Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.

Lit Mag Crush

A writing friend introduced me to Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. The other night I clicked through back issues, choosing pieces at random. I also read a couple of the craft essays. The promise of short pieces means we can read a few different voices at one sitting.

If I want to publish, I need to know what’s being published and where. I am sorely under-informed about literary magazines I might submit to; online publication is a wide world. I remember standing in a Barnes & Noble one Saturday. I was in my early twenties and often drove to Madison on the weekends, to buy books, get a coffee and write. I remember standing in the middle of the store and looking at all the shelves packed with books I would never read. I started to cry. I was so sad at all the reading I’d miss, all the ideas and voices I wouldn’t hear.

I know. Really. I used to weep on solo nature walks too. I got caught once, startled by an environmental ed major on his own nature walk. “Are you okay?” he asked. I sniffed and pointed at a shrub. I said, “It’s just – it’s just so beautiful.”

Publication looks overwhelming right now, and just so beautiful. I have talent enough to land in a few lit mags and I should go for it. But I can be smart about the process. I need to read more online lit mags. Brevity is a great start. But only a start. I can also look for sites or blogs that take guest writers and see if any of my finished work might fit.

But I can’t just stand in the middle and cry.

Just Up And Go

I’ve spent a week thinking about a theme for my multigenre narrative. What kept coming up in my writing was

Being an expat
Faraway friends
Keeping in touch

This is my eighth year abroad. I don’t miss living in the States. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, but mostly I appreciate missing the inflammatory election year ad campaigns. I have written about moving abroad before, many times, in my notebooks. And I usually end the entries with anger or tears. Though I planned to leave the States soon after college, the exit was bumpy.

Actually, the exit was a nightmare.

There was nothing great about it. I was grinding my teeth. I very nearly hated my in-laws. By the end of it, I just wanted to get on a plane. I would have gone anywhere. When I write about this time, I want to find something that shows grace or purpose. Instead, I find a year that I’d like to undo. I wouldn’t know how to re-do it, unless I backpedaled a few more years and didn’t marry.

The other pain of writing about moving abroad is this: I feel obligated to include a line or two stating the obvious.

My in-laws are nice.

Great. See. They’re nice. It just happened that the year Justin and I moved abroad is a shitty stretch in our relationship with them. I think I am tired of writing the disclaimer. Yes, my in-laws are nice. I’ve said it three times now, and I mean it. But they also hated that we moved abroad. My father-in-law was angry and my mother-in-law told me I was taking her only son. I think they thought we wouldn’t really do it and when we did, signing contracts with a South American school, they were the only ones who watched our school’s recruitment video with frowns. My father-in-law wanted to know if there was an escape clause in the contract.

I almost said this was the escape clause.

I was so angry. For years I’d wanted to leave the Midwest. Early in our dating, Justin agreed to go with me. A few years out of college, we were finally packing crates to ship to Colombia. I wanted everyone to be excited. When my in-laws were not, I tried and failed at compassion. I could see their side but couldn’t generate any empathy. They had one kid who grew into an adult who wanted something different than his parents. That’s the story of a million. More.

So I was angry over my head. This was when I began thinking how much happier my in-laws would be if their son had married a local Polish girl and took a mortgage one town over. I thought my husband might be happier with that outcome too, given the tension of family dinners.

I simmered for years. A couple years after we moved abroad, I said something to my mother-in-law (no doubt recorded in angry cramped cursive in a journal) and she told me, not unkindly, that I needed to get over it. She was right. I needed to get over it. For years, anytime I thought of my in-laws, I got tense. We learned to keep our tone cordial, missing out on a fuller, truer range. Maybe that’s just how I know them now, carefully.

That doesn’t feel okay and it doesn’t seem right that a painful break away should continue to sway our current relationship. I can say my in-laws are nice (four times) but I can also say how it happened. And I can say I want better yet.

If I Lived Here

Justin and I spent our first Christmas in South America in Peru. The trip included a boat ride across Lake Titicaca and an overnight stay on an island. Our group was hosted by locals whose way of life felt a little staged as they shepherded us through coca tea and dancing. The town was losing its indigenous population as youth left the island for education and jobs. I have mixed feelings about discovering these rarer, simply sustained places and introducing TV and potato chips, but when the daughter of the house led Justin and I up a ladder to our tiny room, I thought I could be happy here.

There was a short bed piled with heavy blankets, a red plastic bucket under the bed for a night toilet, a sturdy table and chair and a small shelf. I woke in the middle of the night with a blinding altitude headache and drank a Coke, took a couple Tylenol. It was silent and dark. I lay under the weight of blankets, next to my husband and in the morning, climbed down the ladder, ate a bland breakfast prepared by the mother of the house. I stood in their kitchen the size of a closet, spooning porridge and thinking I might like shearing sheep. I could stay and make my own cooking fire. I would drink the cleanest air and swallow the brightest stars and write poetry that said just that.

Then I shouldered my pack and climbed back in the boat, leaving that small room with its table and chair.

I play this game when I travel: If I lived here. It’s usually a quick game. Playing Vienna: If I lived here, I would shop at Billa or Denn’s or Spar. If I lived here I would take a weekend trip to a lake. Claire and I would go to Cafe Sperl for the apple strudel. I would eat Zotter chocolate. I would bike to work and walk everywhere and buy only the groceries I could carry home.

But I don’t live here, the game ends.

Even so, when I travel, I absorb the everyday. I enjoy the regular. I wear long sleeves when I run in the morning chill. I walk the same quiet street to the same park where Claire and Grant swing and climb and slide. I order a beer at lunch, if I like. Justin buys the same bread because it is too good to bother trying another bakery. I make ham and cheese crepes for dinner. I sit at a white kitchen table, my bare feet on the parquet floor. When I glance up from my notebook, I see rooftops and a spire with a gold point.

I leave some places thinking I am not done with them, not yet. I may not return, but I am not done there either. That small room in Peru. The spire I see from this kitchen window.

Wide Open And Weary: I Wanted To Be A Backpacker

On Wenceslas Square we saw a man playing a makeshift instrument, a table top criss-crossed with piano wire. The man bent over the wires and tapped them with a wooden mallet. Two dreadlocked backpackers leaned over the wires too, grinning and nodding like this unremarkable plunking was brilliant.

I never got to be a backpacker. I likely would have jumped in the wrong jeep on the promise of an unexplored waterfall and ended up dead or pregnant. My thirty-something self doesn’t trust my early twenty-something self to buy a Euroline pass and crash in cheap hostels. I know the messes I made, sans language barrier.


Backpacker culture intrigues me. I like the range of it. I like the girls in flowy skirts and the boys with shaggy hair. I like the just going part. Here, I’ve seen graying men shoulder packs and lean into the uphill walk.

My first impression of backpacker culture was when Justin and I went to Taganga on the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot, but I ran every morning, chased by dogs, to Santa Marta and back. We laid around on the beach, drinking beer and reading paperbacks. I ate the best coconut pie I’ve ever had at a place called La Ballena Azul and went back twice more just for the pie. I felt very alive, walking up rutted gravel paths in the dark, my belly full of pie, swatting bugs I couldn’t see, nearly tripping over lazy dogs.

I was twenty-six. Around me were men and women a few years younger, scuffed packs at their feet, sheens of sweat on their skin. I remember eating ceviche one night, watching a young woman on the porch hold court, three or four men trying. What I remember best are her bare legs and feet. She had dancer legs she stretched out then pulled to her chest, flopped open like butterfly wings. The men laughed at what she said and she laughed at what they said and they all took pulls on sweating beers. There was possibility and sex in her smile and splayed legs, in the men’s ropey arms resting on chair backs.

One day we went to Tyrona, got caught in Biblical rain and hiked out in heavy boots. We boarded a full bus, the few backpackers on board wearing our own exhaustion. Even that travel-worn posture was enviable. I wanted to be mistaken for a backpacker, wide open to what comes, a little weary after. I wanted to seem like the kind of person who would just leave their country to go see what South America was like in November.

I felt late to my adventure. I felt a little planned. I had a husband and a job. Within a year, I’d have a baby. Sitting in that restaurant, eating ceviche scooped from a plastic bucket, watching a girl get all the flattery I craved, I thought I should have gone when I first felt it. But then I’d be dead now, or parenting an adolescent itching for his or her own adventure.

Out the Window

Most of today’s WP looked like a to do list, but I returned to one of my standby prompts

Out the window

for a page. Try one of these approaches:

Write about the window you’re in front of right now. What’s out there?
Remember a window. Where were you? Why were you looking out? What did you see?
Make a list of 101 things you’ve seen out a window.
Don’t forget car windows, train windows, plane windows!
And maybe: A time you chucked something out a window.

In the Backseat 3

Excerpt from my third WP on the topic, as is.

I was in a minivan once, with another American friend, going from Medellín to Cali, Colombia. We’d just run the Medellín half marathon and the next bus to Cali would take nine or ten hours; a minibus service promised six or seven.

Whenever I took a bus in Colombia, the doors would be taped shut at the terminal. The drivers weren’t supposed to pick up additional passengers, but they all did, stopping at cafés in small towns to let out one and let on another. I was new to Colombia. This made me nervous. What made me more nervous was the driver speeding up the mountains, passing on curves.

I closed my eyes, made my body limp. If we crashed, a relaxed body might fare better than a tense, anxious one.

My stomach was a nightmare. Behind me a woman sat with her teenage daughter who, an hour into the trip, began throwing up. It was the calmest vomiting I’d seen ? I passed back my pack of gum. I kept chewing, bile (?) flooding my own mouth. If I’d had to throw up I’d want a ditch somewhere. This driver didn’t slow for anything.

We stopped at a roadside café. I ate a beet salad. I sipped cor carbonated water. Soda water.

In one town, the driver got out and palmed a small white packet. Is that how you say it? Two feet from me, he took a small white packet with a handshake; pesos swiftly tucked away. Dogs and children ran around. I was – it might have been the first time I felt how new the country was to me. I’d just left a city with military police posted on corners, was flying through mountains and small towns lined with plastic cafe chairs, returning to a city whose population was half what my state’s was.

I remember thinking if I died on this winding route from Medellín to Cali. The relief was: over a mountain or slammed into an oncomming bus, at least it wasn’t a pickup truck in Wisconsin, killing me on a curve.

What I’d like to do now is write more about that weekend: dead cockroaches in the hotel bathroom’s clear plastic ceiling; all the visible uniforms and guns; running at an elevation; seeing a motorcycle accident in the dark; the heat of Cali after the cool of Medellin. That weekend was a month or two into my time in Colombia. I knew nothing about being an expat. It was still only adventure.  


In the Backseat 2

Another fifteen minutes of this prompt. I’ll write on it a few more times. I’d like to find something from the practice. What I need to do is give myself an hour to write about riding in the backseat. This is as in my notebook:

When I was in fifth or sixth grade we got this giant blue station wagon. and My brother got the way back; my sister and I shared the middle seat. Everyone had enough room, even on vacation.

I got carsick and sometimes scooted to the middle so I could look forward, through the windshield. It calmed my belly to see what was coming. Especially on hills and curves.

We were driving through mountains (Blue Ridge?) and the wagon just died going up the inclines; Mom leaned forward and patted the dash, gave the car a pep talk. She said it just had to get us home. You could hear the engine, Dad urging it on, more gas, downshifting.

In the backseat we had notebooks and pens but I couldn’t look anywhere but ahead at the road, drop offs on one side and green ferns and fallening rock signs on the other. Every town we went through had a baseball diamond and church. Plain churches. White, big crosses. My The game I play when traveling – if I lived here… – it couldn’t wasn’t bigger? louder? than my stomach.

I was gulping air, staring through the windshield, willing my stomach down, wanting the mountains to end.

In the Backseat

This WP prompt is from Judy Reeve’s A Writer’s Book of Days. I wrote for about fifteen or twenty minutes. Here is my first writing:

I remember camping trips and all our gear packed into the trunk of of our Chevy Malibu and at our feet in the backseat: sleeping bags and duffels. We sat cramped and cross-legged tent poles on on the floor. No room for pillows. If we wanted pillows we had to sit on them. or fold them over Sleeping bags where our feet should be wasn’t so bad. Sometimes there was a cooler at our feet. No give. Our legs would be imprinted by the hard plastic design, by stitching. We’d get hot and sweaty. I don’t remember Dad running the ac often. He’d crank the windows down and air roared through, tangling my hair.

It was best to sleep in the backseat.

Or stare out the window daydreaming. I imagined I had curly hair. Tight ringlets. I imagined my adult life. I thought I would wear bright primary and secondary track suits and my husband would match me; we’d drive a giant pickup truck and have a yellow lab and a chocolate lab because it seemed adult to have dogs, even though I didn’t even like dogs. Having a dog leash and taking the dog for walks seemed adult.

I daydreamed whole other lives.

And I still do, sometimes.

In the backseat we’d fall asleep against each other like dominoes. We’d sleep against the car door.

I remember looking at the handle and wondering if I could do it, just open the door while Dan Dad flew up a hill.

We’d shrug each other off with bony shoulders and pushes. Mom passed treats snacks to the backseat: g Goldfish crackers, apples, Kudos bars. On long rides we played travel size board games: checkers, Chinese checkers. We played war, endless games of two decks war. On long trips when we got a treat from the gas station, like soda or Yoohoo, the three of us had to share. One sip one sip one sip. Once my sister guzzled her one sip of soda until her eyes watered and she threw up.

I remember making M&Ms last; even when it was hot and the shell broke against the roof of your mouth, you could still eat them one at a time.

I remember tickle was wars, quiet contest, pinching fights. I remember taking sides when there wasn’t room to take sides. I remember Mom making puppet shows or reading aloud from a book. I remember w feeling queasy and glad to be where we were going.

I will write more about car rides and my backseat life. For a long time, my siblings and I inexplicably fought over the middle seat. We played games and fought and talked, but mostly I remember car rides as a time to let my mind wander. What a rich time!

Good Ol’ Goldberg

I first read Writing Down the Bones in my intro to creative writing class freshman year at university. I remember feeling like Natalie Goldberg just gave me permission to write about anything. In the years since, her book remains relevant to my writing practice and I use the work in the high school creative writing class I teach. Which means I reread or skim through once a semester; here, from the chapter “Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger”:

Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.