Writing on Transit
I have a confession to make: I’m a public transit writer. There are far more glamorous places I could take my notebook out to. I fantasize about going to Vendome, a café over in the Sunnyside area of Calgary where a lot of local poets can be found, but instead I find myself scribbling while riding a bus or the c-train. There’s nothing sexy about writing on transit. If I was sitting in Vendome I’d have a cappuccino in front of me, I could admire the carefully contrived “rustic charm” of the place, there would be erudite conversations hovering in the air. Instead, the seat next to me has what appears to be gum fused to it, and the drug-addict couple two seats over are screaming about why one of them spent their rent money on getting a fix.
When I’ve told other writer friends about writing on transit they find it odd, or even vaguely impressive. “How do you do it without getting motion-sickness?” they ask. I blame my cast-iron stomach on the years of conditioning I went through as a rural kid in central Alberta. Every morning I rode a yellow school bus for an hour through winding gravel roads in the countryside where I grew up, and there was very rarely a moment that I wasn’t reading a book for that whole trip. It’s not like I don’t get motion-sickness, but I think this rigorous conditioning as a child is what makes me less susceptible to it. It’s like a way more mundane version of the physical training that astronauts go through.
So why write on transit if it’s not glamorous, and if there’s a risk of motion-sickness? Because I spend a hell of a lot time on it. I didn’t have a car when I moved to Calgary, and didn’t really see the point of getting one when I had my university-enforced transit pass. I had to spend long stretches of time sitting in a confined area. I’m a writer. Why wouldn’t I use that time for writing?
Soon I began associating my time on transit with writing. It became the easiest place where I could escape from the distractions of the internet on my computer at home. Writing on transit helped me get out of a lot of slumps when I was working on my master’s thesis. If I was having a bad writing day I’d force myself to get on the c-train and I’d sit there writing from one end of the line to the other until I’d worked out the problem I was having.
Riding on transit gives you a different perspective of the city you live in. In a car you’re shut off from people, you don’t have to confront the narratives of others. You can attempt to block people out on the train, or the bus, but it’s a lot more difficult. What interests me about writing in these spaces is that I’ve learned to embrace interruptions. Occasionally a passenger nearby will pull me out of whatever I’m working on. In the past I used to be annoyed by this, but now I embrace it in my writing. I take a break from the work at hand and write a portrait of that person. Characters I’ve encountered riding transit have begun to find their way into pieces of short fiction I’ve started recently, so their impact on my writing is undeniable.
Now that I’ve completed my studies at the University of Calgary I’m considering buying a car next fall. There’s a lot of ways in which it would make my life simpler, but I worry about how this will affect my writing. Will it be as easy for me to find the right space in my life to set aside for my work? When I started my master’s degree I had this lofty goal of developing a writing schedule: a certain number of hours I’d have to spend writing each day. I’ve learned to accept that I don’t work that way. I’m terribly sporadic, and what might work for me for a certain period of my life might change again just as quickly. What remains constant is the addiction I have to writing, the notion that my sense of well-being is very closely intertwined with how much time I dedicate to scribbling in my notebook. This is what I place my trust in.
Emily Ursuliak is the current fiction editor, and a member of the board, for filling Station magazine and an executive producer for the literary radio show Writer’s Block. This spring she was given the Volunteer of the Year Award by the Alberta Magazine and Publishers Association for her work with filling Station. She recently completed an MA in English at the University of Calgary where she worked on her first novel and collection of poems. You can find her work in Warpaint, Blue Skies Poetry, FreeFall, No Press and the anthology The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual. Her chapbook Braking and Blather (2014) appeared recently from above/ground press.