On the Train
I’m on a train from Poughkeepsie heading to Grand Central Station, and I can barely express my delight. Partly of course, it’s because I’m leaving the country and returning to the city that I miss so much. (Just temporarily, for a business lunch, but it’s worth the hour’s drive and the cost of the ticket.) But a surprising part of me simply thrilled at the prospect of being on a train again, after spending so much time driving and (more often) sitting still. I’m not a traditional boy, and the closest I ever came to being obsessed with trains as a child was at age 7 or 8 when I spent a few dozen dollars over a month or so’s allowances building a mediocre electric train set—not because I liked trains so much, but because I had been reading Boys Life and felt I ought to have a hobby. I don’t have many actual hobbies. As a friend of mine once said, accusingly, “Dave, all you ever want to do is read, write, and fuck.” It's almost true, alas. So what’s up with trains?
I have a theory. When I first moved to New York City, I fell crazily in love with the subway. There was something in me that responded so primally to these vast carriages, moving tirelessly under the city. I suppose part of it was the mythic appeal: you descend into the underworld and bargain with this metal dragon who is mollified by piles and piles of MTA gold, and in return it whips you at unearthly speed and you emerge into the sunlight miles from your starting point, and most of the way to your destination. It’s a feeling of possessing a kind of magic that isn’t available in Tupelo. But even more than that, if I’m really honest, I think I just like the rumbling.
A lot of ADD folks like me get accused of living too much in our heads. People only say this because they don’t know how much fun it is in there. Right now my brain is boiling away with every word at my command, and if not this sentence, then the next or the next, any sentence I commit is theoretically capable of thrusting forth any world I have the wherewithal to describe. Bring on the spangles, the bright flamingoes, the sultans and shamsheers and mahouts! I picture them all parading in a circle as the flageolets tootle and the tympani thrum, and—what the hell—let’s have some gamelans hammering their weird circular drones. If I look out the window right now, what do I get instead? More goddamned trees. There’s really no contest.
In fact, the real world is the enemy of creativity in many ways. I’ve noticed even in this brief sojourn that if I have a single thing to do later—say, a meal I promised to attend at five—it can hobble my entire day, even if it’s ten a.m., because all the swirling words and ideas and images and whatnot have to circle around this giant FIVE, black granite, all caps and yea high, that’s impossible to ignore, even if you shove it in the corner and try to keep the party going. It’s still there in the room, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it until five. I’m helpless around it; it throws off my brain’s feng shui.
As a result, most ADD people report feeling their most creative when the world itself has been grayed out somewhat, usually with some kind of droning repetition. Getting ideas in the shower is common to all of us, perhaps, and certainly we’re all familiar with the creative energy we often get just as we drift into sleep—the hypnagogic state, they call it. Many a writer has met inspiration by locking herself in a bare room, and the rest of the world outside. But I’ve found that I often require even more than that. At Hallmark, in addition to locking myself in a conference room, I had to run around in circles, staring fixedly at the carpet, until some combination of repetition and dizziness turned my brain a little fuzzy, gave it no purchase, and I could collapse on my back and start dreaming. On my computer right now I have a recording of a waterfall that I listen to at high volume on earphones whenever I need to get writing done. I owe it thousands and thousands of words by now. Every time I get a new computer, I’m comically helpless to write on it until I get some sort of recording on it too—a mountain stream will also work, and someday I may even try whalesong. It’s not perhaps essential, but it’s close to it. In my muse’s heroin kit, that’s my favorite needle.
Not now. I’m writing without my waterfall. Because I’m on a train. It’s even better than a waterfall, because on a train, the world whizzes by—so it’s pretty well all blurred out—and the deep thrumming rhythm of the tracks gives me exactly the same feeling I was trying for when I was running around in circles back at Hallmark: a sort of feeling of undifferentiated busyness while sitting still. Because it’s not just the world that can throw off your concentration. Your own body is also a culprit. Lock me in a quiet room, with nothing to distract me, and if I don’t get wrapped up in my writing immediately, I’ll find my own body bothersome. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Do I have to go to the bathroom? What’s that pain in my stomach? Oh, god. Is it cancer? No, that’s ridiculous. Diabetes? MS? Probably not. But now my feet hurt. Is that real or am I doing it to myself?...and before you know it, I’m trapped in a vicious cycle of worry and panic that can only be broken by entering the world again to calm down—I’ll go online to confirm that nothing’s wrong, or I’ll pick up an onion and really notice it until I laugh, or I’ll call a friend. It’s amazing how often the mere sound of a friend’s voice, sitting out there in the real world, reminiscent of a particular joyous time and place and personality, removes all my hypochondria before I even have a chance to ask, “Has my skin looked yellow at all lately?” This is why I think creativity actively hates the real world. In my case at least, if even my body intrudes just by being a body, my brain will think of a dozen swift diseases to teach it a lesson.
But not on a train. In the same way that it helps to have the world blurred out, a consistent little sensation of motion all over gives your body a soothing lack of specificity. Right now my left leg is numb from the knee down. My ass hurts too. And is that an odd pain in my left hand? No matter. All of this is obviously because I’ve been sitting awkwardly on a train seat and writing with this computer in my lap. It’s the train’s fault, not mine. I can actually picture my fear of infirmity rushing out my leg onto the floor of the car, through the wires, transferred to the wheels and onto the track, where the train sloughs it off and it’s soon miles away in a rural meadow. Before I know it, I’ve written 1155 words.
So it’s not that I’m not creative at other times, but I think that on a train, the leg braces come off and I can suddenly surge into flight. Goodbye world, goodbye body, hello brain-fun! I don’t even have to write anything or have particularly good ideas. I’ve had them before, and what I get at the very least, even when I’m just taking the L subway from 8th avenue to 6th , is something like a contact high. I can look around the car at the same old streaky posters and the dully gleaming handles and think, We had one helluva party here once.
Of course, you have to come down some time, and this train is going to pull into Grand Central in under an hour, and I’ll have to pick up my actual computer and walk to my real-world destination. And that place will have its own appeals: its tastes, its smells, its shiny objects. But if I’m lucky, I’ll also be able to sit for a moment with my eyes closed and feel the train inside me the way I felt as a child after my first trip to the ocean. I found then, lying pleasantly achy on the guestroom bed, that after a day of swimming with the waves I could still feel as if I was on the ocean: my body tossed up, pulled to the side, swirled and prodded as if the very air in the room were like some affectionate, nuzzling pet, desperate to express a profound and gracious love that even words would laughably fail to capture. If I’m lucky, today at lunch while I’m nodding and talking and moving objects around, deep inside me I’ll see feel the touch of the train. I swear, if I could feel that way all the time, I could write a novel a month. I really could.