Riding the Rails

I have long been a big fan of train travel. Back when I lived in Charlottesville, I spent a lot of time on the Vermonter, the train that runs up into New England and stops 10 minutes from my daughter’s old home in New Hampshire. I also took the train into New York on several occasions. The fare is often reasonable (even in business class), there’s no long security line, and you can take your bags on the train with you. Obviously you’ll be on the rails longer than you would be in the air, but if you fly, once you factor in getting to the airport several hours before take-off, layovers in crowded airports, and the long process of disembarking and getting your bags, it usually ends up taking about the same amount of time door-to-door. And trains can continue to run when flights are cancelled because of weather. Several years ago right after a huge snowstorm I made my way on the Vermonter to NH for Christmas when all the flights in C’Ville were cancelled for days.

The best part of train travel for me, though, is the incredible amount of work I’m able to get done. I find I’m super prolific when I’m on a train. I can’t sit for 8 hours and type on a plane. On a train I can turn on my laptop the minute I get in my seat, and not turn it off until I’m at my destination. I’m not interrupted by beverage carts and seatmates pushing past me to go to the bathroom (I’ve almost always had a row to myself), I don’t have to waste time packing and unpacking my laptop to change planes, and there is actually enough space to use a laptop. If I need a change of scenery, I can go sit in the café car for a while and work there. It’s usually quiet in business class, but if it happens to be noisy, I can always go work in the quiet car.

I have a trip booked to Charlottesville on Amtrak soon, and I’m stoked. I haven’t hit the rails from Charleston before, so I’m looking forward to seeing the view from the windows through SC and NC to VA. And I’m looking forward to the bonus writing time. One of these days I’ve promised myself a cross-country train trip, but for now I’ll have to be satisfied with an up-the-eastern-seaboard jaunt.

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Key West Literary Seminar 2013

Key West Literary Seminar 2013 Stage
Key West Literary Seminar 2013 Stage

by Sharon Harrigan

Sharon Harrigan, a friend and fellow WriterHouse member, was the Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient at KWLS this year, and I asked her to share her thoughts on the experience.  Thanks, Sharon, and congrats again on a much deserved award.

If the view out your window is anything like mine right now—snow on slippery sidewalks—let me offer you this mid-winter writer’s daydream: Flip flops and floppy hats on beach cruiser bikes to stir up inspiration. The sun so bright on the ocean you can swim in it every day of the year, like Tennessee Williams did. The descendants of Hemingway’s cats lounging at his house under flowering shrubs, just the sight of their softness somehow making your prose more muscular. Cafe con leche and guava pastries before writing workshop with Hilma Wolitzer at Judy Blume’s house. Panels and presentations by literary superstars like Colm Toibin, Brad Gooch, and Billy Collins, followed by dinners with the speakers and your fellow workshop writers at the lighthouse, near the southernmost tip of North America. Finally, after a corkscrew climb down the winding steps, a pink taxi or pedi-cab waits to deposit you in the jacuzzi at your bed and breakfast (aptly called, of course, Authors’ House).

It’s not a day dream. It’s called the Key West Literary Seminar. I was able to attend for the first time, last month, and the experience still helps me write more brightly, whatever gray days may arrive, outside my window or in my head.

The seminar takes place every January, and there are three ways you can attend—as a winner of one of the three prizes, as a scholarship participant, and as a general attendee. I was lucky enough to be the Joyce Horton Johnson Award recipient this year. For more information, see the seminar’s web site: http://www.kwls.org/

Spread the word about KWLS. I wouldn’t have known about it at all if it weren’t for my fellow WriterHouse members who won the award in previous years (hooray for Kristen-Paige Madonia, George Kamide, and CHRISTY STRICK!).  It must be something WriterHouse puts in the water, or maybe good things just happen when you’re part of a fabulously smart and encouraging literary community. Thank you, Christy, for all your tips on Key West and everything else.

Sharon Harrigan has published over three dozen short stories, essays, and reviews in such journals as Narrative, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown.

Wandering in Cemeteries

Tomorrow I’m heading downtown for a little alone time with a few ghosts.  I’ve been meaning to revisit some of Charleston’s graveyards, and it’s supposed to be decent weather, and well, I can’t think of a better thing to do with my Sunday afternoon.

I’m a big fan of cemeteries and graveyards.  (For those of you who don’t know the difference – and I didn’t until not too long ago – a graveyard is attached to a church, while a cemetery is separate from church grounds.)  There’s something about them that can keep me mesmerized for hours, reading old headstones, making up stories about the people who are buried there.  Everywhere I travel I search for them.  I’ve wandered graveyards in France, and Italy, and Ireland, and in most places I’ve been.  My daughter Lauri and I found one tucked away in a park in Venice, and I dragged my oldest daughter Ali to the graveyard at St. Michael’s here in Charleston when she was only a few years old.  Sometimes my traveling companions are game, and sometimes they opt to shop while I daydream. Which is OK, because to me a graveyard really is best as a solitary experience.

Beara Peninsula, Ireland
Beara Peninsula, Ireland

At an artist residency at Anam Cara in Ireland, I could be found most days at sunset walking through the cemetery on a hillside across the street.  I took pictures, wrote in my travel journal, and talked to myself about my characters, imagining them there.  While in residence at the Studios of Key West, I rode my bike to Key West’s historic 1847 Cemetery, where I spent an entire afternoon photographing the above-ground tombs and statues.  One of my favorite inscriptions there is “I Told You I was Sick.”  Another gem is “good citizen for 65 of his 108 years.”

Key West 1847 Cemetery
Key West 1847 Cemetery

While in Key West, I met an artist who had started his work in stone as a gravestone carver.  Imagine my fascination with that.  I asked so many questions that I’m sure he wished he’d never run across me.  But one day I’ll use that information in a story, I’m sure.

Tomorrow, I’ll take some pictures and daydream, wandering between confederate soldiers and signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But the ones that will interest me the most, that always do, are the people no one has ever heard of, the ones I can create stories for.