How Public Transportation Can Make You a Better Artist

I’m from the country.  I grew up amidst trucks and tractors and combines.  So as I descend underground to the subway each morning and evening, I still hesitate, wondering how I’ve changed so much over the years.

Though I’m now well-versed in the subway and bus lines that fall on the grid of this city, I’m still constantly surprised by the spectacles I experience daily.  Just this morning, I stood with my back to the plastic pane, last month’s National Geographic issue in hand.  I turned the page, absorbed in rock climbers scaling Yosemite mountains without ropes or any other securities, and caught the attention of the fellow standing beside me. 

“Do you rock climb?”  he asked.

I politely shook my head and continued reading.  He then proceeded to yell and inform the entire car how exciting rock climbing must be.  His audience looked to me as the cause of his outburst.

On days such as this, I re-evaluate the supposed benefits of public transportation.  Looking past the obvious perks such as saving money and being able to call yourself a friend of the planet, suffering public transportation may also inspire you as an artist:

1. Grounds for eavesdropping.  The subway provides the perfect spot for inventing characters.  Turn off the iPod and listen in on the conversation beside you.  Sometimes even the most mundane of conversations can spark the idea for a story.  Also, call this linguistic research.  Pick up on the dialect of speakers and the natural rhythm of language.  Use this to write believable dialogue later.

2. Play the guessing game.  It’s simple and thought-provoking.  The next time you find yourself interested in the person sitting across from you, create a back story for the man or woman.  What could have happened earlier that morning to make her so worried?  Where did he get that deep scratch on his forearm?  Why is she not carrying a purse?  Pick up on the small details of the moment, and use these questions to invent a character.  Even if you don’t use that character later in a story, you’re exercising your imagination.

3. Fuel your writing with emotions.  The next time you see a mother dragging her child roughly onto a train or a husband making his wife cry, pay attention to the emotion that wells up within you.  If your cheeks redden in anger, use that fury to go home and create.  If your heart breaks for the elderly woman alone and needy, channel the sadness into words.  Emotion fuels writing.  Create something great, create something that elicits change in the world.

4. Master impatience.  Last night I waited 45 minutes for the bus, heavy shopping bags full of canned goods on both shoulders.  Take times such as these and use them to daydream.  Mentally work out the plot of your current story.  Revise the first few sentences of your article.  Muse over possible endings to your novel.  Use this time to push forward creatively.

5. Acquaint yourself with technology-free gaps.  Underground in the subway, I can spend anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes without the use of my phone.  I go from fully connected to not being able to call, text, or check my email every second.  Times such as these help me to disconnect from the world later.  If I can go without technology for 20 minutes in the afternoon, I can certainly turn off my phone for an hour in the evening to focus on writing.   

Do you take advantage of public transportation daily?  What other ways can you use your experience to fuel your creativity?