Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Getting Life into Writing

Life, Life, LIFE!

Whether the words, spaces, and punctuation marks appear in The Iliad or Don Quixote, a fluffy sportswear catalogue or a dense computer manual, the goal of all writing is to get some tiny bit of the gargantuan energy we call life onto the page so that other humans can read it and say, "Yes, that writing describes the life I know."

For instance: as I write this, it's 11:30 in the morning of July 23, 2015. I'm riding on the #1 line of New York's subway system on my way to the 242nd Street station in the Bronx, one day in a summer of trips to play folk music at a summer camp. The train has just come out of a tunnel a few blocks south of 125th street into a gorgeous summer morning, the sunlight golden, the air dry and crystal clear. The car is less than half full of passengers, but one man for his own private reasons stands by a door.

After a stop or two, we head back into the light-dotted darkness of a tunnel. As we approach the 157th Street station, the train slows down a bit and the driver gives a few warning blasts of its horn, why I don't know. We roll into the station, and a man's voice with an Irish brogue announces something that the speaker's hiss and crackle makes unintelligible. After a brief stop, we roll again at reduced speed.

Now there are only nine people in the car; many of the orange seats are empty. Two young Asian men sit a few seats to my left chatting quietly. Just past the train's middle door, an African-American woman in a maroon dress sits with her eyes closed. I wonder if she is asleep, but her upright posture tells me no. At the next stop an older white man gets on and sits down opposite me. A fresh bandaid is stuck on the inside of his elbow — has he just come from having his blood drawn? He's wearing glasses and a gold wristwatch, a blue t-shirt, black shorts, and brown loafers; his mustache is well trimmed; carefully combed wisps of hair try but fail to cover his gleaming pate. He is reading a piece of paper that looks like a medical report. He looks serious.

The train is now crawling; oops, suddenly it's rocketing. The African-American woman gets off. Four people are now grouped at that end of the car: a heavy-set Hispanic housewife with a wheeled basket, a young red-haired woman checking her make-up, a young fellow in a blue button-down shirt and jeans, and a tough-looking guy with tattoos up and down both arms who fiddles intently with his mobile phone.

At Dyckman Street we again emerge from the tunnel. A man with a black beard, white t-shirt, brown shorts, and gray sneakers gets on at 207th Street, sits down and mops his bald head with a blue towel. We rattle across the bridge over Spuyten Duyvil, crawl the last few stops, then halt for good at 242nd Street. I get off, descend the metal stairs to the street and start my trek up the hill to the camp where, with a little band of old pals, I'll play a concert of folk songs for the campers.

This description of my morning subway ride has, I believe, a down-to-earth accuracy. I took notes as I rode, and in turning those notes into prose, I've purposely used ordinary words and sentence constructions so that you, from your own experience of similar trips, may easily see and hear what I saw and heard.

Yet I know picture of daily life is woefully incomplete. I've sketched a few dress and physical details of several passengers and noted the train's orange seats, but I didn't describe anybody's shoes or point out that some of those orange seats were light orange, some dark orange. I put in the toot of the train's horn, but where are the clickety-clacks and rumbles of its steel wheels? Where is the banner of ads unfurled along the length of the car just above eye level? Where are the "Do Not Lean Against the Door" signs, the shiny poles for standing passengers to hold on to? Since it was a sunny day and we were rolling north, when we were above ground the sun came streaming in the east-side windows, making bright rectangles of light on the car's black floor. I didn't paint those, nor did I describe how, when we passed tall buildings standing beside the track, those bright rectangles were momentarily eclipsed.

I'm also dissatisfied because the details I do give obscure a notable aspect of my summer commute to the Bronx: its recurrent rhythms. Far more permanent in my memory than the old man with the bandaid on his arm or the tattooed man playing with his mobile phone is that for six weeks I made this trip five days a week. Each of those thirty trips was unique in every detail, but even as they happened they began to blend in my mind as a wash of events more noteworthy for their sameness than their uniqueness. Often as I passed familiar landmarks—the 96th Street station where I switched from the express to the local, the Spuyten Duyvil bridge—I'd think, "Wow, I was here yesterday and the day before yesterday, and today everything is different but everything is the same!" That day as we played our concert, I fluffed one chord on "This Land is Your Land" that I'd strummed perfectly the day before, but on both days the song rolled on, the campers sang along, and Woody Guthrie's stalwart vision came alive one more once: "This land was made for you and me!"

Where in my sketch, moreover, are the thoughts and emotions of the passengers and me? I know that I was anxious to get to the camp on time, so every time the train slowed down I'd think, "C'mon, c'mon, I don't have all day you know." What was the old man with the bandaid thinking and feeling? Had his blood test revealed a life-changing illness? Was the African-American woman asleep, and if so what was she dreaming? What had made the bald man so sweaty that his head needed drying? Life had brought me and everyone in the car to this particular, unique moment; we all had hopes and plans for what we'd do next, but none of us knew for sure what the future might bring.

And life continued in the world outside our one subway car. When we rode on the elevated sections of the subway line, the bustling life of Bronx below us was nakedly on display: store clerks carrying out "20% OFF!" signs to attract the passers-by walking and stopping and turning on the sidewalks; cars and trucks waiting at red lights then honking the moment the lights turned green. Looking west I could get occasional glimpses of the Palisades across the Hudson River in New Jersey; looking east I could see cars stopping and going on the New York Thruway; the buildings of Lehman College made elegant profiles against the cloud-flecked sky.

In my imagination I could see still further. Iron ore dug from Minnesota's Mesabi Range had become the steel wheels on which my fellow passengers and I rolled; gasoline refined from oil drilled in wells deep below the Texas prairie and Arabian sands powered the cars on the city streets and thruway; the foods that powered the people on those streets and in those cars came from California, Florida, and Brazil, and people in China, India, and midtown Manhattan had sewn the clothes they wore. And above us all the sun and moon and stars and planets and galaxies and nebulae spun on courses appointed for them a billion eons ago...

...and all that, and so so so much more is still only a teeny tiny corner of life. Our goal as writers is to get as much of life into our words, spaces, and punctuation marks as we possibly can. What are we waiting for? Let's get to it!


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 19th 2015, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Michael, I understand your desire to put more color into your narrative, but it depends upon how it is to be used. If you slow the action down with jeweled prose, the readers my well trip on it. If you give them a chance to reflect on how good the writing is, they may wind up that reflection by getting up to get a beer. And maybe - not coming back to the story?

It all depends upon the length of your work and how much drive you want to put into it. I love slow-moving works with imagery. Some folks don't. You have to sail the winds as you write, I think. If it's a short story, you surely wouldn't want to expand what you wrote. If it's a 'Day in the Life of . . . ', you would.

Perhaps that's why I'm a genre novelist. I love good writing, but also love BEING read by people.

Bertie (R.A. MacAvoy)
Wednesday August 19th 2015, 9:05 AM
Comment by: rudy
What a contrast of N.Y. vs So. Calif. Same sort of trip you make daily only locked in my moving cubical, bumper to bumper at 60+ and cursing all the screwballs cutting in and out of the endless traffic doing 80+.
Thanks for your imagery and fine writing...it'll make this morning's run less stressful.
Wednesday August 19th 2015, 9:59 AM
Comment by: Cheryl H.
Loved this essay--its content and its structure. Thank you for sharing. Cheryl
Wednesday August 19th 2015, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Krisi
Thanks for sharing. I found it inspiring.
Thursday August 20th 2015, 7:46 PM
Comment by: Donna B.
Thanks for the "music," Michael of life and the way it sings when written well.
Friday August 28th 2015, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
I enjoyed this. I absolutely felt my own experience of riding the NYC subway.

Because race is so much a part of the conversation at this point in our history, I was conscious of your choices to use ethnic descriptors, starting with Irish brogue as a foreshadow to your next paragraph depicting the brilliant diversity of New York. But after noting the African-American woman again and the heavyset Hispanic woman in the next paragraph, you stopped, yet three more people joined in that para without an ethnic descriptor. Which told me that you are most likely white, which of course I saw when I reached your picture.

I think that your diversity paragraph was lovely, and I am not arguing for leaving such descriptors out in order to pretend that "race doesn't matter." I guess I would say that after creating a little jewel like that that uses such descriptors, we have to be really conscious about when we stop and leave the race choice to the imagination of the reader. And as a writer, I think that we need to do that at a point that will not indicate an unconscious bias about what the "neutral" race position is. For my money, the AA woman could have been "the upright woman," which was the most interesting thing about her, and we didn't need to know the ethnicity of the housewife. That would have been a sacrifice in the picture of diversity, I acknowledge, but perhaps worth it to avoid the tell. Thank you for sharing this piece!
Monday September 7th 2015, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Chrissy Lang (Brisbane Australia)
I just loved this piece of writing. Your descriptions made me "see, hear and feel" your experiences on the subway- an experience I hope to emulate
when i visit your country some day.
Chrissy ( in Australia)
Monday September 7th 2015, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for your comments! I'd like to comment on two comments, the first from Roberta M, and the second to last from Gena W.

A major goal of nearly all writing is to get a person in a place: a woman on a tennis court, a five-year-old in a kindergarten class. I wrote about my subway ride in detail to show that even if we write at length about the people and places we see in the world, there is so much more we could write. Yes, if we let our descriptions run on and on, we can slow down the action of a story, but for my taste, it's better to paint our characters and the world they live in than to leave them disembodied sketches living in a world left up to the imagination of the reader--and as I see it, Homer, Cervantes, Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Dreiser agree with me.

To respond to Gena W: yes, adding or not adding race indications to descriptions of characters is a sensitive issue today, and yes, characters in fiction and non-fiction who are African-American are more likely to have their race and color pointed out than white people. But in my piece I was not trying for diversity; diversity was just there in the subway as a matter of fact. I did call one man "an old white man," and mentioned "two young Asian men." And, as I just pointed out in my response to Roberta: describing the ethnic diversity of NYC (which I love) was not my goal: what I was trying to do was to show how we writers can write a hundred pages to describe a summer subway ride in New York and still leave out what could be described in a second hundred pages.

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