Friday Speak Out!: Any Time, Any Place

Friday, March 06, 2015
by Mary Driver-Thiel

I am mulling over the first lines of this essay not at my desk, but from under thick blankets on my bed while savoring the soft, pre-dawn light of a winter morning. One of the perks of being a writer is that the job is highly portable; assuming my memory doesn’t fail me, I can create sentences, outlines, or entire paragraphs anywhere.

Obviously, there comes a time when I have to sit at the computer, but that is not usually where the “aha!” moments happen. The peripatetic habits of writers from Dickens to Kerouac have been well documented. Working on the move is part and parcel, if not essential, to the business of constructing written language, but how often is it celebrated as one of the most positive attributes of the writing life? The mobility of the craft means common annoyances—a four-hour wait at the DMV, tedious family gatherings, screwed-up travel plans—become creative opportunities rather than ordeals.

Lately, I’ve been traveling to downtown Chicago on a regular basis. I could drive, but I prefer to take the train because it gives me the luxury of working uninterrupted for forty-five minutes. Armed with a small spiral notebook and a pen, I’m often treated to unexpected inspiration by the multitude of characters I encounter on the rails. In what other line of work is one grateful to Metra for an increase in productivity and imagination?

Train rides, along with coffee shops, malls, airports, and a host of other public venues, allow for studies in human nature: the gestures of the woman wearing a white feather boa and purple turban, the syntax of conversations I wouldn’t normally be privy to, and stories I couldn’t imagine on my own. On the train, I’ve overheard lawyers discussing a sleazy client (their description, not mine) for whom they regretted winning a large settlement. I’ve heard parents talk about their recently jilted daughter, bemoaning concerns, not for her, but how to sue the rat for lost deposit money. I’ve also—shamelessly—copied phrases verbatim from my eavesdropping.

Then there are those sticky places all writers encounter: awkward wording, paragraphs that don’t hang together, and ideas that skitter into the darkness. Solutions to these problems often magically appear while the author is showering, gardening, scrubbing the garage floor, or doing anything other than staring at a blank page. Advice on overcoming writers’ block is full of suggestions on stepping away from the desk to bring on the muse.

While it could easily be argued that carrying our work with us at all times has driven more than one writer mad, I prefer to see the positive side. Writing, due in great part to its mobile nature, provides an escape from boredom and unpleasantness, as well as hope for the future. Someday, I might even make a fortune with my itinerant skills. Just look at J.K. Rowling, who penned Harry Potter to life on paper napkins in a coffee bar.

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 photo credit Robert Tolchin  
Mary Driver-Thiel’s new novel, TWELVE THOUSAND MORNINGS, is a sequel to her first novel, THE WORLD UNDONE, which was short-listed for 2013 Book of the Year by Chicago Writers’ Association. Her short stories have been published in various print and online magazines, including Epiphany, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Midwest Prairie Review. Driver-Thiel holds a B.A. in Fine Art and a Master of Arts in Teaching, and lives in Lake Forest, Illinois. Please visit her at:

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!



Unknown said...

You had me at the first line! I came to the writing life because everything interests me, everything distracts me, and being able to write down observations about it all (that, hopefully, turn into something submittable) is an amazing way to live my life. You're so right about all those things other people find annoying that writers are able to just embrace when they're paying attention. But we do have to keep that habit going to get anything done. Glad to see the Metra get some credit.

Margo Dill said...

I also think a change of scenery can really help you get unstuck or even do a different type of writing in different places. I will have to pay attention to my own writing if this is true.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I was just talking to a writer about this yesterday who said that change--specifically traveling and meeting different people--boosts brain power and stimulates writing. Even just changing desks can help. I promised her I'd go to a co-working event on Fridays downtown. I'm hoping it will help my business writing.

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