Rogue Ink

April 15, 2008

Writing in Airplanes

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 3:54 pm
Tags: , ,

I am not a plane person. I have a ’94 Honda Civic EX named Billy Markham, who got sideswiped while parked at the curb last fall in New York, and who has never been quite the same since. I love that goddamn car. I will continue to breathe life into its crippled little frame until it gives up the ghost. Unfortunately, I don’t have the extra lucre at the moment to give him the reconstructive surgery he needs, so I flew out to Brooklyn. And back. Or I will, as soon as my cab gets here.

Writing in airplanes is unlike anything else. There’s the cramped feeling of being stuffed into a seat closer than conventional propriety would allow under any other circumstances. If you write by hand, which I do, your handwriting takes on the uncertain quality of a ghost’s. I have often looked back at pages I wrote while on a plane and thought I must have scribbled them down in the middle of the night, still half-asleep. It’s all the clouds that do it, the heaviness of the sky at that altitude, the way the air makes you a little heady, how close it presses. It makes an envelope of sound around you, the humming noise of the engines and the close-pressing air.

People cannot help but read over your shoulder on an airplane. There is nothing else to do; words catch our eye. One woman was impatient for me to move on as I paused at a paragraph. It was a manual on public speaking; not fascinating stuff. It was all there was, though. She made harumphing noises at me until I continued typing (I type, too).

You write deeply while on a plane. There’s no phone at 30,000 feet. There’s no internet, either. Getting up to go to the bathroom is almost more trouble than it’s worth. You finish your book too quickly, or you forgot to bring one, and quickly got bored of the sky-high magazine. You sit there, at 30,000 feet, staring at a computer screen or a blank notebook page, and think, “Well, there’s nothing else to do.” So you do it. You write. For five hours, you write. There’s something pure about it, the writing high in the air, the invisible bubble of sound enveloping you, the passenger looking approvingly over your shoulder like a household god.

I don’t care for airports, or airport security, or the people at the ticket counter. The fluorescent lights make me a little ill and the food is always twelve times more expensive than it ought to be and lousy, besides. I don’t like airports at all. I’d sooner be in my little car, music on the stereo, scribbling down little snippets of scene on my arm as I drive so I won’t forget them later, stopping in diners to stitch them all together into a portrait of this last hour, this stretch of Kansas that is otherwise bare, except for the Mexican worker toddling along on a bicycle with his hair under a cowboy hat, the graceful church way off on a hill, proud as a castle, and the little girl who grinned at me from under her bangs until I smiled back, at which point she grasped the sleeve of her brother and pointed at me.

I prefer cars. Driving is for seeing, for remembering. There’s nothing to see on an airplane, so I write all the things I can remember down, instead.



  1. I hear you. We went to New Zealand in 2007, and I brought along my notebooks so I could write and journal. I didn’t bring a computer. The leg from LA to Auckland was 12 hours. I couldn’t sleep, so I wrote instead.

    I’ll tell you though, next time I want to travel by ship. And if it were possible to take a train, I’d do that instead.

    Comment by brettlegree — April 15, 2008 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

  2. Oh, yes…there’s nothing quite like a good road trip. It’s been far too long since I’ve loaded up my sweet little honda civic and driven off into the sunset, or the dawn, or the wee hours of the night, headed for some destination (doesn’t matter which), in no hurry to get there.

    Tunes cranked up, snacks at hand, and a thermos of coffee waiting for the moments when I most need it. Nothing but my own thoughts and the passing scenery to keep me company. Ahhh…there’s something almost meditative about it for me…I get into a kind of zone. Despite the physical fatigue that can sometimes be a side-effect of a multiple day road trip, I always feel emotionally rejuvenated and re-energized afterward, and whenever life gets challenging and I feel at my wits’ end, the road beckons, calls to me, and I find myself longing to hop into my car and simply…drive.

    Comment by Lisa Wilder — April 15, 2008 @ 8:02 pm | Reply

  3. “You write deeply while on a plane. There’s no phone at 30,000 feet. There’s no internet, either.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I do some of my best brainstorming on (preferably non-crowded) planes. Being shut off from the world for a few hours lets me flush out ideas without being distracted. Random fact: I named my company (19A Enterprises, LLC) after the seat I was sitting in when I hatched the initial business plan.

    Anyway, glad you’re (almost) home safe.

    Comment by David @ PostcardPerfect — April 15, 2008 @ 9:30 pm | Reply

  4. I quite like the otherworldiness of airports and airplanes. I do some of my best writing in these in-between zones.

    Comment by Elizabeth — April 16, 2008 @ 12:28 am | Reply

  5. You write on your arm when you’re driving? Cool. Of course, I-70 through Kansas is so darned straight and easy and made for cruise control that you could, if you wanted, pull out a notebook and pen, prop the notebook against the steering wheel, and write while singing along with Randy Travis. I’ve done it. And lived to tell. Didn’t kill any prairie dogs, rabbits, hawks, traffic cops, or farmers.

    My daughter turned me on to your blog and I’m having great fun reading it. We’re neighbors – I live in Louisville. Nice to meet you.

    Comment by Verna Wilder — April 16, 2008 @ 1:31 am | Reply

  6. Hey everyone. Sorry for delayed-comment-responses. Got in quite late.

    Brett: Honey, look up Cape Horn and gold earrings. You’ll be glad you did.

    Lisa: Exactly. My poor car being unusable at the moment makes me sad on so many levels, and the lack of fly-by-night self-therapy is up there.

    David: That is supremely awesome. It sort of delights me.

    Elizabeth: Amen.

    Verna: Hi there! I was just going through Louisville last road trip. Y’all make a damn good sandwich. Kansas, yes, very flat, very writable. Did you know Kansas is, actually, flatter than a pancake? Some smart-alecks at MIT figured it out one time.

    Comment by Tei — April 16, 2008 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  7. @ Tei: Cape Horn & gold earrings = arrrrr, we be pirates!

    Comment by Brett Legree — April 17, 2008 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  8. beautiful (:

    Comment by Lizbeth — April 18, 2008 @ 1:25 am | Reply

  9. Very nice indeed. I spend a lot of time writing on planes. I can;t seem to write anything other than notes on paper anymore. The thought that I will end up retyping it anyway irrittates me.

    I scribbled a few more thoughts on the ‘travel mood’ in airports that makes me write:

    Comment by Albert@Headspace ( — April 22, 2008 @ 4:01 am | Reply

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