Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t drive. I’ve got nothing personal against cars. I just feel that driving isn’t for me. Although I do make use of Uber/Lyft services to get around Los Angeles in a pinch, most of the time I just ride a bus or a train. I’ve made this work for years with minimal hassle (contrary to popular belief, LA does have a wide range of public transit options if you know how to use them and aren’t in a hurry).
There are many reasons why I ride buses and trains. It’s more economical, better for the environment, and it contributes to my nearly stress-free life. But, as a writer, there are a couple of bigger reasons why I prefer to let someone else do the driving.
The first one is a big one: since I’m not driving I can spend the whole trip reading. This is a huge benefit for me since on any given day I have about a dozen different things to do and finding reading time can be tough. Good writers must be good readers and, although I prefer to get cozy with a book in the comfort of my home, if I’m looking for a new book to read I often read the sample chapters on the bus via my Kindle app. Bus rides can take a while (especially in LA traffic), so it’s an excellent and productive use of my time.
The second reason I think writers in particular should use public transit is this: people watching.
The public transit systems of America’s big cities are like a mish-mash of all sorts of people. Here in LA, I’ve ridden the bus through Beverly Hills with rich housewives carrying their newly purchased Prada bags, and on the very same bus there’s a guy who washes dishes at a local restaurant who just ended his shift. The bus patrons here come in all shapes, ages, races, orientations, and religions. As the bus rolls through each of LA’s many varied neighborhoods, the demographics of the riders shifts accordingly. From the shiny happy people riding to the sun and sand of Santa Monica, to the dirty and desperate dudes in downtown, you’ll see every kind of flavor that LA has to offer. And each person has their own little story. Sometimes I strike up a casual chat with folks, but most of the time I just listen and watch. For a writer, this environment is like a gold mine full of fat shiny nuggets you don’t even have to dig for.
Writing good stories requires an intimate understanding of people, and not just one type of person. A writer’s stories must be filled with rich characters with rich histories and personalities. The best research environment for this, in my opinion, is a city bus on an ordinary day. A bus ride brings the world to you, as you roll down city streets and people from all walks of life hop on, sit down, and become passive passengers on a metal behemoth barreling through the urban landscape.
Now, inevitably when I mention my bus-riding ways someone will bring up their distaste of potentially having to ride with one or more homeless people. I totally understand that. I’ve never had any serious issues with transients on transit, but there have been numerous instances where they created an inconvenience. It’s unpleasant, sure. But it’s life. It’s reality. And these people, living on the lowest rung of the social ladder, can give you a hard and honest view of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. That is also an asset for us writers. We use lies to tell the truth, we use facts to enhance fiction, and we can’t do that completely unless we expose ourselves to the unpleasant parts of life, even if it’s just a little bit.
So if you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, I think you should catch the bus sometime. One way or another, it’ll be an experience.