I approached my TrIP with lofty aspirations. I would yo-yo like Benny Profane in the novel V. I would quote from the bus scenes in The Moviegoer and point out the everydayness that shrouds the truth of our immediate surroundings. I would map the psychogeography of Orlando. And why not, while I’m at it, reveal the whole damn grand narrative of public transit? As it turned out, neither my ambition nor my route made much of a difference. The moment I stepped on the bus I was sapped of all creative energy.
I felt a little guilty to begin with, riding the bus on a Monday morning and using my ample leisure time to pursue artistic experimentation, while precisely 100% of the other riders were going to work. The vibe on a bus in a city where public transit is not the norm is anything but vibrant. It’s solemn at best. (Not that the subway in Manhattan is an overt celebration of humanity.) All public transit is about practicality, and the tendency among its riders is to retreat inward. Reading a book, listening to music, playing a video game, all of which can feasibly be done on a single device, if you can afford it. Regarding the passengers on my bus, the most common method of retreat was to stare into space.
It was only after my TrIP that I really started to think about the time we spend in transit. Whether it’s something as enriching as reading books, or as ephemeral as scanning Tweets, the link between these activities is consumption. So what would happen if we redirected our focus to creative production? I’m not talking about working on code while riding the bus from The Haight to Coopertino. Nor am I talking about editing a novel manuscript on the T into Cambridge. To work on any project-in-progress would be too practical and part of the existing ritual of the commute. I’m talking about using the time between point A and point B for spontaneous creativity, sparked by something approximating inspiration, the result of which may turn out to be completely useless, but then again, maybe not.
I’m both embarrassed and relieved to have finally figured out that this idea of mine is exactly what I was supposed to have done on my TrIP in the first place. But, being a writer, I feel like maybe I was at a disadvantage. A dancer can start moving, an artist can sketch, a guitarist can mindlessly strum, and the result is often beautiful. But a writer, or at least this writer, has to undergo a rigamarole of internal red tape before writing something down that’s worth sharing. I think, I marinate on an idea, try to look like I’m thinking, search for words, think some more, check Facebook, and then, finally, maybe, I’ll write something down. This something usually needs serious revision if not outright triage, or often death by suffocation in a draft-haunted drawer. I’m not used to my writing being spontaneous, and I certainly never share anything that’s unpolished. So I stepped on that bus completely unprepared and I froze. But despite my steep learning curve, I realized that, although spontaneous writing may not always be pretty, the bus is the perfect place for it. My problem was I didn’t know where to begin, so I’ve cooked up a few site-specific riding prompts for the next time.
1. Find the two most disparate-looking people on the bus and invent a realistic situation for them to engage in dialogue. Write the dialogue, too, of course.
2. Invisible character study: for every empty seat, write one in-depth character sketch to fill it. Include the characters’ reasons for riding the bus, where they’re coming from, where they’re going, etc.
3. Pick five buildings, landmarks and/or spaces that you pass on your route and create a fake historical tour by writing a monologue that you, the expert guide, will reel off to ignorant tourists.
4. Write ad copy to replace the existing ads on your bus or train. It could be a serious ad, a fake product, your treatise on transport, shameless self-promotion, a subversive parody, whatever. Bonus Activity: Once you’ve got the language and concept, find a graphic designer to lay it out and make it real. Once you’ve got the stomach, stick it up to replace the old offensive ad that you never asked to see to begin with. (I’m not saying you should use Gorilla Glue, but I’m not saying that you shouldn’t.)
5. Find an underdeveloped, blighted space that you pass on your route. Imagine a new reality for that space, like, for instance, a dinosaur-themed playground for kids with a built-in beer garden for parents. Create a rich setting to superimpose on the bleakness. Bonus Activity: Share you vision with other artists who can help build/paint/craft your words into reality. (I’m not saying City codes be damned, but I’m also saying exactly that.)
The options are practically endless. These activities may not lead to anything, but it’s the act of play that matters. Without it, there’s no chance of discovery. My freeze-up on the bus helped me realize that we often focus too much on usefulness, and it limits our writing tremendously, which is a recipe for artistic death. I imagine this happens in other art forms, too, which is why I particularly like the collaborative potential of prompts 4 and 5. Writing is too often a solitary act. If you’re not working on the great American novel, why not get others involved in the fun?
At this point, you might be wondering about those commuting passengers that I blamed for my own failures, who stared into space while I fumbled for ideas. There are ways to engage them, too, but maybe it’s an issue best addressed by answering prompt 5:
A bus is blighted space with vast potential for improvement. In Orlando in particular, buses are associated with those unfortunate enough to have no other choice of transportation. A bus ride is something to be endured. This is far from the origin of the word, “omnibus,” which implies a form of transportation for all.
So, why not engage with non-artist passengers in a respectful way? Surely some riders would prefer writing to staring into space. And the beauty of writing is, it only takes a pen and paper for a line cook at Shingle Creek to scrawl a whole-foods manifesto, or an angsty middle-schooler to let off some steam, or a down-on-his-luck maintenance man to write a letter to his mother. Imagine a bus where every rider could grab a notebook and pen from under their seat. Imagine lending libraries on every bus (and at every bus stop, too, while we’re at it) that include a section for people who want to share their in-transit musings. Imagine writing on the bus as the norm, to the point where longer routes include open-mics, poetry slams, and, in the spirit of all-inclusiveness, classes for the young and old who don’t know how to read and write. Imagine the bus as a vessel for experimentation and learning across all art forms. Thanks to the TrIP project, we’ve already seen dance performances and trumpet solos on the bus, but imagine if this were the norm. Bus as black box, as studio space, as classroom. Art is for everyone, after all, and what better place to demystify the complexity of creation. What better place to draw in skeptics and cynics and change the perception of what it means to ride the bus in a city dominated by cars. And for those who refuse to retreat, it might even be fun.
Maybe it’s idealistic. Maybe it’s not sustainable. Maybe it’ll be annoying. Maybe I’ve rushed this. Maybe it needs more thought and polish. Well, who gives a shit? I’m being spontaneous.