Words in transit – reading and writing on public transport

I don’t use it as much as I could but I quite like public transport.

This is fortunate.

I’m waiting for some mechanical work to be done on my car. While it’s off the road, I’ve been catching buses and trains.

It isn’t always convenient. It can be confronting and discomforting. In the mid of winter and at the peak of summer it can be less than pleasant. At this time of the year the weather in Perth is generally pretty good.

Breathing space

Getting places without having to engage with traffic gives me a wonderful sense of freedom. Being on a bus or train with strangers means I don’t have to be sociable. I can cocoon myself in (silent) words. I can listen to the words of the people around me.

I deal with time differently. I work out schedules more rigorously than I would normally do. I take time en route to pause and notice my surroundings. Rather than just zipping by I stop to smell the roses, or lavender, or even the dank stink of the Moreton Bay figs at uni.

The lavender in Freo this morning was particularly beautiful.

Lavender in bloom with butterflies
A heady scent

I like the opportunity public transport presents for being productive.

When I’m catching buses and trains I deal with time differently. It’s not just because of the timetables and having to be in the right place at the right time.

There’s the time walking and waiting that’s great for thinking.

I’m far too sedentary. I’m considering one of those treadmill desks that let you walk while you work…


I’ve decided to use my daily commute – on the bus/train it’s less than half an hour – to read novels. I’m wondering whether I should, perhaps, change that to research articles now that I’m formally enrolled and have some deadlines. That said, I also know I need to read for fun.

One of the novels I read this week, Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, didn’t turn out to be much fun. Not to worry. It’s read now. I’m considering whether I want to keep it on my shelf or send it the way of last week’s cull. I suspect it is too soon to decide. I should let my memory of the story settle. My gut feeling, though, is that it’s not going to take space on my shelf for too long.

The other novel I read was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. There were moments when I wasn’t sure about how I felt about the novel but in the end I loved it. I’ll definitely read it again…and again. It is one of those novels that I want to know more about – from my own and others’ reading. My regret is that my pristine-for-years copy is now battered from kicking around in my bag for a couple of days.

My next book-for-the-train is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. I first encountered a passage from the novel in my Year 12 Literature exam and then came across it as a whole as an undergrad. I remember that moment of recognition when I realised I’d ‘met’ the book before.*

I know we often talk about our first experiences of books. I’m also interested in the ways our experiences of reading a particular novel changes over the years.

On that note, I think I’d like to reread Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My copy from first year is, sadly, in pieces. Even the rubber band I tried to contain it with has perished. Clearly I need to hunt out a new copy.

I wonder if I have it in my kindle?

I wonder where my kindle is…


The other thing I love about public transport is huge time and space it allows for writing. Not, as a rule, on a crowded weekday commute. That can be tricky. There are times when words have to be set down and it doesn’t matter where you are.

I know I’m not alone in this.

I find trains easier than buses for writing.

Fremantle Port from train
Coming into Freo

I remember one day travelling up from Freo to Subi and there were three of us that I could see drafting away in notebooks of various shapes and sizes. I quite like catching up with friends for writing dates at cafés. Anonymous writing with random strangers while in transit also appeals.

Knowing I’ll have a given chunk of time means I can plan for writing and not just drift away from it because there are dishes in the sink or laundry in the washing machine. The walking to stops and stations is a chance to map out the piece to be written. I stop. I take a posture break. I move. I breathe.

Knowing the end point of a journey means I can’t fluff about too much in getting the words down.

I find that can be very helpful.

Coming up roses

The trick with writing on public transport is not to tall into the trap of reviewing everything for a couple of hours when it actually time to be at the library.

That said, I should head for the Reid now and get to work.

On the way back to the bus stop, I must stop again to take in the glorious roses outside Winthrop Hall.

Winthrop Hall and roses
Winthrop, roses and a blue, blue sky

*A late post script. I’ve been meaning to make this update for a while. I realised as I finished reading Slaughterhouse 5 that my moment of recognition had been for Cat’s Cradle. Sometimes that happens, I guess; the details of an author’s works merge together and confuse themselves in your memory. I must remember to slow down and leave space between books. (Perhaps I should write that out fifty times.)


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