The train represented that ‘third place’ between work and home, a space for both productivity and relaxation. It could hum with the ambient sounds of a coffee shop — a scientifically proven pitch for productivity — yet lull people to sleep in the quiet car. While most passengers relaxed in private, their habits were all too revealing. Snorers, nail-biters, and loud eaters all advertised their flaws in public space.
Paul spent the past four years commuting in and out of New York City on the Metro-North Railroad. While most people considered the commute routine, Paul viewed it as a journey. Instead of pursuing the structured procrastination of work email, he used his free time to watch people, to catch up on reading, and to listen to music. He wore a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to avoid fated eavesdropping, especially on Friday nights when the entire train turned into a rowdy bar car. Paul nonetheless enjoyed all the stimulation.
As a noticer, he rode the train with the eyes of a restless photojournalist. He liked to document everyday life: the Wall Street executive folding the newspaper in quarters, a teacher fastidiously marking up papers in red pen, the intern shuffling between playlists on her iPad, and the 9-to-5-er using the Fordham Station tunnel reflection to preen their hair. The mobile camera condemned Paul to record and remix the world around him. He felt compelled to recast his surroundings into new patterns and abstractions. A wannabe outsider, he piloted a future that strived to fight genres.
But the train also offered him one of the few moments in the day where he could disconnect and prime his brain for the day ahead. First, he wrote for five minutes in his journal trying to answer the eternal question — ‘what would make today great?’ Then, he meditated to induce a slow, purposeful experience to link his presence up to the train’s centered locomotion.
Every day, the New Haven Line slithered through the woods, passing colonial style homes before crossing into graffitied Bronx ghettoes. The train traveled over the Harlem River Bridge into Manhattan at 125th street before sliding underground into the Park Avenue tunnel to dock at Grand Central Station.
Paul liked the way railways seemed to skim the world, stitching together the surrounding landscape like pictures in an Instagram feed while the experience on the guts of the train was unedited and all too real like an Instagram Story. Every passenger adhered to the mores of their business world. Yet, the train was the engine of progress, the great social equalizer among the plurality of classes.
Paul looked for commonalities amid business people, custodians, and tourists in this shared space. Regardless of their bank account, everyone occupied the same-sized seat, a pitch of 39 inches b 23 inches in width, still roomier than most airline economy seats. On the Metro North, there was no such thing as the first class. Everyone was a temporary resident with Wifi.
Nearly every passenger stared into an electronic widget of some sort annihilating space and time of the world around them. No one appeared to care what reality they were living in as long as technology and the internet inured them to boredom. Paul hashtagged the phenomena–#neverlookup–to his Instagram photos although he too fell victim to screen culture.
Train-spotting bled into all Paul’s work. It helped him see patterns of conformity in all movements of capitalist realism. Climbing the ladder meant jumping through hoops and doing what you were told. While the corporate racetrack paid the bills, it drained creativity. Paul often felt too tired to “rage into his art” after a day of obedience. Work beat the rebelliousness out of him.
His persistence ebbed and flowed. Like a true millennial, he refused to become another cog in the system yet he couldn’t quite nail down what his career had in store for him. The only thing he knew was that mediocrity was the antithesis to leading a meaningful life. At the end of the day, he wanted to do something that mattered.
He had reached an inflection point in his career. Unlike his friends peaking in their thirties, he was concaving downward. Working in the internet space shifted life too often to make five-year plans. He needed to get ahead of the next software upgrade; to be nimble and adapt, and fight like hell to develop a lifestyle that allowed him the freedom to do what he wanted.
One of the supposed answers to Paul’s mid-life crisis, at least in his head, was to write a book. The only thing stopping him was making time and doing the work. He struggled in facing the resistance but knew at the end of the day, the only thing that counted is if you could finish. People only remember what ships.
One November morning Paul picked up a newspaper that had been left on the seat. One of the headlines read “Now Boarding: Amtrak Writers Residency.” Amtrak was gifting authors multi-stop tours across the United States. Paul felt excited but instantly dismayed by his lack of merit. He operated a blog in which he was the sole subscriber; the rest were paid bots. He built himself up just as quickly as he tore himself down. Stuck in a crisis of confidence, he never treated himself like a friend.
The web leveled the playing field — you no longer needed permission to call yourself an artist — but it also unleashed mediocrity and created more noise than signal. The SoundCloud and Instagram generation seemed to over filter their work, making it all sound and look the same. You were better off making something unique for the long-tail instead of striving to become a celebrity in a hits business.
Ever the amafessional or well-informed professional, Paul was more than happy to steal the travel writing concept to fund his own Amtrak experience. He googled Amtrak routes and discovered a West Coast adventure called the ‘Coast Starlight.’ It traveled daily between Seattle and Los Angeles. Paul’s brother lived in Los Angeles so he planned on staying with him there for a few days.
He reserved his ticket online, snagging one of the last sleeper rooms on the bottom car. He emailed his boss to let him know he’d be gone the first week in December; days he had to use anyway before they expired at year-end. He forwarded the email to his girlfriend to get it on their shared Google calendar.
Little did he know, this thirty-six-hour train ride was going to be an experience of a lifetime. But would he finish the book he so desired to write?
I see blogs as projects for unique avenues of thinking.
This blog is my thinking blog. It focuses on what I’m reading and chewing on. It’s a collection provocative ideas and observations.
My music blog bombtune.com is like my music shelf. It’s an ongoing library of new music finds from the current year. The post art is just as significant as the music. I like to dig around on the artist sites and social networks to select images of the musician. The stream — whether it’s from Bandcamp or SoundCloud, contains the song/album art.
My fadesin.com blog focuses on creative ways to respond to prompts. WordPress does a great job in galvanizing its community by inspiring people to show their angle on a variety of topics and photography challenges. For the latter, rummage through my Google Photos to see what works.
Meanwhile, my Tumblr blog is more or less an aggregator. I cross-post there but also play natively within the platform by posting quotes and resharing cool GIFs from others. I also use my Instagram to dice up the array of posting.
Nevertheless, all of feeds tie together. They are ways of seeing, of which nothing becomes clear until I write it down and publish it.
“Blogs are like hammers. They are tools for building stuff.”
Blogs permit me to show my work. The writing can be repetitive and thematic, which often means I’m trying to nail down the nugget or UBI (unifying big idea) of my approach. But at the end of the day, I want to say ‘this is what I made today.’
In short, blogging is another way to connect the dots on screen.
A blog helps you solidify your thinking. But the practice of blogging is both a freedom and a constraint.
It’s liberating to say whatever you want, even if no one reads it. How dare someone discovers you! At the same time, there’s a fear that what’s written isn’t polished enough to be published.
But that’s what blogs are: rough drafts. They’re good enough. They are the blank piece of paper, a sandbox where people work out ideas. Blogs are full of contradictions and imperfections.
The fear is that your words may be wrong or misunderstood. No one likes to be called out. But that’s also part of the excitement; the ability to catch someone’s criticism.
Bloggers are already naked. They can even blog in their underwear. Bloggers notice and give other people something to discuss.
Bloggers raise their hand before they are ready. They pick themselves, professionals, past success, or not. They have a long-term willingness to figure it out all out and change the world while no one notices.
“Keep ’em typing!” says Kenneth Alexander, a typewriter repairer with over forty years of experience. He works for California Typewriter in San Francisco, one of the last surviving typewriter repair shop in the United States.
California Typewriter is also the name of a aliforniatypewritermovie.com/”>new documentary out from American Buffalo Pictures, which highlights “the portrait of artists, writers, and collectors who remain steadfastly loyal to the typewriter as a tool and muse, featuring Tom Hanks, John Mayer, David McCullough, Sam Shepard, and others.”
The life of a computer is 3-5 years. The life of a typewriter is a century. The typewriter once made writing faster and louder. Today, the typewriter’s nostalgic noise may be the only reason people want to use them again. Says typewriter surgeon Paul Schweitzer who still fixes 20 of them a week from his Flatiron office:
“If you want to concentrate, if you want to write in your own mind, write with a typewriter. You see the words hit the paper. There’s no distractions.”
Tom Hanks grew so nostalgic of the typewriting in the digital age he recreated it as an app, eponymously named the Hanx writer. “I wanted to have the sensation of an old manual typewriter – I wanted the sound of typing if nothing else…cause I find it’s like music that spurs along the creative urge. Bang bang clack-clack-clack puckapuckapuckapucka… I wanted the ‘report’ of each letter, each line.”
Part of the typewriter’s appeal is its rejection of the multi-tasking and impulsiveness behaviour of ‘Generation Thumbs‘ on iPhone and iPads. The beauty of slowing down and Internet-less device is avoiding distractions enhancing your mind’s focus, developing a concentration that many readers experience with the Kindle. Note, however, you can replicate the pace of a typewriter on your phone if you type with one hand.
Don’t expect the typewriter to enjoy the same comeback success story as vinyl– typewriter enthusiasts are a small niche. But do expect the typewriter to be live on in new formats, whether it’s an app or a distraction-free writing tool like the Hemingwrite “with a continuous wi-fi connection to your Evernote account.”
When you’re on the go, you want apps that are quick to open and quick to post. You want to stay away from apps that require more than three clicks. By the time you get in then, you’ll have lost your idea or train of thought.
Here are a few lightweight writing apps that are useful tools for writing on the mobile device. I’ve ranked them by the from the fastest to the slowest it takes to jot something down.
Drafts. It opens up a new page every time you open the app. Drafts is the Swiss Army knife of mobile note-taking. It can export in any format and to any other network. Its countless options can get complicated though.
Byword. It opens up into a clean, minimalist writing environment. There are less export options to share and format unless you pay an extra $5.
ia Writer Pro. This app is excellent for long-form distraction free writing. It offers a bunch of view and formatting options as well. It even has a syntax button so you can watch your adjectives.
You can write in Markdown in all three apps. All apps sync through Dropbox as well. The notes app on the iPhone is also an excellent free option for getting down text quickly but doesn’t offer the same exporting and formatting tools.
Lightweight apps feed the overweight apps like Evernote where information gets uploaded for archiving. You can use Evernote to take mobile notes, but it’s a bit heavier than writing on note-focused apps. It takes Evernote too long to open up a blank page.
Ideas can be ephemeral if you don’t write them down to remember them now. Start with some of the apps listed above, so you catch everything and move on.
PS: I’ll write another day about some mobile photography apps that help streamline the process, from capturing to editing to publishing.
Sit and think about what you want to say. No computer. No pen and paper.
Because writing requires daily practice, doing it can get boring and predictable. It helps to have a system of hacks to drive the writing habit along the way.
Whether you’re writing a book, a blog post, or in a journal, writing is the most efficient way to purge your thoughts from the darkest and dormant corners of the brain. Writing is like talking to your therapist, a bicep curl that strengthens familiarity with your mind.
“I find that by putting things in writing I can understand them and see them a little more objectively. For words are merely tools and if you use the right ones you can actually put even your life in order.” – Hunter S. Thompson
You don’t have to be a published or aspiring author to write, nor do you have to be a student. Writing is a system for coping with the vicissitudes and celebrations of life. People that write well think well because it’s hard to clarify thoughts. The writer’s main challenge, therefore, is to find ways to keep on doing it.
I write because I’m bored and writing is productive. I write because of all the arts it’s the easiest to do. All I need is a pen or keyboard or paper or computer. I write because of all the things I make it may be the only thing that lasts. The Internet archives every word, the good, bad, and mediocre. I own all these words.
I write because like a DJ, it gives me an opportunity to combine disparate things and share it with the Internet. Writing is learning. I write because I want to make sense of my surroundings. An attentive mind finds pleasure in the dullest moments.
I write to connect the dots between the now, space, and time. I write for the future. I write because it motivates me to do other things.
I write to investigate life. Writing opens up the doors to new possibilities. The more I write, the more ideas I have to play with. Writing is not my job, but it is my experiment. I refuse to see a blank page.
Because what you don’t use, you lose. I wrote regularly for four years in college and learned a lot. It was hard, it felt like pulling teeth, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it at the time, but it made me better. I don’t want to lose what I worked for.
Because it helps clarify my thoughts. It forces me to take a jumbled mess of half-formed ideas and try to make something coherent out of it. It’s easy to sail through life with your head in the clouds and never have a strong opinion on anything. Never look inside yourself and work to improve. I don’t want to be that person.
Writing is a way to connect the dots, to clarify and reconfirm thoughts, and to own up to your own opinion. Writing is painful and risky but worthy of the consistency. You snooze you lose. Don’t give up on writing.