09 December 2014

Adapting (to the conditions)

I'm writing this on a bus, on a laptop. I have a 75 minute commute to the office each morning, and home again in the evening. Auckland is a spread-out city (think LA, but without the permafrost cloud of pollution). I live in a nice neighborhood, and I work in a nice neighborhood; unfortunately there's about 40 kilometers of road in between.

New Zealand is a car nation, and Auckland is the capital of cars. Public transportation exists, but it's little more than buses. There's no underground (or elevated), no streetcars (they were phased out in the 1960s). There is a rail line, but it's only a single line, and unless you are fortunate enough to live on it (I don't), it serves no benefit to you.

So, for the last couple of years, I've been taking the bus. It's hysterically cheaper than petrol and parking for the car, and until three weeks ago, when I bought a laptop, it gave me guaranteed time built into each day in which to read.

Learning to read while in motion was a new experience for me. For most of my life, I had been a confirmed motion sickness sufferer, a strictly stare-out-the-window-and-wait-until-we-get-there traveler.
  • Reading comics in the car as a child: ill 
  • Reading a magazine on a 747: ill 
  • Reading a plaque while standing on the deck of the HMS Endeavour replica while anchored in port: nautically ill
  • Trying to take photos out of the window of a helicopter 300 feet over Diamond Head: scenically ill
When I started commuting by bus I thought, at 400 kilometers a week, I was going to go out of my mind unless I did something to occupy myself. So I took a book one morning and committed to learning how to read. I was nauseous for about two weeks, and it was hell, but I broke through. Now I can read anything while in motion: books, my Kindle, emails, Facebook, WhatsApp, whatever.


I am a writer, and in the times when I wasn't reading on the bus, I did a lot of thinking about writing; but thinking only, with the frustration that I couldn't do anything. So, after two and a half years, I finally bought a laptop. Reading a book every week or two is all fine and good, but it's NOT writing.

 If I was to code the problem, it might look like this:

$Writer == WHERE words(Output > Input);
Writing on a bus has meant learning to adapt. Probably 95% of all the fiction I've ever written has been done seated at the desk in my office at my house. The conditions for writing there have been finely tuned over the years and are optimal. Writing on a bus is like writing on a rollercoaster; you don't know what lies ahead.

As with learning to read while in motion, it's taken a couple of weeks to learn how to write while in motion, but it hasn't been too difficult. There are the usual distractions: other people and noise (generally forgotten about with a set of earbuds and the right music track). I honestly think I could write anywhere now. In fact, I'm getting adventurous; I today sat in a café in my lunch break, with the laptop and a cup of coffee which, for me, is completely out of the ordinary.

Writing in public, especially on a bus, does have one pitfall: if someone sits right behind you and can read what's on your screen. That's one distraction I find hard to ignore. Yesterday, I was writing a sex scene in my book. I had the impression the woman seated behind was trying to read what I was typing. In my mind, she was busting an eye socket trying to read my purple scarlet prose. In reality, she probably couldn't even make out the words, or even the language -- my font size is pretty small (so that I can see 3 pages spread across the screen). But it's the thought of it that's distracting.
Pick your bus seat wisely.

And while I'm talking about bus seats, allow me to gripe about the dimensions of bus seating on Auckland City buses. I'm 6 foot 1, hardly a contender for the Guinness Book of Records. The seats on buses here were designed for hobbits. Seriously.

A couple of other tips for writing on a bus:
  • Avoid the glare. If you can, sit on the side of the bus that's opposite to the sun.
  • The back seats are where the kids hang out. They like to fidget and kick seat backs. Only sit there if you're researching a story about teen angst.
  • Don't sit near anyone over 40 with an old phone in his/her hand. He/she will use it. Loudly. Everybody else quietly social networks on smartphones.
  • Sit near to people with books (they're the nice people)
  • Know the route: know the corners and potholes where it's a good idea to hang on tightly to your laptop.
How do you write? What distractions can you tolerate, or not? Can you write anywhere?

Be seeing you!


  1. I like to read while commuting. It started early in grade school during hour-long school bus rides (two hours round trip). In the winter, I’d perch virtually atop the heater to warm my skinny self and r-e-a-d!

    My favorite was the Staten Island Ferry where, in the bitterest weather, I’d sit outside in the lee of a bulkhead sheltered just enough to make it worthwhile.

    Writing while taking ground transportation I find more difficult, part of me having to be aware of each jounce and bounce. A long wheelbase like a bus might make for a better writing experience.

    Most of all, I like sitting on my dock reading and writing.

    For what it’s worth, I can’t watch in-flight (or in-transit of any kind) movies. I can’t slip into that world and thus I can’t get anything out of them.

    Congratulations conquering that motion sickness, Stephen!

  2. Stephen, I've spent very little time on buses (other than one l=o=n=g ride from DC to Columbia on a Greyhound that stopped at every bump in the road and crossroads.) My favorite way to write is to think it out while driving and put it on the computer at my desk. I was able to write on the laptop at the Skilled Care Facility daily for the last six months on my mother's life. She slept a lot due to meds and I Wi-Fi'ed my way through A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD.

  3. In the pre-computer days, I used to both read and write on the bus - I wrote by hand, which (given potholes etc.) made it look like I was writing in a foreign language, say, Alteranian. I have also written in restaurants, bars, church (amazing how much you can scribble on the back of a bulletin when the sermon is snooze-worthy), you name it. But my favorite is still at my desk at home. I'm getting soft...

  4. I used to enjoy the amateur detective novels by Marissa Piesman, a NY lawyer who wrote about a NY lawyer. She stopped writing and Mystery Scene asked her why. She explained that she had changed jobs and no longer commuted by subway. It was on those rides that she had written all her books. By pen.

    Sorry, gotta carch a bus to work.

  5. I'm obviously not very adventurous--I've never even tried to write anywhere but at my desk. Congrats to you, Stephen, on making productive use of what would've been dead time, and conquering motion sickness. No mean feat either.

  6. Commuter train! I spent many hours on the Go-Train commuting to Toronto, while frantically writing my on-deadline humour column as the train cars pitched from side to side. The big trick is not to miss your station!
    Enjoyed this post, Stephen.

  7. Leigh, sitting on a dock to write/read sounds wonderful!

    Fran, I also did of lot of thinking about writing while commuting, which was good in its way, but I always felt I was missing that next step (or the immediate action of it, anyway) of typing it out while it was fresh in my mind.

    Eve, I actually tried first writing by hand on the bus, but with the bumps and shakes, it was unreadable. It looked more like an abstract drawing than text. :)

    Rob, there's a lot of material to be gained from riding public transport. People often talk freely and confidentially on a bus, seemingly forgetting there's 30-40 other people listening in.

    Thanks, David. Dead time is indeed what I had begun to think of it as.

    Thanks, Melodie!

  8. Reading I do sitting in a discomforting chair because, if a chair or hammock is comfy cozy, then I tend to get distracted followed by the drooping of eyelids. Same with reading in bed. Discomfort seems to work for me. That's why buses also fit that task for me. Hard plastic seats are a great motivator, even with the jostling.

    Writing is the same. If I'm in a comfortable chair, heat on in the winter or A/C in the summer, it's just an invitation to get distracted or drowsy. In a freezing computer room; in the driver's seat of a car with the steering wheel almost covering my lap parked at my nearest Taco Bell while balancing notebook and burrito; on the tall, hard, wooden chair in the dining room, even standing by the washing machine - yep, then I seem to get myself in order and start writing.

    In the middle of the night when I've been sleeping comfortably, it's not usual for the notebook to be grabbed and, sitting in the cold bathroom with barren feet on the floor, words hit the paper. The urge to get into a more comfortable situation seems to encourage me to write more and quickly.

    Can't explain it. Discomfort seems to work for me.

  9. Bradley, that strikes me as unusual, but you explain how it works. I have written while slouched in a train car of the corner booth of a restaurant, but even that's kind of an odd comfort for me.

    But that drowsy feeling I welcome because it gives me a chance to play and replay the story in my mind, working out the details. Sometimes it's like working while I'm dozing.

  10. Bradley, I know what you mean about not being too comfortable when writing. And I often think I should try to elevate my desk in some way and try writing while standing (I believe it works for some writers). By the way, buses were designed with discomfort in mind.

    Leigh, when I get to drowsy, I can't resist getting off at the next stop: sleep.

  11. Stephen, I drive a delivery truck and I do a lot of writing in pen in a notebook while waiting for customers early in the morning. And the public transit system (I won't refer to it as "service")in Wichita makes Auckland look like San Francisco! ("Designed for hobbits!" Loved it!!) Happy trails!

  12. Two things I forgot to mention. One, I am just under six feet ahd the otherwise wonderful buses here are hard on my knees.

    And I am working on a short story right now called "Late Bus." But i didn't write it on one.

  13. Hi Stephen, I've written in line-ups, at the doctor's office and every place in between. I've used the edges of flyers, the inside of envelopes and paper bags. These days my iPhone takes the quick notes for me.

    Great post, enjoyed it and the resulting comments. See you on Ello or drop by Murder in Common.

    Merry Christmas!
    June Lorraine


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