote about departures. In fact, he wrote about an arrival, reading to us a piece about coming upon a village at the Colombian border in the Darién Gap where, to allay suspicions of the Kuna Indian villagers, who don’t like Americans, he claimed to be German.
Before we began writing, James told us he expected that during our time together somebody was going to get touched. “Somebody will be receiving the gift,” he said. “I’m hoping to be one of the ones who does.” I’ve been writing with James since 1995. He doesn’t believe me when I say he’s got the gift.
Since the visitation of a character named Ruby Kincaid at a marathon writing session in the fall of 1997, Amy has been writing her novel. She says it took her two years to write Ruby’s story, and now Ruby’s daughter, Violet, has decided to tell her side of the story. At any and all of the writing groups, Amy writes from the point of view of the characters from her novel. Today is no exception.
I’d only seen the inside of a Greyhound bus in the movies. I got a whiff of something like both Lysol and shoes removed from sweaty feet, a sour leather smell. The rows were filled with folks, one to a pair of seats. A mother and her little boy sat in one row. Her head leaned on the window, brown hair smushed up against the glass. The little boy, older than Bubbie, chewed on his bottom lip as he played with a Game Boy. I looked away, not wanting to think about Bunny and Bubbie. Least not until I was far enough away that I wouldn’t be tempted to run back to them.…
Writers do whatever they want with the prompts that are given at the start of each timed exercise. Change them to fit what they want to write about. Rearrange gender or tense, alter point of view. They fictionalize or travel into memory or autobiography. Others simply ignore the prompt and hitch a ride on any passing image. There’s no wrong way to do it. The prompts are there as starting blocks. A place for writers to get their footing as they push off into the sprint of the exercise.
Allison wrote about the time a friend left:
- The last time I was in this train station, Jen was leaving. Her train was heading for Los Angeles, then to New Orleans and finally to New York.
- Friends leave.
- Jen had packed away San Diego into two boxes and a suitcase. After we checked her in, two seats opened up right in front of the door to the platform. The best seats in the station, I said, because they allow what little cool breeze there is to kiss our faces and aching forearms. A good omen I said. And I walked her out to the stairs leading to the train, and I gave her a hug with her arms still clinging to her suitcase. It was a quick good-bye, hardly indicative of the friendship we had shared, and she disappeared into the shadow of the tinted carriage windows.
Afterwards, in an e-mail to which this piece was attached, Allison wrote that she wasn’t satisfied with it. “I was trying to capture what a huge transition that time was for me. I’m not sure if I succeeded or if it is interesting,” she wrote.
Allison’s was only one of several anxious e-mails I received in the weeks following our Sunday at the Santa Fe Depot. “I’m not thrilled with anything I wrote that day,” said Greg’s message.
What writer is ever completely and wholly satisfied with what she’s written? Doesn’t everyone want to pull the fax out of the machine for one last read-through, un-send the e-mail, dive into the mailbox to retrieve the package? I’ve heard tell of a certain poet who goes around town pulling his books from bookshop shelves and penning rewrites in the margins. And stories of writers who spend so much time rewriting they never get to the end of a thing (even the end of the first paragraph of a thing). Always attempting to tame vision to page, an impossibility.
My own writing that day was rambling and disconnected. “Find a phrase you like,” I urge writers who blaspheme their writing, hating what they’ve written and themselves for even attempting to write. “An image that is good, even a word that is true,” I counsel myself. My scrabbled writing on the first prompt had as many stops and starts as a local train. Cologne, Germany; Oklahoma; Missouri; Jamul; the hospital room where my husband died; Budapest; Salzburg; Yugoslavia.
I am frightened, and again, for the thousandth time on this journey, I ask myself why I am going.
The writing about a journey I took around the world serves as metaphor for writing itself. In real life, I got as far as India before my trip was derailed by the Gulf War and loneliness. My writing life is forever interrupted by skirmishes of fear versus a longing so deep I return to the page again and again in faltering attempts to ease it.
With my reading, we have completed our first exercise for the day. Each of us going to the well of our pages and returning with buckets full of our own scribbled concoctions.
My plan for the day included some timed, focused writing exercises and a free-form period. “Write the place,” I said as I sent the writers on a 45-minute hunting and gathering expedition. “Enter it from your senses, make notes, talk to people.” My self-assigned job: trail after them and make my own notes. Given the same location, the same time of day, the same assignment, what would they go after? The hard goods of material? The wispy gossamer of inspiration? A quick pickup by some muse with a suitcase and a ticket to ride? Exactly how would they do their work?
I had been to this location on a writing-related visit once before, during a four-session workshop last spring called “Taking It on the Road.” I remember the difficulty I experienced during the same kind of free-writing exercise. Distracted by the full-throated, loud-mouthed stimuli of the place, I never could get into a comfortable groove with the pen. Today I would track the other writers, visually eavesdropping on them as they roamed the depot.
Outside, James sits on a bench facing the station, his jacket the color of Gulden’s brown mustard. Behind him, the silver and red and blue of the Amtrak train, car #9636 stands at a heavy rest. Though it rained earlier in the day, it’s not raining now. Still, the air is cool. He supports his notebook on his legs, crossed man-style, a wide open triangle of ankle-resting-on-knee, and writes, then leans chin in hand to watch I don’t know what. Sometimes it appears a writer might be gazing at the scene before him — the steel curve of tracks, the dirty rise of dun-colored building across the street. But on the blank page of his mind, he may be seeing the grassy spread of the Serengeti, the ridges and pockets of a distant moon, a lover’s face.
Inside, Karen and David have set up camp on the long, slatted oak benches of the main waiting room some distance from each other, facing opposite directions. David eats from a bag of trail mix he purchased at the café. He’s ensconced in his corner of the bench and will remain here for the duration. Writing and nibbling, going on a journey I can only imagine.
Previously in exchanged e-mails, he wrote that he was looking forward to our day of training, “conjuring the Santa Fe as a point of em- and debarkation for that ring around the country I did over New Year’s of ’96…when I heard those American voices still singing in their vibrant regional keys and met Amtrak’s equivalent of the Flying Dutchman.” I knew he planned to use the time to write the trip that had been, until now, only journal notes and pebbles of memory, and suspected that was what he wrote from his place on the bench. I also recollected that New York and New Orleans were in the litany of destinations he intended to write about and that Allison had written of both New York and New Orleans in the “Arrivals and Departures” exercise we had just completed.
Outside, near the splash and tumble of the fountain across the plaza where Lavina huddles with her notebook against the L of a tiled bench, I speak with Lekishona Jones, a security guard who’s been watching us. “I was wondering what you-all were doing,” she tells me when I say I’m with a group of writers, come to spend the afternoon consorting with the Muse.
Lekishona is only a part-time security guard, on temporary duty at the station. In her off-hours she studies psychology at City College. She’s a small, young woman; I could easily circle my fingers around the fine-boned wrist that sticks out beneath the sleeve of her black leather jacket. If we writers stormed the depot, I don’t think she’d be much security for the place. Anyway, we appear harmless enough, with our pens and notebooks, our distracted glances.
I turn to go back inside. Meander past the model of the Midway, make notes of the older man and woman lingering near her bow, eavesdrop. He’s a veteran, telling a story of the ship he was aboard during WWII. She’s wearing a hat, low heels, stockings. I make note of it all. His sweater vest, her pearls, the way his fingers trace the map of his story against the Plexiglas. My own reflection juxtaposed, like Gulliver, over the landing strip of the model ship, the cotton puffs of waves billowing beneath her prow. All these scribblings stored on the shelves of a writer’s pantry. Who knows what ingredients might be needed for some long-simmering bouillabaisse of a story?
Back in the café, Greg writes alone at our scattering of tables. I can tell he’s got hold of something. The way his hand skitters across the page, his hunch into the energy of the thing. Behind him, Karen has taken up perch at a high table that looks out the windows to the plaza. The afternoon sun low enough to cast amber highlights into the station. The gilt of her page edges gleams, picks up the brass trim of the table. Greg stirs again, situates himself, gets closer to his notebook, hunkering into it.
“What announcement?” he’d asked after the first writing. So did Lavina. They didn’t hear the canned voice of the conductor announcing last call for the 581 to Los Angeles. The piece David incorporated into his “Arrivals and Departures” exercise, and I smiled even as I wrote of Tom’s death. Some writers become oblivious to the outside world as they write, their senses closed down to time and light and noise. Others are distracted by everything. “The world’s a great place to go out and get all that fodder,” said James, “but then I like to be in a white room where it’s silent to be able to re-create that world.” Annie Dillard recommends a room with no view, “so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Other writers use the ambiance and stimulation as ingredients, folding morsels into their writing like chocolate chips into cookie dough.
David hasn’t moved from his spot at the long bench in the waiting room. His packet of trail mix nearly empty, he continues to write, heedless to all but his own journey. Like many writers I know, David always has his notebook at the ready, taking it out in settings from parked cars to park benches. “My journals are full of little pictures of moments,” he said. “I’m here doing exactly this, and I see this.”
Nearby, Allison sits cross-legged, notebook on one knee. Watching, writing, watching again. Her lovely face serious and intent on her work, she will leave the group early this afternoon. She’s appearing as one of the Furies in Sledgehammer Theatre’s production of Furious Blood, and tonight is opening night. I am surprised that she agreed to participate today. I imagine that an opening-night performance would require all the saved-up juices of creativity one could muster. Watching her, these are the questions I write in my notebook: Does the creative effort of writing and performing come from the same interior place? How deep is that well of intuitive, creative energy? Finite or infinite? If we give more and more of ourselves over to our creative expression, will we use it up? Run the well dry?
More like an anxious tour guide on a day trip than a mother hen counting her chicks, I check my notes of who’s where. David, Karen, Lavina, James, Greg, Allison. All accounted for. I haven’t seen Amy since we started this exercise. I make a quick circle, inside and out, and still don’t see her. Off in some corner, I imagine, listening to the babble of her characters. I’m not worried.
The station is beginning to crowd up again, travelers arriving for Amtrak 583, northbound for Los Angeles and beyond. I make eye contact with a handsome man; “swarthy” is the word I jot in my notebook. Later I will remember his eyes, brown as river mud, and wonder vaguely where he was going, but I won’t take the time to make up stories. I have enough stories. And if I need more, I can always go back to my notebook, back to the Santa Fe Depot. Unlike open spaces or redwood trees or the residue of dinosaurs, material for the writer is boundless. “If you survived childhood, you’ve got enough stories to last a lifetime,” said Flannery O’Connor.
One by one, we return to our familiar oblong of tables in the Silver Streak Café, Greg still writing as we take our same chairs, reforming almost exactly the construct of our earlier session. I’ve noticed in groups, and not just writing groups, that most people gravitate to the same position each time. They claim the security of space with their accouterments — a water bottle, a to-go cup of caffè latte, a rainbow of pens, or some personal item tossed on table or chair. A marking that says, “This is my space.”
Sometimes I suggest participants sit in a different place. A little insecurity is good for creativity, I say, even though I am one who returns again and again to my same roost, predictable as a homing pigeon. (At home, the big armchair in the corner still imprinted with my father’s outline long after he died.)
At our tables again, we go around the circle for a check-in.
“I like quiet,” Amy begins. “I don’t think I knew that.” She’d been across the street, hanging out at the Museum of Contemporary Art during our free-range time.
“You like to go out to cafés, don’t you?” I ask.
“Yeah, but usually I stay in my room and write by myself.”
“I get more distracted when I’m home and it’s quiet,” Allison says. “I don’t pay any attention to what’s going on. It keeps some part of my mind occupied so the other part can focus.”
Lavina follows up. “I was having trouble focusing on anything. I was all over the place.”
At the table opposite her, Karen says, “I tried to eavesdrop but I wasn’t getting anything good.” As a poet, Karen’s not working on any characters and she doesn’t have a story line that she follows. She approaches the writing from a different angle.
“I work on senses or a moment that clicks me into it,” she said. “I started looking at the tile work and that kind of inspired me, so I wrote a whole piece on the tile work.”
- there are patterns here and in our lives,
- vining themes and arabesque ideals;
- arches with angles of connectivity —
- intersections of expectation.
- a vein of green and gold, blossoms of fluidity.
- seashells medallions and opaque shields;
- a bashful blue alongside monotony.
- stairstep trees bordering on a forest — forever, everlasting.
- i see a salamander, hidden in its memory…fire.
- caramel lattices, a lock and key; tails of squirrels and luster.
- a language spoken in the dialect of curves and rectilinear.
- the sight of cobalt blue — before the days of sobriety.
- the pale and patient hues, pedagogic aches of tension;
- vestigial gardens of geometry, crosshatched tiles —
- groutlines of commercial artistry.
- what’s lovely is the imprecise.
- lines that do not meet completely.
- blatant mismatched colors,
- raised bumps and lazy valleys
- virtue in blemishing
- the accuracy of surface cracks,
- and the aging gracefully.
Karen almost always writes her poetry in lower case. She explains, “Sometimes I say it is my way of ensuring egalitarianism. No letters or words or meanings get special treatment in my work.…[But] I am not so radical in my style that I rebel against all capitalization.”
Allison wrote some notes about the tiles too. They reminded her of how her mother used to do mosaics. “I’d sit by her and pull the colorful tiles from the mesh backing. I remember the wonderful sound of a whole sheet of tiles clacking against each other.” Instead of that, however, she reads a piece she created about the rules for riding trains.
English trains are the best. But for the perfect trip there are certain rules you have to follow.
Rule #1 — Always take a train originating in the country and going to London. The reverse is good too, but there is nothing like a big finish.
Rule #2 — Sit in the smoking car — if you don’t smoke, start.
Rule #2a — Sit at a table seat — you will need this for playing gin-rummy later.
Rule #2b — Always, always sit next to the window — you will want it later, particularly for rules #6 and #7.
Rule #3 — Ride the train with your best friend in the whole world.
Rule #4 — Go to the snack car — spend too much money on a beer or cider and salt and vinegar crisps. If you don’t drink, start. Vices are best in pairs.
Rule #5 — Bring a Walkman — play Simon and Garfunkel — “Homeward Bound” is particularly effective when you are not.
Rule #6 — Think about important issues — try to solve a problem, pine for someone, grieve. If you can have a tumultuous love affair and end it badly the morning your train leaves — perfect! That way you can cry on the train!
Rule #7 — Whenever possible, cry — it is the ultimate in train travel.
Rule #8 — Wherever you are leaving from, plan never to go there again — it makes the leaving more poignant, the memory more precious.
Rule #9 — Write a postcard containing a deep, dark secret (this is another reason for rule #2a). Date it, address it, and stamp it.
Rule #9a — Don’t ever mail the postcard.
Rule #10 — Find something on the train that someone has left behind — it can be the smallest thing, just something that whenever you take it out later, you say to yourself, I found this on my train trip to London.
Rule #10a — By the time the trip is over, lose something on the train — this will complete the Karmic circle begun in #10 — it can be the smallest thing that someone else considers a treasure, a souvenir of their trip leaving London.
Rule #11 — Whether it’s for hours, minutes, or seconds — lose yourself in the sound of the wheels, in the breathing of your best friend beside you, in the moon rising outside your window — always lose yourself on the train.
Whether conscious or unconscious, her “Rules for Riding English Trains” echo in number our “Rules for Writing Practice.”
“I write in coffeehouses so I’m used to a lot of noise going on, but the train station is different because there’s so many roads you can take. It was hard to decide where I wanted to go,” Greg says. Like four of the other writers, he used the tile work in both pieces he started during the free time.
…But his favorite spot, always, was the railroad station, Santa Fe. He liked the country western sound of the name. He loved to wash his face and hair in the fountain on the plaza, so long as the security guards were elsewhere. Once he even washed his clothes there, three shirts, two pants, one pair of underwear, hat, coat, and bandanna…he spread them out over the eclectic benches, one tiled in blue and white, another yellow, blue, black, green, and as the sun was slow to come up, his buddies, Sir Charles of Wescott (really El Cajon) and Damon, began to fight over his belongings, and he lost two shirts and one pair of pants to them.
More than any of the other writers, Greg incorporated the physical aspects of the depot in the pieces he wrote. While others used the ambiance, a reference here and there, Greg was more literal. He wrote about the high, arched roofs, likening them to stations in Santa Lucia, Venice, Florence.
Jennifer looked up at the row of chandeliers hanging far above them, each on 20-foot chains. They held large, white-globed shades. They were waiting for the 5:22 to L.A., then catching the connector, an overnighter to Denver. Then on to Colorado Springs for her, Chicago for him, and all he could talk about was a goddamn ceiling.
“Nice craftsmanship though. I mean, look at that, those cross beams have to be one foot by two, heavy as hell, I know, I’ve lifted some of those babies. And look at that window, the stained glass. And did you see the domed steeples outside. Amazing, don’t you think?
…“Lotta tile in here, you know. I mean, look at all the Santa Fe crosses in yellow. Reminds you of the Red Cross, doesn’t it, only different, huh?
…“And them benches out there, I mean, how do you get six different designs on a series of benches. They didn’t even match the colors, for Chrissakes.”
During the check-in before the first writing, Lavina said, “One of the reasons I like writing in community is because people — sometimes but not always — get to a place they didn’t expect to go and so they’re surprised and people who get to hear it are surprised too.” During the free-writing time, as she sat at the tiled benches outside by the fountain, Lavina let the colors of the tiles and an old woman digging in the trash inform her writing.
A fruit fly circles as she tosses an old loaf of bread into the garbage pail, steps back from a powder of green spores, airborne. Her mother told her beauty, aging, has less and less to do with gravity. She imagined it turning into something winged, cultivated a liking for the heavy sound of steel.
She would accept black market mink. A stole. “It’s just my stoat coat,” she’d say. Yet, this soft blanket of mold attracts her today, its delicate fur.
She fingers her locket. Inside, a pebble pearl her mother gave her, saying, “Sure, that’s beautiful too, a lovely cancer over a grain of sand.”
What would she pick, the perfect wrap, if she could have it? “Something light,” she’d say, strolling through that flight-of-fancy store. “Maybe that cerulean gossamer shawl. No.” She twirls the chain around her finger, considers the nacre blush. “That peach feather hat,” she says. No, that isn’t it either.
Outside, a plane rises from the nearby runway, a terrible racket. She sighs, relaxes, closes her eyes again, decides. “Give me that one,” she tells the immaculate salesman, “that yellow jacket jacket.”
Again and again, the tiles are mentioned in the pieces being read. This may be because the tile work is such an outstanding feature of the place. Colorful and unique as a tapestry inside, the same bright colors are repeated on the benches outside in a flagrant, syncopated pattern of blocks, squares, and crosses. Perhaps including references to the tiles is no more remarkable than making note of the chandeliers, but I want to make it another in the “you see” listing of synchronicities of the day.
“Let’s write again,” I say, moving us back into familiar territory of writing together. All that free roaming without specific direction or assignment seemed to distract from the sense of community, of the spontaneous energy of writing together that is what these writers came for. With a kind of giddy optimism, like hope wearing funny clothes — maybe there’s still a chance for me to get something good today — notebooks are opened to clean sheets of paper.
“You’re on the train to…” I say. “Let’s write for 18 minutes.”
You’re on the train to Aspen. I write in second person, as I often do when playing with these prompts. You’re on the train to Venezia. David writes in the second person too, using the technique that many of us have discovered will take us down paths we mightn’t otherwise go. Allison’s piece begins, “You’ve taken the train to a corner of Prague and are heading to Kutná Hora, where the bones of 40,000 people adorn the church in the center of town.”
James also writes of Prague. This is the edited, rewritten piece he completed later.
Questions come easy on the midnight train to Prague. Communicating these questions is more difficult. Answers are as rare as vowels.
It was January and there was no moon. No warmth. No train to Berlin. No reason to stay in Salzburg, but no good reason to go on. I was getting pretty sick of this whole Caucasian pilgrimage-thing. If there had been a flight back to New York from Austria, I’m sure I would have found some way to opt for that. But on a Wednesday night in mid-winter, my only option for escape appeared to be an empty train from Salzburg to Prague. Number 34, departing at 22:27. Plus, with my pass, the trip wasn’t going to cost me anything more. Which is, of course, a classic case of “can” versus “should.”
In the end, empty was why I did it. The thought of traveling a great distance without any of my Caucasoid cousins — glaring at me, brushing up against me, and breathing in my general direction — well, that sounded swell. After weeks of immersing myself in European culture, I had discovered that I hated Europeans. Every morning I awoke to calculate the number of days until I could go home. In fact, and especially in hindsight, it seemed completely senseless to even continue on to Prague. I certainly didn’t expect the Czechs to be any more polite than their neighbors. And I was well aware that soap companies have a hard time keeping their doors open in every country east of Germany. The Czech Republic was just another way to tick away the time until my discounted — and unchangeable — return ticket to the U.S. could be put to use.
“Will I need to change trains?” I asked the rubbery-lipped ticket agent in Salzburg.
He squinted at me.
“WILL I NEED TO CHANGE TRAINS?” I repeated. I had learned to become more assertive with my questions. No more trial and error. A week earlier I had slept through my intended stop in the south of France and ended up at a train depot in Geneva, where a drunken vagrant threw up on my shoe. Boy, I bet I’ll laugh about that someday.
The agent stopped pretending he didn’t understand me.
“Same train,” he said. “To Prague. Same train.”
“Gracias.” I grabbed my bag and found my way to the platform with only two hours to spare.
On the map, Prague is spelled Praha. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why can’t we call cities by their real names? The city’s already got a name. Why do we have to call it something different? And why can’t the Irish pronounce the letter u? It’s Dublin, not “foakin’ Doablin.”
The train arrived. I boarded. As promised, I was alone. For the next couple of hours, I sat and read and slept in solitude. It was too dark to see much outside — which was fine by me.
Sometime around midnight, the hiss and grind of the train’s brakes woke me. Outside the window I saw nothing but the faint yellow glow of the cabin lights reflected on enormous banks of snow. We were slowing down. Fast. I pressed my face against the frosted glass and tried to look ahead, expecting to see the glow of Prague’s castles and factories and gallows. There was nothing. Maybe that whole Velvet Revolution–thing hadn’t gone as well as the brochure had boasted.
The conductor whisked into my car and barked something so guttural that I covered my own mouth.
He said it again. Louder.
I shrugged. “Prague? Praha?”
“No.” He waved a finger. “Praha no.”
“Praha yes,” I said. “I have a ticket to Prague.”
We glared at each other and I began, in some small way, to understand the second World War.
“Do you speak English?” I said. “Español? Italiano?” I don’t speak Spanish or Italian but I figured it would be easier to understand than his — what? German? Austrian? Czech? I should have been embarrassed to not know, but it was late and I was becoming very irritated. And if my mental prowess had been any better I probably would have already been in Prague. Praha. Not here, wherever here was.
“Deutsch,” he said. “German only.”
I became an idiot mime. “I…” pointing at me, “need to get to Prague. Praha…” pointing in the direction that I assumed Prague to be, “tonight.…” pointing at my watch.
The train took a rough turn onto a siding. The snow was now falling hard enough to sound out rhythms on the roof. The conductor walked away.
“Hey.” I jumped up and grabbed my bag as the train lurched to a complete stop. Through the window I saw a small dark building and makeshift platform.
“Hey.” I ran down the aisle after the conductor and threw open the door to the next car.
I watched him step down off the train. Snowflakes blew in through the open portal like chicken feathers in a tornado. The cabin lights went dead. I hefted the strap of my bag over a shoulder and zipped up my coat.
For a moment I stood alone on the snowy platform and sucked in the cold night air, smoky with the promise of home fires and the threat of factories unseen. A blue sign on the eaves of the tiny depot displayed about 30 letters of the town’s unpronounceable name.
“Christ,” I said aloud. “Buy a vowel.”
Nailed to a thin post was a chalkboard schedule that said that the Number 34 did, indeed, continue on to Prague. At 6:30 a.m. I didn’t need to change trains. I just had to wait six hours to get back onboard the same one. Oh, I’ll probably laugh about that someday too.
I trudged the 20 yards to the station house to search for a pew I could call home until sunrise.
The waiting room is beginning to fill again — passengers for the northbound 585 that terminates in Goleta. Anyone going on to San Luis Obispo will have to take a bus.
We’ve been writing or talking about writing or reading our writing for nearly three hours. We may be reaching some outer limit, like that place where the universe bends back on itself. Though some writing marathons go for six or eight hours, the added physical and emotional energy of the train station with its buzz of comings and goings, its vast open spaces, stories resonating in the very air of the place, may have pushed us to the edge of our stamina.
Time has come for our final writing exercise of the day. I call it a cool-down. “A short one, only ten minutes,” I say and hear an almost inaudible sigh of relief. But no one will not write. When writers sign up for these sessions, they’re in for the distance. Besides, they know, as I’ve discovered again and again, when we’re tired, when we think we have written all we’re good for, when defenses are down and the guard has left the palace gate, we often write our most freewheeling, loose, and daring pieces. There is a sense of letting go and a sort of “who cares” attitude that gives access to deep recesses where imagination lives and anything can happen.
“It’s who you met at the station,” I say and one last time, we all bend into our notebooks.
The goosey wooziness is evident in some of the writing. David’s piece, for example:
She was so short, that was the first thing you couldn’t help noticing. As she stood at the ticket window, you had to tell the clerk who was selling the tickets that you weren’t really the next person in line; then, to be helpful, you just had to bend down and lift her up. At first she seemed rather frightened by this gesture, maybe even put off, but once she was chatting with the clerk and getting her visa card from her wallet and her aaa for the discount, she didn’t seem to mind so much. She was quite heavy really for someone so short and you had to wonder what she was wearing or carrying under all those petticoats — steel garters? Underwear made of chain mail?
Once you’d set her down, her ticket clasped securely in her tiny hand, and bought your own ticket, you asked her if she’d like a coffee while you waited for your trains. She was headed to Albuquerque; you to San Francisco. You walked with her to Union Bagel, being careful to take small steps so as not to outpace her.
It turns out she’d been in town for a reunion. She had been one of the original Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz: in fact, the second one in line for the Lullaby League, for which she’d been dressed like a ballerina. She’d married the Mayor of Munchkin City, she said, the result of a torrid affair that began one night following a long and unproductive day of waiting around on the set after Margaret Hamilton’s broom had caught fire & nothing had gotten filmed. But the marriage hadn’t lasted.
Laughter, like a long-awaited train, roars out of us as he reads. It is not unusual in writing groups for participants to go to deep and tender places that reveal past hurts and fragile secrets. The writing can be intense and sometimes painful. What a relief to be able to be so silly.
Other pieces reflect a lightheartedness too. One of Allison’s recurring characters, a woman named Rosa, shows up in a sketch about Rosa’s lover, Marcello, who brushes his teeth with white wine and bathes in red. “Rosa says it’s the sweetest flesh she’s ever kissed.”
Greg wrote about a pitiful character with a ketchup stain on his T-shirt who tried, and failed, to pick up a woman in a tight red blouse with leopard skin luggage. Amy’s included a smarmy character who addressed the narrator by the names of sweeteners, calling her “sugar” and “honey.”
But it is Lavina and Karen, the two red-haired poets who sit opposite one another, who, in their bookended pieces, pen the final synchronicity of the day.
She wants to be able to say, “I met myself at the station.” She longs for her doppelgänger, here, where trains arrive and depart, where people hesitate. Narcissism with a twist. Of the sublime. “Somewhere, sometime, there has to be a mirror me,” she thinks, “an opposite of this dark reflection, a him with an angelic hum.”
I didn’t meet Jesus — even though that pungent fellow may have passed on looks alone; except for the Day-Glo hightops, the pipe, carved from ivory. I didn’t meet Barbara Bush, but I saw her doppelgänger, drinking from a bottle of grape Nehi — dressed in purple polyester, a double-knit blazer, oh the gaudiness of all those pearls.
There it is, the word haunting as the ghostly companion it represents. Doppelgänger. A lightning bolt of synchronicity just in case we missed the firefly flickering of others that had come before: the full circle of travel, babies being born, destinations, and tile work. Never mind the hair coloring, the replicated outfits, the same make of notebook and pen, even the mention of “him with an angelic hum” and “Jesus.” These might be forcing the thing. But doppelgänger. Now there’s a word with enough coincidental blatancy to prove anybody’s point.
We all smile and shake our heads. I relate to the group my earlier reading of the Theroux piece and how, from the very beginning of the day, I have been in thrall of our extemporaneous conjuration, our writerly mojo.
Long ago, before writing in groups, before making that intimate and intuitive connection I have come to expect in gatherings such as these, I used to call such occurrences simple coincidence, but no longer. I know there is magic afoot.
We came to the Santa Fe Depot for its ambiance — people, travel, light, color, architecture. A writing experiment and experience. And we weren’t cheated for any of these. But we could be anywhere. After all, it’s not the specificity of place, but the quality of community. The writing itself. Maybe the train station was too much, too stimulating. After three hours we’re ready to leave. Hungry, tired, headachy, and moving toward cranky.
To be sure, there’s still the hard and solitary work of rewriting, editing, polishing that we must go and do alone. But this creation stuff, this community and support and wild mouse ride of first-draft writing — this is what the group can nurture.
Allison has left already, gone to do her Medusa hair for the evening’s performance. Lavina has more than an hour’s drive ahead of her as she returns to Orange County. Greg’s off to the gym to get physical before he hits the books to study for the gre exam. He hopes to enter the master of fine arts program at Cal State San Marcos this fall.
Karen is going to work on the #5 issue of the Coleman Cougar Times, the school newspaper where she teaches creative writing and heads up the yearbook staff. Amy’s husband, Mark, meets us as they head off for dinner with an old friend who’s in town. James says he’s going to do laundry, but we don’t believe him.
David asks for a ride to Twiggs Tea & Coffeehouse to meet his partner, who plays in the Celtic Ensemble that performs there every Sunday. I say I’ll take him. We’ll go for Mexican food at Zapata’s first.
Finally back home, notebook thicker by a few dozen pages, senses satiated, belly full, I want to come to some kind of a full circle of my own. I pick up the Theroux from where I’d left it on the floor in front of the bookcase and turn to the last page of The Great Railway Bazaar. The paragraph that began, “All travel is circular,” continues. “After all,” Theroux writes, “the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.”