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Train Yourself to Write

Southeastern train circa 1990

When I worked in London, I lived miles outside the UK’s capital city and spent many long hours commuting.

I spent four hours on trains each working day. Two hours each way. What was I to do with that time? Read a book or a newspaper? Watch a movie on my phone or laptop? Stare out the window?

I’d always wanted to write, so that’s what I did.

An overcrowded train carriage may not seem the best place for words to flow from the fingertips, but I got on with it and the result was that I’ve learned to write anywhere. I can pop open the lid of my trusty laptop and continue where I left off within seconds.

Writers often say they need to be in a certain environment or in the right mood; some develop rituals or habits which they have to stick to in order to put words down, and I respect that. (I’m the same when it comes to DIY – I counter unkind remarks that I’m dithering by stoutly maintaining that I’m “getting in the zone”).

Here are some of my favourite examples of the wonderful and weird habits of famous authors:

  • Charles Dickens slept facing north. He believed this practice improved his creativity and helped him sleep.
  • Virginia Woolf wrote standing.
  • Friedrich Schiller found inspiration in the odour of rotting apples. He kept apples in his desk drawer and let them spoil on purpose.
  • Lewis Carroll also wrote standing, but only in purple ink.
  • Dan Brown cures writer’s block by hanging upside down.
  • George Orwell, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Marcel Proust and Woody Allen all wrote while lying down, either in bed or on a sofa. Truman Capote went as far as saying he was a “completely horizontal author”.
  • To limit distraction, Francine Prose writes facing a wall.
  • Faced with a tight deadline for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo removed his clothes and instructed his valet to take them away so he couldn’t leave the house.

I should add that I don’t have to be on a train in order to write. Nowadays I sit at a desk, writing to the sound of waves rolling into the beautiful coastline of the Cape’s Atlantic Seaboard a hundred yards from the front door. Okay, so I have to mentally shut out the traffic noise from the main road, but hey, you can’t have everything!

What about you? Do you have a favourite place or ritual to get your creative juices flowing?

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