The train is quietly humming over the tracks heading for Sydney’s Central Railway. It’s a long, slow journey without any sense of speed or rush but I’ve come prepared with my journal, writing plans and a water bottle…all but a picnic lunch.
These trains are usually packed, even out of peak hour but today I’m in luck. Bodies are spread out throughout the carriage, mostly slumped forward like inert sacks of potatoes. So, after settling in next to the window, I spread my stuff out across two seats and finally relax. Phew! I’m so thrilled not to be all squished up with a bunch of strangers inside a cramped sardine tin. There’s nothing worse than having your nose shoved in a stranger’s armpit…even in Winter.
I relax and yet I’m about to start work.
Somehow, I’ve got to start working on the Book Project. After all, it’s Monday and summoning up the threads of long-lost perseverance, determination and what I mistook for an iron-will, I’ve got to get started.
Unfortunately, this trip is challenging my best intentions. Instead of sitting down at my desk promptly at 10.00 AM and getting into that work routine, I’m off to Sydney for a medical appointment, detouring ever so slightly via Surry Hills. That’s where I had the most divine Coconut Chai Latte a few months ago and I also need to get my dose of urban funk.
While writing on the move wasn’t part of the plan, I remind myself that writing is like breastfeeding. You can do it anywhere, anytime. No need to write at the same place every day, being rigid and inflexible. You just need to get on with the job and before you know it, you can write anywhere.
Well, of course, I have no trouble writing anywhere about anything. My trouble is sticking to the Book Project and getting that done and dusted. Something tells me this will require strict, hardcore discipline, not bucket loads of creativity and that’s why the whole project’s become stonkered.
That’s why I’m trying to enforce a pretty rigid routine. Laissez-faire clearly isn’t producing results. Well, at least not a book.
So my task for today, as I pull out yet another fancy notebook, is to write a character profile. This will be for the protagonist, who I also suspect is the antagonist…me. I am working on a motivational memoir about overcoming trauma and setbacks and instead of just writing about what happened, I really want to develop this book into a piece of literature. Have well-developed characterisation as well as a strong sense of place. After all, I am not just a survivor telling their story. I am a writer.
While writing about yourself might sound egotistical and self-absorbed, it is actually a lot more challenging than I’d thought. I can’t just make myself up like a fictional character. I need to be true to life and not necessarily how I perceive myself but how others perceive me, which could potentially be very different to how I see myself.
So, who am I through someone else’s eyes? Of course, this varies from person to person, forming a complex kaleidoscope, which makes me think I am about to become a work of fiction anyway.
That there is, indeed, no “me” etched in stone.
Yet, I’m still not sure.
I pull out the character questionnaire. The one I’m using today comes out of a writing book for kids but I thought I might actually get further with Simple Simon that the more complex ones I’ve tried before. Keep it Simple Stupid (the KISS formula).
This feels so strange. As much as I might observe others, I’d never really considered that others are watching me and perhaps scrutinizing me in the same way. That they may also be trying to work out what makes me tick. Rather, I’ve felt quite invisible watching them.
Looking around the carriage, I start to wonder whether I could somehow describe myself using contrast. Who and what I’m not? What makes me stand out from the crowd?
The first clue is that I’m traveling in the “Quiet Carriage”, which is one way of sorting the chaff from the oats. This is where the readers, sleepers and lone travelers gravitate. That said, every now and then you get people who can’t read signs or at peak hour, grandparents returning bickering children home and simply need a seat (and a stiff drink as well I’ve heard!)
The next thing I’d notice is that I’m writing in a notebook at a furious pace. The notebook is covered in brightly-coloured butterflies, so you could possibly class me as a dreamer. You might also wonder why anyone these days would still be using pen and paper. While it is quite usual for me to write by hand in a paper notebook when I travel, I’m sure that for many, pen and paper are as obsolete as a quill and ink.
My shirt might also catch your eye. Distinctly vintage and rather loud, it’s covered in very large, incredibly bright orange, purple and pink flowers which could possibly be wild poppies. While this might all sound cringingly loud and excessively flower power, the volume is somewhat muted by the conservative, navy-blue background. The shirt is almost sane. I don’t think anyone else sitting in our carriage is wearing any colour whatsover…just dull greys, browns and black. That said, there is a girl sporting a large silver bow on her head a few seats away.
Then, by my side, there’s a bulky backpack and if your eyesight is half-decent, you’d notice “Nikon” printed on the front…a serious camera bag. Evidently, I’m not someone who simply takes photos with their phone on a daytrip to the city. I’m clearly a photography nut.
If they’re really paying attention, they might notice a ring on my finger. Married.
Then there’s the walking stick sitting beside me, which keeps falling over. I strike you as being rather young to have a walking stick and you remember how your Gran used to have one, then two and then forgot who she was and disappeared somewhere very deep inside behind those ice-blue eyes.
In between frenetic bursts of writing, you might notice that I’m staring out the window or looking around the carriage as though I’ve lost something or am looking for someone. Then, you remember about writers going on field trips and how they eavesdrop and observe. Soak up random strangers for material. Suddenly, you feel vulnerable and possibly even violated, suspecting you’re about to be cast as the axe-wielding maniac in my upcoming novel. You could discretely change seats to peer over my shoulder just to make sure but then you remember that you need to send a text. Make arrangements for tonight. Oh and did you put out the cat? You text home. Thank God for that phone! You don’t have to remember anything anymore!
Meanwhile, my attention strays out the window and I’m mesmerised by the passing trees. I feel quite dwarfed by the towering gum trees beside the track. They are soaring giants and I am but an ant.The wattle trees are just starting to flower and the dull green vegetation is illuminated with a stunning golden glow as the train speeds past.
Wattle trees morph into graffiti
sprayed on urban walls.
Red-bricked, ageing units
shuffled with Victorian terraces,
like a deck of cards.
A kaleidoscope of roofs
spread out across the urban plain
rusty, corrugated iron sheeting
dispersed with terracotta.
I wonder if anyone’s home?
This gang of stragglers
is now millionaire’s row
Only the dog gets to call
the place home.
Once it was me.
Or, was it?
Further into Sydney, the trees are superseded by concrete walls sprayed with graffiti…something which has never made any sense to me… just meaningless tags, ugly scars on the landscape. There aren’t even any words or pictures…anything which could convey a message to anyone beyond their tribe.
Yet, I wonder if your words means as much to them as mine do to me.
Whoops! There I go interjecting my voice into the story when I am supposed to be the observed, not the observer. I am no longer narrating my own story but who can ever truly escape their own shoes, no matter how hard we try to place ourselves inside someone else’s skin?
We are who we are.
On that note, I should confess that anybody who knows me would say that I never shut up but it takes a lot of silence to write and I write a lot. Moreover, here I am sitting in the Quiet Carriage. That immediately divides me from the talkers.
While I haven’t polished off this character profile, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the complexity of human characterization. That we’re all kaleidoscopes and not so easily boxed.
However, that doesn’t let me off the hook. I still need to get my character profile done but Rome wasn’t built in a day.
The train is now rapidly approaching Central and we are on just one of many tracks. Yes, we’re well and truly in the Big Smoke now! I start packing up my stuff, getting ready to leave.
I can’t wait to get into Surry Hills and lose myself in the coconut frothiness of the magical Coconut Chair Latte and I love being surrounded by all those quirky Victorian terrace houses while also enjoying the modern.
Finally, the train stops. “We are now at Central. This train will terminate. Please change here. All out. All change.”
All out…all change….indeed!
I could have used that line on the kids this morning. They were absolutely refusing to budge. Yes, they definitely needed to get out of the house and have a dramatic change of attitude.
That said. Monday morning is what it is and I have no idea why new projects always start on a Monday. They’re seemingly doomed before you’ve even downed your second coffee.
I guess that’s why I don’t like Mondays!