Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Where Writers Write: Gerald Brennan

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Gerald Brennan. 

Gerald is the author of ResistanceZero Phase: Apollo 13 on the Moon, and, most recently, Public Loneliness: Yuri Gagarin’s Circumlunar Flight, which was largely composed on bitter winter morning commutes. Go ahead and tweet him @jerry_brennan

Where Gerald Brennan Writes

Train travel’s supposed to be inherently romantic, full of magic and wonder and old-time adventure—yet another thing (like, say, typewriters) that writers are expected to enthusiastically endorse. Amtrak, for instance, recently staged a social media campaign for a writer’s residency to be conducted on the nation’s railways. And I’ll admit, despite the well-worn seediness of their trains, I kinda wanted to be picked. I’ve already ridden many of their major routes out of Chicago—from Chicago to Portland, to Los Angeles, to New York, to Jackson and Grand Rapids and Milwaukee and St. Louis and Ann Arbor—and I’m pretty damn happy with a laptop and a power cord and one of their café-car cans of Red Bull, writing and listening to music and watching the scenery. But I’m a husband and a father of two nowadays, with roles and responsibilities and a regular 9-to-5, so most of my writing’s done on a much less exciting train: the Purple Line.

It’s been a process-of-elimination pick. I used to favor coffee shops—Newcity once made a list of the five Chicago coffee shops whose regulars were most likely to form a doomsday cult, and I’d been frequenting three of them—but the aforementioned responsibilities now keep me home in my free time. Writing at night either leaves me too amped to go to bed (if it’s going well) or conking out pathetically at the keyboard (if it’s not), and as George Marshall once said, nobody’s ever had a good idea after 3:00 in the afternoon. (Plus there’s the whole being-emotionally-available-for-my-family thing to consider—when my daughter toddles over to the den, I can either pick her up, which of course makes her want to start typing her own disjointed manuscripts, or ignore her and feel like a complete ass, even more so than usual.) Sometimes the lunch hour works in a pinch, but it’s messy and you have to interrupt your meal, and meetings can crop up last-minute and pinch you out of your time anyway. (There’s also a famous Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing. I love having written.” And writing at lunch compresses the “having written” feeling into the second half of the day.) So I like to write early. But I also like to work out early, and I don’t like to get up insanely early, so home’s not always an option.

Enter the Purple Line.


“Now that she’s back in the atmosphere, with drops of Jupiter in her hair, hey hey…” Oh wait. Wrong Train. But now you’ve got that song in your head. Haha, sucker!

We moved from the South Loop to Rogers Park a year ago, and in addition to my other time constraints, I found myself stuck on the CTA for a good chunk of my waking hours. But once I realized it was my best shot at uninterrupted free time, I resolved to write there. At first, I stuck to pen-and-paper, fearful of electronics thieves, and of regular commuters who might find a laptop obnoxious. But soon I saw others with laptops, and I figured, “Fuck it.”

In the old coffee shop days, I had to develop a routine to maximize my chances at productivity. I’d get my seat first (close to the outlet if possible) and mark my territory by leaving something too substantial to ignore, but not so valuable that I’d mind having it stolen. (Usually a sweater.) THEN I’d go to the bathroom, and THEN I’d make a token purchase and sit down and start writing. (No WiFi codes, no nothing, and a set of headphones so people knew I was trying to tune them out.) On the Purple Line, too, I soon had to construct procedures to maximize my chances at productivity.

There’s always a chance the train’ll be full by the time it gets to Howard, so I started paying attention to where the doors normally open on an 8-car train, and standing there.

purple man

Usually right where this guy’s standing. Outta my way, punk!

This gives me a fighting chance at getting a prime seat without throwing too many elbows. I figure the other commuters jockeying for seats are motivated by reasons less altruistic than mine. They’re probably not writing for the greater benefit of society—they’re probably just trying to sit down for some selfish reason, like personal comfort. Still, I figure it’s better to jostle around and be an ass on the platform to get where I need to be. Then when the doors open, I win the seat fair and square.

What constitutes a prime seat, you ask?

On the old-style trains, it’s the little single outward seat at the end—secluded, but with space in front. This seat, right here:

perfect seat

Ahh, blessed solitude!

Failing that, I used to go for the cramped parallel seats at the end of the car. This way I could still conceal my laptop from any would-be thieves.

cramped seat

If you squeeze in here and wedge your laptop’s top edge under the seatback and look straight ahead at all times, nobody will know you’re holding something valuable.

But then I realized that this fear—that someone will steal your precious, precious words—is the hallmark of the amateur, the person who’s more obsessed with registering their work with the United States Copyright Office than they are with actually giving it to other human beings to read and respond. Better to sit in a more open seat and be comfortable. And I figure if someone steals my laptop, I’ll lessen the sting by telling myself they’re an enthusiastic advance reader. Heck, maybe I’ll even post a Craigslist “Missed Connections” post asking for feedback.

So on the old trains, if I can’t get the covert single seats, I’m looking for a spot near the door, or better yet, in the first parallel row. This way I can put my bag in front of me (OK, on the seat, until all other available seats are gone and standing people start giving me dirty looks) and whip out my laptop and write like a madman until I have to start putting my laptop away at Merchandise Mart in preparation for the transfer at Clark and Lake.

open seat

These anonymous commuters helpfully coordinated with one another and the train, chosing a muted color scheme that makes for a more pleasing shot.

Now on the newer trains, EVERY seat has ample space in front, and there are even a couple seats that are free from the annoying vertical poles.

free seat

If you’re headin’ for this seat, I’m throwin’ some elbows!

Plus, there’s the holy grail: a truly spacious handicapped spot.

holy grail

Outta my way, rolling people! This seat is MINE!

On snowy mornings, I sometimes look up long enough to catch a few beautiful glimpses of the city, so there’s still a bit of the old train romance. But usually I’m hunched down, focused. Unlike in the old coffee shop days, I know I only have a few dozen minutes to get something done, so there’s an odd mix of routine and urgency, like Groundhog Day crossed with a bad Denzel Washington movie. I have to ignore the jostling commuters and the annoying panhandlers (and, yes, the pleading eyes of the wheelchair-bound) so I can write something worthwhile while the commuter train hurtles unstoppably towards its destination. (Or stoppably, if they’re running too many Brown Line trains and it’s congested from Belmont on in.)

So if you see me writing frantically on the train, remember—I’m fighting the clock and the indifferent commuters so I can get something done—something worthwhile, people! Something that will benefit all of humanity!

Sorry about the elbows.

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