Writing on the Shuffle

A little over a year ago, inspired by many a commute and one particular pre-Valentine’s Day happening, Central Belt Shuffler began this blog, much of which – if not quite all – is actually penned while travelling.

And now, an author friend has drawn my attention to news of a plan being hatched by Amtrak to give free rides to writers in the US. They’ve done a couple of test runs, and it looks like they might actually be rolling out on-board writers’ residencies.

In interview with The Wire, who reported on this admirable development, the first author to undertake a residency talked about the train as a ‘”unique environment for creative thought”‘, which ‘”takes you out of normal life”‘. This description is one that accords with that given by Guy Garvey over on his recent BBC Radio 6 Music show devoted to trains.

A L Kennedy, in her witty perspective on the author’s lot, On Writing, discusses writing in trains, retaining the most praise for US and Canadian train writing:

I can particularly recommend travel from New York to Montreal – the journey takes around eleven hours for no really good reason, beyond a type of shyness that will leave your train hiding, loitering and then simply fainting to a halt at regular intervals. When you are travelling north it will wait like a faithful lover to meet and be passed by the southbound train, and when you are travelling south it will also wait. You will do a great deal of waiting. But you will also be beguiled by the autumn foliage (should it be autumn), the picturesque wetlands and gentle vistas – all slightly distracting if you’re trying to write a sex scene and are already freaked out by your somewhat intrusive surroundings and the fiddly technical matters you have to consider. But you will be able to spot great blue herons and egrets and red-tailed hawks aplenty, as you wonder who should do what to whom first and from what angle.

(from A L Kennedy, On Writing)

Thanks to Amtrak and the powers of social media, it looks like writers in the US are going to get the opportunity to write on trains on a regular basis. Central Belt Shuffler has two thoughts as a consequence:

  1. Book a flight to America (or, in true A L Kennedy style, a transatlantic boat cabin) to take advantage of this great opportunity, and/or
  2. Petition the UK train companies to set up something similar. Yes please!

Update! See also Writer on the Train (First Great Western) and this Poetry Train Workshop, starting from Norwich. Let’s make that Scottish train companies (well, Scotrail) needing to set up something similar.


A packed carriage, on the way home.

Next to me is a youngish man. We get to chatting, and – it transpires – he’s learning his lines, an audition piece. Somehow, in this short journey, I find myself helping with this task, reading out the lines for the other part.

It’s an extract of just a couple of pages from a play. He doesn’t know where it’s from. It feels Russian, Northern European. Chekhov, perhaps? Strindberg? A pastiche?

Over the course of the scene, the plot thickens. I read deeper into the character. There’s something slightly unseemly in this relationship between the man and his wife, or mistress.

The lines feel slightly compromising. I camp it up a bit. Giggle, aware of the other passengers.

Glasgow Queen Street approaches. The rehearsal ends.

I wonder if he got the part.

‘We need future plans’

Live tweets from a morning commute:

There are Waterstones staff on the train frantically scribbling on ppt print-outs with graphs and tables. Not sure this bodes well.

Although they might be mature students preparing for a simulated business case presentation. In conclusion, ‘We’re doomed.’

They seem to be trying to find reasons why they haven’t hit their targets. Hmmm.

[Why don’t I just ask them if they actually work for Waterstones, a Twitter correspondent wishes to know.]

They’re VERY busy. ‘So this is December, the high street was down 10%…’

One of them is staring out of the window at the snow. The others, ‘Fiction up, children’s down’, ‘2%’, ‘what’s the comparator year’?

Besides, I can’t say to them, ‘Do you really work at Waterstones, or are you pretending?’

Perhaps they’re my students, but have changed a lot over the break?

‘This slide is pretty good’, ‘We need future plans’, ‘Here’s a James Daunt quote’.

Ah, I either know about forthcoming staff reductions at Waterstones now, or I’m spreading nasty rumours…

I’m afraid I can’t report the future of Waterstones as I’ve left the train… (In case any of you were on tenterhooks.)