Writing Exercise: Public Transportation

I recently went on a traveling jag that took me to several parts of this patchwork nation—Hawaii, Texas, Iowa—and this is why I have been a bit lackadaisical with the blog:  too much time on the road, too much jet lag.  Each time I landed in a new place, I found that I was a different person, that I assumed a new role.  It was strange—like being superman who enters not a phone booth but a plane—emerging as an entirely different person.


Part of this came from the fact that there were new people suddenly all around me.

At the Dallas airport, I met an eighty year old, a career salesman now happily retired, who was returning from his Caribbean cruise.  He was still wearing his tropical shirt and panama hat.  His face was pink, peeling from the exposure to constant sunlight.

used car dealer

Like all seniors, he had risen at the crack of dawn, getting to the Florida airport so early that the staff let him get on an earlier flight, which made him land now, with much time to spare, at his transfer point–Dallas.   Now he had a half day to spend while waiting for his connection and did not relish it.  This was a vast desert for a man whose occupation made him crave interaction, whose life had primed him for talking.


“Are you going to Des Moines?” I asked.  And in minutes my attempt to read a John Grisham novel was put on ice:  he switched seats and was on me.

“No, I’m going to San Diego.  That’s where I live now.”  And thus began his life story.  By the time we parted company, I felt I knew too much about his sons, both in their sixties—one married with children; the other a confirmed bachelor, teaching community college.  I learned about his life as a used car salesman and the intricacies of making a deal.  “You can’t lie to people.  They’ll find you out and never trust you again.”  Used car sales, it turns out, makes a lot of money back in his day, but now the car business has been gutted.  “I put two boys through college with that money and once a month the owners took me and the wife to the nicest hotel in New Jersey and we could order whatever we want.”  There was a pride in his voice.  It was the pride of someone who bought IBM when it was still a small fish in a very big pond.  “Now these guys in the car racket, I feel sorry for them.  The commission is nothing.”

So here is the Creative Writing Exercise:  Put your character into a space of public transportation—an in-between space—where he can collide with all sorts of other folks:  salesman, data analysts, prostitutes, conventioneers, celebrities, students, confidence men, terrorists.  From there, he can pivot to a number of possibilities, a few of which I will name but many more of which I will leave you to figure out:  he can lie about his identity, he can suddenly develop a friendship or animosity, he can be caught in an intrigue, he can be forced to perform a task, he can catch somebody in a deception, he can have a confrontation.


These are just some of the possibilities that come from a space of transit.  Transit yokes character to plot, the cart to its horse—pushing onward, pushing upward.  If your character is just lying around in bed or too lazy to get out of the house, public transit will force him to do some work for a change…so this exercise is a good remedy for the plot that has stalled.  Remember that many great novels and films both begin and end in zones of public transportation—Casablanca, to name but one—so this simple fix-all is not just an exercise that goes nowhere but a legitimate entryway to producing great art that goes somewhere.

Another Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin: My Name is Snow

Recently, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!


My name is Snow, but until I was thirteen, I never saw it, never touched it, never tasted it.  All I knew was that it was white, cold, distant—and at nights when I dreamed of this thing, this thing called “snow,” I envisioned a ghostly bride in a translucent veil, walking across a beach, trailing a train on sands that hold no footprints.  If you cup snow in your hand, it disappears.  It becomes something else.  It is no longer snow.


An American soldier once said that in his native Alaska, the indigenous people have a thousand words for snow—all different kinds of snow.  I never met this man but I read it in a newspaper clipping from a now defunct newspaper.  And then I lost the newspaper but I kept the words with me.  The words of the newspaper were in Vietnamese but I thought he was speaking to me, only to me, in English.  There are words for slushy snow, icy snow, pure virgin snow.

I had a friend in school who shared my name.  It was a popular name and we had a choice of whether to become friends or enemies.  We became friends.  I told her of my American from Alaska.

“Is he tall?”

“He is tall, as pine trees.”

“Will you remember me when you go to him.”

“I will always remember you,” I told her.  She knew that she would never be able to go to the United States.  But me:  my papers were already in.  And it was just a matter of time.

If I close my eyes, I still think of this man—freckled shoulders, chapped thin lips—and in my dreams, he gives me an eskimo kiss, nose-to-nose, chaste.  I must have described him to my friend, Snow, so many times.

eskimo kiss

And then he instructs me about the properties of snow.  My, how he longed for his snow.  Snow is beautiful in Alaska and when it interacts with the light that bounces through the atmosphere, it forms rainbows, it forms fantastic illusions.  You have never lived until you see the Northern Lights.

It would be a long time before that would happen.  And I guess I never lived.  I cannot say that much of my life counts for much—much living, that is.  I am nothing in this country.  And I was not much of anything in the one I left behind.

northern lights

And then I saw snow for the first time at the age of thirteen when I found myself in Minnesota in the coldest winter.  The snow came down like ashes from a great fire.  It floated.  And then it came down like a curtain of finest lace.  “Don’t go out there,” said my sponsor.  “You’ll catch your death.”  But I was already out the door.

I am lying on the ground.  I am sticking out my tongue.  I am catching it in my tongue, and my tongue can taste its becoming and unbecoming, the unwinding of that spool of thread—first snow, then water—like a trick knot in a magician’s hand.  I am making a snow angel.  I do not know it.

I am making a snow angel.

snow angel