Writer Sangamithra Iyer’s work was featured in issue #12 of Newtown Literary. Below, she reflects on writing in transit. You can find more of Sangamithra’s work at www.sangamithraiyer.com. She tweets @literaryanimal.
Writing in the In-Between
I am drawn to liminal spaces—the in-between places where boundaries fade. My writing occurs in these intersections. Perhaps, this is why I love writing while in transit.
“Who needs a writing retreat when you have the F train?” I used to tell myself. When I was completing my MFA in creative writing, I was living in Brooklyn, working in Queens during the day and traveling to Manhattan at night for my writing classes. The subway became the closest thing I had to a room (seat) of my own. And in the years that followed, my daily commute was the only time I had to write. I’ve come to appreciate what this mobile office has given me. There is a built-in discipline by coupling the act of writing with another daily routine. Writing in motion also creates a sense of urgency. I write with deliberation until I reach my stop. And even after I’m off the train and going about my day, my subconscious continues to work on my piece, perfecting a phrase or connecting disparate thoughts.
So much of writing is about revision. We don’t always get where we want in one pass. We revisit the same material, and we learn something new each time. When I’m working on the final stages of a story, I like to focus each subway session on polishing a particular aspect or section of the piece, and a final ride for a last look at an essay, article or chapter. Over time, I’ve developed patience and trust with this process and an evolving sense of how many rides I’ll need to get the piece home.
The train is also where I reflect on my progress. As my wonderful writing mentor, Louise DeSalvo would say: “writers are both labor and management.” The subway is not only my place of work, it’s also where I keep track of my goals for the week, what I’ve done and what I want to do: where I’ve been, and where I’m going.
It may seem strange, but subways provide me with the sense of solitude and perception of privacy that I need to write. When I write on the subway in NYC, nobody seems to pay any attention to me. I can retreat to a deep inner world. Sometimes when I am working on difficult material, I cry. Nobody asks me if I am okay. I wipe my tears and continue to type. I am grateful for their indifference, what I perceive as respect for my writing space. In the crowded trains of New York, I can pursue this deeply private act in very public space.
I moved to Queens a few years ago and my daily subway commute is much shorter. I now view trips to the other boroughs as mini-writing retreats. As my essay in Newtown Literary details, so much of the past year for me has been has been schlepping to various doctor’s appointments for my health, and veterinary appointments for my elderly rescued pit bull. These waiting rooms and subway rides were the only places I wrote last year.
After such an intense year, I received a month-long writing residency in the south of France overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. This was an amazing gift, and I knew one of things I wanted to do was process everything that happened the year before with my work, my body and my dog. However, my plane was delayed out of JFK due to the bomb cyclone. I decided to take Amtrak to Boston and fly out of Logan airport to Marseille. It was in these hours on the train and the plane to my residency that I found the space to reflect and write what became my Newtown Literary essay, “Trying,” about invisible labor of the in-between.