Writing in Transit

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mural on the side of Marcus Books in Oakland, CA

"Hi there, miss, what are you reading?"

I rarely just sit on the subway. More often, my face is buried in a book or I am scribbling away in an oversized notebook, causing passengers around me to squirm as they try to read my loopy handwriting (yes, I see you!). Where others use Ipod headphones to block out strangers, I just pretend to be absorbed. I returned the man's gaze with a less-than-amused look.

"It's about Arkansas in the 1950s," I replied.

The book was really about a murder in Arkansas in 1955, but the funny smirk on his face told me that that wasn't what he was interested in. He launched into a disconnected monologue about how it was important to learn about the past, anything to keep on talking to me. I turned back to the book. Yet another awkward catcall in NYC, yet another moment when I disappear into the rabbit hole of good writing.

I recently finished Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, most of which was read in transit. It was such a necessary read for me -- I was sucked into the main character's world, the parts I could relate to and the ones I didn't. For a very brief overview, the book is about a Nigerian immigrant to the United States who becomes a blogger about race and being non-American black in the US. It's also kind of a love story. But, as several people expressed at a dinner party last Tuesday, that's not really the point. The point, we reasoned, was to tell a political narrative using some good word choice and a set of relatable characters.

I'm writing a short story to gear up for National Novel Writing Month and these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me. If I could reduce the story into a single sentence, it would be: "two childhood friends are forced to say a painful goodbye." But the "message" is more like understanding how we deal with intimacy and estrangement in our everyday lives. It's obvious more in the feeling of the story than the text. And yet I'm still crossing out sections and drawing arrows every third word, nervous that I am not striking the right balance. It's a luxury to be confident, there is no doubt.

When the man gets up at the next station, I exhale heavily through my nose. I had been reading the same sentence over and over again, wondering whether he would try to talk to me again. It crosses my mind that I worry a lot about things that I can't control. I put the book away and dig into my bag for a pen. Sometimes, you just have to react.