Image Source: StockSnap / Denys Argyriou
Of all the strange and wonderful things I've done in my life, writing a romance novel on a train ranks chief among them.
In late January, I found myself sitting in a sleeper car on an Amtrak train, whizzing through the snow-blanketed Sierra Nevadas, sipping a cold beer and working on the final chapter of my romance novel, Constant Craving. I'd been one of 24 people chosen for the Amtrak Writers Residency, a program for creative professionals.
Most of the people chosen were literary fiction writers, playwrights, and poets. I think I was one of the only, if not the only, genre fiction writer. The purpose of the residency was to give artists a unique place to write; it was originally suggested by novelist Alexander Chee, who said in an interview that his favorite place to write was on a train.
When I was chosen for the program in the Summer of 2016, I was a bit incredulous. Me, a romance writer and reporter? I wasn't writing deep think pieces — in my day job, I write about tragedies, disasters, and alligator attacks in Florida. In my fiction life, I write about . . . well, sexytimes.
But I was chosen, and Amtrak did want me to ride the rails and write whatever I wanted, be it fiction or nonfiction.
So the gist of the program was this: I would ride around the country on a train for two weeks and follow my muse. Pretty sweet, right? I picked a somewhat circular route around the country to coincide with a writing conference in New York, overstuffed my little rolling suitcase, and asked my readers for their favorite snack recipes.
Off I went.
From my home state of Florida I headed to New York, then Chicago, west to San Francisco, south to Los Angeles, and then over to New Orleans. I stopped in each of those cities. I had dinner with writers in New York, pizza with my dad in Oakland, high tea with my critique partner in Chicago, and brunch with a friend in Los Angeles. Truly the stuff memories are made of.
There was also lots of alone time, something I craved.
During one of the few pockets of internet access (more on that later) I posted a photo to Instagram of the beer and the snow and my computer.
"This is also vacation," I wrote.
I turned to my computer and revised and rewrote a couple of pages, then paused to stare out the window at the incredible view. That's when it hit me: what was I doing, staring at a screen when immeasurable beauty was all around me? Why wasn't I acting like I was on vacation?
The train glided through sun-dappled valleys and forests covered in sparkling snow. As a Florida girl, I was captivated by the scenery. I closed my laptop.
An hour slipped by, then two. The light shifted to that golden, diffuse hue that only the West Coast can offer, and I allowed my mind to go blank.
I didn't get more writing done that day.
Although I was there to write, I ended up learning an invaluable lesson and accepted it for several days of the trip.
I did nothing.
For a chunk of my trip — from Reno to New Orleans — I was just an observer, and it felt amazing.
Doing nothing allowed me to eventually finish my novel soon after I returned from the train trip. Doing nothing gave me ideas for new novels. Doing nothing but move through the country in a giant metal car, through dusty Texas towns and past the shimmering Pacific Ocean, refilled my creative well.
Here are three things I learned while writing (and not writing) my novel on an Amtrak train.
It's healthy to occasionally reflect on how hard you work.
Since 2014, I've juggled both my journalism job and my fiction. During the day, I write news, then I come home, make dinner, walk the dogs, and spend an hour with my husband — and after all that, I write a thousand words of fiction. Every night. My particular superpower is focus, and I often overlook and ignore that I've accomplished a lot. Often I concentrate on what more I need to do: the next news article, the next milestone for my books sales, the next manuscript.
Being on the train and disconnected from my daily routine forced me to reflect on how far I've come. I think as women, we don't give ourselves enough credit for what we've achieved. We're often too busy planning for the next achievement. The trip was a reminder that I must celebrate the past achievements, too.
Always trust your gut.
In late 2014, after I wrote my first novel, I began another. It was about a newspaper publisher who is trying to save her dying family business. It's gone through various rewrites and revisions in over a two-and-a-half-year period. There were several points during that time that I could have tossed the manuscript in a virtual trunk — God knows I wanted to. An earlier version was rejected by some publishers, a judge in a contest hated one chapter, one editor questioned whether any romance fans would want to read about a female newspaper publisher. But I loved the book and the story. Now that it's finished, I think it's the best thing I've written and I'm going to trust in that feeling because I think readers will love it, too.
Sometimes, you need to do exactly what others tell you not to do, especially when it comes to following your creative muse.
The world will be OK without you for a while.
In my day job, I'm a journalist with the Associated Press in Florida. My days are busy, covering strange news, terrible natural disasters, and horrific tragedies. In 2016 I wrote little bit of everything: Hillary Clinton and female voters, the death of Fidel Castro, the Pulse nightclub shooting. I'm also an indie romance author, which means I tackle all aspects of publishing myself: the writing, hiring of editors and cover designers, and marketing. Plus, I'm married with two dogs. So, I'm always doing something. I'm always writing or reading or frantically checking my to-do list.
Going on the train and writing fiction meant I could focus on, well, me. I didn't travel with anyone, and while I've traveled alone around the world, I haven't in a few years. Relying only on myself to haul my luggage and get from one place to the next forced me to live in the moment.
Another bonus: for large swaths of the country, there was no WiFi or cell service. If I wanted to sleep late and not read the day's news, I could. If I wanted to day drink and not check my Amazon book sales, nobody cared. If I felt like staring out the window for hours, there was nothing to distract me.
I did all of those things and it felt decadent at first. Part of me was a little worried everything would fall apart while I slacked off. Guess what? Nothing happened. My job as a journalist was waiting when I returned. My fiction sales marched on without me. My husband and the dogs didn't starve to death.
I'm not saying to ignore all responsibilities forever, but unplugging and slacking can be good for one's soul. Essential, even.
Since returning home from my train journey, I've found myself longing for that unplugged solitude, and I've been researching trips. The train from Seattle to San Francisco might be just the thing I need.