I thought I would begin this post on companions on the commuter creativity path with photos of a small assemblage I found at the bus stop the other day. I couldn’t tell if the pieces (two dolls and a plaque that looked like wood, but felt when I tapped it with my foot like plastic) were left behind in a rush, or carefully arranged, making a statement on the ebb and flow of urban life and the difficulties of taking children on the bus.
Whether or not the items were left intentionally, they made an artistic impression on me. And that made me think about my use of the word “companion”; my online dictionary reminds me that the word not only refers to human company on a journey, but also “one that is closely connected with something similar” and even “a celestial body that appears close to another but that may or may not be associated with it in space.”
That last definition has the expansive flavor that I’m searching for in this post. One of the most potent reasons to consider creating during one’s commute is that using modes of transport other than driving by yourself in your own car exposes you to the world in ways that it’s possible to block out in the bubble of the sedan, compact or SUV.
In other words, the vulnerability you experience in mass transit can touch you, and set the stage for deeper, more connected work.
It’s true that commuting in and of it self is not “holy” or “artistic.” Extreme commuters, according to New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten, often face a strange sort of calculus, in which the inputs of opportunity and value have to be balanced against the very real drains on time and family.
Laura Dietz, who writes The Guardian’s “Books” blog, seems to believe that art-making, like book-reading, on trains results from people being “trapped, motionless, with unappetising strangers.” There are days I fully agree with this sentiment…and yet…there are few other ways that I, in my white middle-class suburban existence, could easily and daily expose myself to such a range of people, possessing such a variety of livelihoods, ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. What a gift for someone who needs to develop characters for a novel, seeks new sketching subjects, or simply needs some non-directive input to jump-start brainstorming about a new creative project.
The other side of the coin is proactively choosing companions to commute with. If you feel the job so far from home is necessary to your well-being (and for most of us, it is), why not find ways to join with others and enhance the journey to and from?
Do you have fellow artists at your office? If you live in the same neighborhood, could you make your daily bus/train ride a mobile creativity salon, a sort of artists’ roundtable? What about signing up for carpool mates on a service such as GoLoco and planning before- or after-work side trips to the cafe (for collaborative conversations or art-making time) or trips to the museum, gallery or a poetry reading?
In the above referenced essay by New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten, he notes:
“Some take on long commutes by choice, and some out of necessity, although the difference between one and the other can be hard to discern. A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth.”
A distillation of life’s main ingredients. A product of fundamental values and choices. If that’s not an accurate description of art-making, I don’t know what is.